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How We Got 1,447 Eggs This Winter…And How You Can Too

egg-basketHave you ever wondered how to get your chickens to lay ALL year round? Our flock of 24 laying hens gave us a total of 1,447 eggs this last winter, counted from the first day of winter to the first day of spring. I have heard it said that eggs should be considered a seasonal food because chickens cannot be expected to lay during the winter months. Most homesteaders and backyard chicken owners will tell you that it is close to impossible to get a regular egg production during the coldest months of the year. That has certainly not been our experience! Over the course of this last winter we have enjoyed an abundance of eggs, averaging around 15 per day.

There are varying opinions as to why most people experience low egg production during the winter. Some say that it is the lack of light caused by the short winter days. Others say it is the lack of a balanced diet caused by limited insects and vegetation in the colder months. I believe that the answer can be found by looking at the big egg producers. They adjust the light, provide a balanced diet, regulate the temperature, and change their birds at regular intervals. They focus on providing the most optimal conditions for the things that they can control because they keep their chickens in dreadful living conditions. Federal law requires that a chicken have 76 square inches of living space (about the size of a regular sheet of paper). California is looking at making a law which would require 116 square inches (about a legal size paper). That has to be stressful for both young and old birds. Yet, they are able to produce eggs.

It is my opinion that chickens will lay eggs when their laying conditions are satisfied. I call them stress factors. As we can see from the big egg producers, chickens will continue to lay only under a certain amount of stress. In their case, the stressors are their chickens’ living conditions and lack of exercise. They choose to overcompensate in other ways in order to keep other stress factors minimal. If multiple stress factors are introduced, a hen’s biological clock goes off and she will stop laying eggs.

These are some of the stress factors that I believe contribute to a hen’s lack of egg production. If you can eliminate all or even most of these factors, you can enjoy an abundance of fresh eggs over the entire year.

Stress Factors Causing Low Egg Production

Lack of Light: 12 hours of light is ideal.
Cold Temperatures: Hens love 50-80 degrees.
Age of the Hen: Older hens generally lay less than younger birds.
Poor Diet: Hens cannot be expected to lay if they subsist on cracked corn.
Lack of Fresh Water: Hens need their water changed regularly.
Poor Living Conditions: Overcrowding is the primary cause.
Lack of Exercise: They must be allowed to free range.

Shorter Days and Colder Temperatures

homestead-winterIn places that have very mild and even warmer winters (like Southern Florida) with more daylight hours, and if the chickens have a good diet, they will more than likely be able to lay eggs year round. However, as you move further north, you start introducing the stress factors of less light and colder temperatures. Here in Northwest Arkansas, we are technically considered to be living in the South. However, we frequently experience our share of freezing temperatures with regular lows ranging from the low teens to the mid 30’s. Because we live off grid, we cannot provide artificial light and electric heat to our chickens in the winter. These are the stress factors that I am unable to compensate for. So I am very careful to make sure that I overcome all of the other stress factors so that we can continue to have healthy chickens and regular egg production. I also select cold-hardy birds like Buff Orpingtons, which can handle colder weather.

Age of the Hen

nesting-boxOld chickens may not be able to cope with an increase of multiple stress factors, thus they stop laying. The fact that the big egg producers maintain a young flock by replacing their birds every two years or less definitely supports this theory. One of my goals is to maintain a young flock. When a bird reaches two years old, it is about time to replace her.

A Good Diet

feed-pelletsJust like people, chickens need a good diet especially in the winter. I provide our chickens with commercial laying pellets around the clock so they get plenty to eat. Incidentally, they will consume about 4 ounces per day per bird. I would like to make my own someday, but so far I have not been able to buy the ingredients locally. During the winter months, I give them a snack of oats in the evening to increase their calorie intake for the cold nights. I also supplement their diet with meal worms several times a week. This is an excellent source for extra protein. We raise our own, but freeze-dried meal worms are available. Our birds also forage about eight hours when I let them out of the coop to free range. In the summer months, foraging for insects outside is not only beneficial to their health, but to ours! We’re grateful that they can do some damage to the pesky summer insects!

Fresh and Healthy Drinking Water

waterIt is important for chickens to have plenty of fresh water. During the warmer days, I change their water daily and add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon. ACV supports their immune system and detoxifies their blood. Some people even claim that ACV increases egg production and reduces stress. We use ACV that we make ourselves. Check out how we do it here. On the cold days that are below freezing, I change their water every two to three hours before it freezes. I draw water from our well and keep the bucket warm in the house near the wood stove. Chickens will drink one to two cups of water per day and more when it is hot.

Living Conditions

There are four key elements that we provide for our chickens when they are in the coop.
chicken-coop7

  1. Floor space: They need at least 4 square feet per bird.
  2. Perch space: Ten inches for each bird is a good standard.
  3. Nesting boxes: One nest box for every four birds.
  4. Ventilation: Chickens need a place free from a draft on the cold nights, as well as good ventilation during the warmers days.

For more information about my chicken coop’s design, see 8 Things I Like About My Chicken Coop.

Enough Exercise

chickens-in-snowIt is important for chickens to have plenty of exercise, so our chickens are allowed to free range.  I wait until two hours after sunrise before letting them out for the day.  I have found that releasing them too soon in the morning leaves them vulnerable to predators like racoons and coyotes. Waiting a couple hours makes a big difference because it allows these nocturnal predators to get to their homes after a night of scavenging.  Free ranging is also important because birds left in their coop all day tend to get bored and can fight with each other. Our birds are free to forage for insects, sit in the sun on a cold day, and take a dust bath.  They stay close to home and they naturally return to their coop at sundown.

I certainly believe, and I can speak from experience, that hens are capable of laying ALL year round. But they must be given the right conditions. If you are struggling with your own hens’ egg production, try to minimize their stress factors. If there are one or two that are out of your control to change, do your best to minimize the others. With a little attention and care, you can enjoy your farm fresh free range eggs for the entire year!

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About Tim L

After their retirement, Tim and his wife Joann moved along with his daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons to the American Ozark Mountains to build an off-grid homestead.

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18 comments

  1. Our small flock, 6 hens, did well all winter. We let them out every day, provide plenty of water, feed layer pellets, and, when it’s really cold, we leave a 60w bulb burning in the coop overnight. They also ‘scavenge’ dog food from the kennel next to the coop… it’s funny to see my 150lb Great Pyranees whine while the hens are eating his food 🙂 Don’t know how good for them it is, but they sure seem to like it.

  2. Thank you for your article, Tim. The only way our hens produced at all in the winter (Michigan) was to leave the light on extra hours. I found that even though they were offered the range, if there was snow on the ground they stayed inside. Do you have any other breeds besides Buff Orpington? We have them. They didn’t lay as well as the Rhode Island Reds and they went broody in the spring. Have you let them hatch any chicks?

    • Julie, Our chickens stay inside also if there is too much snow. We also have a couple Barred Rocks, Australorps, and Golden Cuckoo Marans. I will probably let them brood in the spring. Last year they were not old enough. Thanks Tim

  3. When you say “keep a young flock”, do you simply cull the hens after they’re egg production slows or stops? I am a vegetarian… so that would NOT fly at my house. So with that being said, in a couple years, I’ll just have a flock of pet chickens in a few years? (Unless I can force myself to give them away to someone else who wants to eat them. Not sure…) As far as nutrition in the winter, I intend on growing trays of sprouts indoors. I think they’d LOVE that.

  4. A well written and comprehensive post! I completely agree with you about the stress factors. We raise about 100 chickens and unfornately do have a period of dormancy right around Christmastime every year. But we live in Rocky Mountains and zero to subzero temps are normal for us. We do up their protein sources during that time (deer and elk carcasses after we butcher) and that seems to help tremendously!

  5. I notice that you eat your layers eventually. We don’t, for two reasons. The first is Deuteronomy 22:6. While this verse is specifically speaking of wild birds, we feel the same principle applies. The second is layers are “animal employees”. They get a retirement plan. The same as our dogs, which herd until old; our pigs, which provide first tillage and fertilizing of our new fields and desodding pasture that is being rotated; or our horses which are too old to plow (sigh, no tractor). We would never think of eating these animals, and layers fall in the same employee category. Roosters however….

    No judgement, and not bragging. I am just offering another perspective . Enjoyed your videos and site. Thank you for sharing them.

  6. Did you consider using a solar light in wintertime?

  7. Hello Tim! I want to start raising mealworms and know you’ve been doing it for a while now. I thought maybe me and at least one of my children could stop by (soon) and learn from you what works?
    Thank you either way.
    Joanne in SW MO

    • I forget that not everyone is open to having strangers come to their place like I am, and my asking might seem strange 🙂 So, please disregard. Lately I’ve been really trying to make connections in our area for bartering, learning from each other, etc. and that’s the kind of mindset I’m in.

      I am sure I’ll figure it all out once the worms arrive 🙂
      Blessings, Joanne in SW MO

  8. Found this very helpfull. Thank you very much. We homestead on a small farm in Denmark, (Northern Europe/Scandinavia). Here we can have very cold weather i the winter time (about 0 to -5 degrees celcius). And our egg production drop to about 5 eggs a day (we have 30 laying hens), so that’s not really optimal! I have been searching for what i could do about this. And your step by step post here clarified it very nicely 🙂
    Greetings from Denmark 🙂

  9. Thank you for the helpful and needed tips.

  10. What kind of rooster do u have?

  11. Tim, Thank you for the information. I don’t have chickens yet, Hubby keeps saying no, for now. But this article gives me a lot of information to keep in mind once I do get my homestead and chickens…

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