Getting the Most Eggs from Your Hens in Winter

Bring more eggs in from the cold!

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

Woman collecting eggs

As cold winter weather approaches and the days grow shorter, your normally productive hens may be challenged to stay productive, and the cold weather may take its toll on the eggs they do lay. How can you keep your hens in optimal laying condition and assure that their eggs are the highest quality possible, while helping the birds live their best lives in the dark, cold months of winter?  

Let’s look at some important factors to consider with regard to winter egg production.

Egg Care

Check your nest boxes early in the morning and several times a day, depending on how cold it is. Collecting eggs often prevents them from freezing and expanding, which leads to cracked shells. You can also winterize your nest boxes to help prevent your eggs from freezing:

  • Ideally your nest boxes will be in the interior of the coop.
  • Insulate your nest boxes by cutting pieces of cardboard to fit sides, top, and bottom. Do not use insulation! Chickens will eat it.
  • Put deep bedding, such as pine shavings or chopped straw, in the nest boxes.
  • Make curtains for the nest box entrances from a heavy cloth, such as wool.

If you find a cracked egg, assess how bad the damage is. If only the shell is broken and the membranes are intact, wash the egg and eat it right away. If the membranes are broken, discard the egg. Do not feed broken eggs to the chickens; they will break and eat their own eggs once they realize how tasty they are!

Mental and Physical Health

The winter months can bring boredom, leading to pecking problems, also called flockmate persecution. Provide enrichment for your hens, such as scratch scattered in bedding/litter, a cabbage hung from the ceiling of the run, and suet baskets with lettuce and other vegetable treats (not suet!) tucked inside. 

Nutrena’s scratch grains can provide energy and keep your birds’ metabolism going at night when it’s cold! Feed only a handful of scratch in the evening. Be careful not to overfeed; extra fat on their body can lead to egg binding and other health issues.

Winterizing Your Coop

While chickens can tolerate low temperatures, sudden temperature changes can be challenging for them. A heat source such as lightbulb in a safety cage (Beware: it’s a potential fire hazard!) or heat panels can be used to raise the temperature about 10° F above outdoor temperature. Heat only part of the coop; this allows the birds to choose where they are most comfortable. Other ways to winterize the coop include

  • putting extra bedding in coop;
  • providing heated perches;
  • making sure the coop is well ventilated;
  • eliminating moisture and drafts, especially around roosts; and
  • covering the coop and part of the run with tarps or heavy plastic (not blankets).

You can find more tips and suggestions for winterizing your coop in this post.

Light

Chickens lay in response to the photoperiod, or amount of light they get per day. They need about 14 hours of light per day to lay their best. Check out the post “Feeding Chickens in Winter” for more information.

You can supplement light by installing a bulb that comes on in the early morning. For more information you can read this post. If you do choose to provide extra light, it’s best to limit it to 16 hours per day. However, you may choose to give their bodies a break for the winter months.

Water

Fresh water is critical for egg production. Your birds’ bodies and their eggs are mostly water, and they need to continually replenish this vital element. Slight dehydration may cause hens to go out of lay. Winter presents unique challenges because waterers freeze quickly. Heated waterers are especially helpful, but they require an electric outlet in the coop or a very long extension cord. Another alternative is to have a couple of waterers so you can place a fresh one outside for your birds while the other is inside thawing.

Feed

Once you’ve addressed the factors above, consider if your birds are getting the nutrition they need to be productive. Continue to feed your birds a balanced layer ration even though they might not be laying. They will need to be in top shape when days start to lengthen to go back into lay. Your birds will eat a bit more in the winter, so keep the food available at all times.

A 2020 study, conducted in 10.5 daylight hours at 12° F, showed the importance of a nutritionally well-balanced feed that includes ingredients like pre- and probiotics, yeast culture, essential oils, and Vitamin D3. In the study, hens fed NatureWise with FlockShield and essential oils not only kept laying, but they also produced thicker, stronger shells with no broken eggs. After three weeks of eating this diet, egg production increased by 325%.

As winter approaches, make sure to include NatureWise Poultry Feed as a balanced source of proper nutrition to keep your hens happy, healthy-and laying!

Egg Production in Backyard Chickens

One of the most obvious benefits of raising backyard chickens is the eggs you get. But how does the laying cycle work? And how many eggs will a chicken lay in her lifetime? Learn answers to these and other questions from Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart in this video!

 

Helpful tips:

  • Chickens will start laying at around 20 – 24 weeks of age, depending on the breed
  • Most hens will lay their best in the first three seasons of life
  • Most standard laying breeds will lay around 250 – 300 eggs per year
  • Providing artificial light enables you to get eggs from hens year-round
  • Stress and dehydration can cause hens to stop laying

 

How Do Chickens Mate?Chicken Reproduction. Love is in the Coop: A Guide to Chicken Reproduction

How Do Chickens MateHow Do Chickens Mate? Some surprising aspects of chicken mating make it possible for families to keep a few hens in suburban and urban areas and enable monstrous operations to produce commercial eggs at low cost.

Imagine the future of suburban chickens if a hen had to have a rooster present to lay eggs.

Few cities allow anyone to keep crowing roosters, so it’s fortunate that hens lay eggs whether or not a male is around. Huge factory egg operations are also lucky that hens lay without a rooster present.

If roosters were necessary to stimulate laying, commercial eggeries would need larger facilities to house male birds that eat but don’t lay. Egg costs would be higher!

Roosters are fun to watch as they strut around the coop showing off their gorgeous feathers. Having one makes keeping chickens more interesting while producing fertile eggs that will hatch.

Roosters protect their hens from intruders. Having a rooster in the flock lets people observe the rather unusual chicken mating process which is very different from how mammals mate.

A rooster often employs a type of foreplay by prancing around the hen and clucking before mounting her. The transfer of sperm happens quickly without the penetration normal in mammal mating. The cloaca, or vent, of the male and female touch and sperm are exchanged.

It’s called a “cloacal kiss” and requires a bit of avian gymnastics for both birds to position themselves so their cloacas meet.

Just what is a cloaca? Unlike humans and most mammals, a female chicken has but one rear orifice with three functions. It is where feces and eggs exit her body and sperm enter. The rooster’s cloaca has only two functions. One is to pass feces. The other is to transfer sperm to a hen.

A hen doesn’t need to mate every day in order to lay fertile eggs. She stores sperm in her body and her eggs will be fertile for at least a couple of weeks and sometimes much longer before she needs to re-mate.

One rooster will easily keep eight to a dozen hens fertile.

Mammals produce liquid urine which leaves the body through the urethra. Urine contains urea. In contrast birds have no need for a urethra since they don’t urinate.  Instead they coat their feces with uric acid that exits their body through the cloaca as moist chicken poop.

Not producing liquid urine allows birds to have lighter bodies than mammals of similar size. It is an adaption that helps them fly. Fortunately, the lack of liquid urine makes keeping chickens easier.

If they produced copious urine, bedding would quickly become saturated and smelly if not changed often. Instead, moist chicken feces quickly dries and becomes incorporated into the coop’s bedding. As long as it stays dry changing litter doesn’t need to be done often and the coop stays dry and odor free.

A chicken’s cloaca is an amazing organ. To keep eggs about to be laid away from feces she inverts her oviduct within the cloaca so there is little or no contact inside her body between feces and egg, which comes out clean.

If hens required a rooster in order to lay, few suburbanites would be able to keep chickens. And, if birds produced liquid urine coops would quickly become smelly and need frequently cleaning. Far fewer suburbanites would be willing to do much more coop cleaning and simply not keep hens. So, these simple adaptations meet several needs.

Chickens: Finding the Non-Layer

Chicken Non-LayerIt’s not unusual for one or two hens in a small flock to eat their share of feed, relax, and rarely lay an egg.

Although most flock owners don’t attempt to make money selling eggs, spotting and eliminating freeloaders saves feed dollars and keeps the eggs coming.

The trick is figuring out which hens aren’t laying. There are several ways to spot the lazy hen, and backyard flock owners have an advantage.

Unlike large laying operations backyarders normally only keep a few hens and visit the coop regularly.

Even better, small flocks are usually composed of several different breeds with varied colored and patterned feathers.

That makes it easy to identify specific hens and helps track down a nonlayer.

How Many Eggs Should a Hen Lay?

The number of eggs a hen lays in each week varies greatly depending on the breed or strain, nutrition, weather, age of hen, and season or day length.

Hybrids developed for maximum egg production are laying dynamos as are many white egg breeds.

If well-nourished and healthy, each bird will lay five or six eggs a week and sometimes more. In contrast fancy and exhibition breeds are often poor layers and may go for weeks without producing a single egg.

Even when they are in full production two or three eggs a week per fancy bird is normal. Hens of any breed lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle and produce fewer eggs as they age.

Most backyard flock owners keep time tested standard brown egg breeds such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, and Wyandottes among others.

They are good layers that may not be quite as productive as hybrids but each should lay four or five eggs a week.

Even the most productive breeds and hybrids sometimes include slackers. Here’s how to find her.

Observation

Anyone with only five or six hens of varied breeds can usually pinpoint the non-layer through observation.

Hens usually sit in the nest for several minutes before laying.

Take note of which hens never seem to be in a nest and the culprit may be found.

If the entire flock is of one breed they all look the same, making it harder to find a non-layer by observation.

In contrast if a six hen flock is composed of six different breeds or strains with different colored feathers no bird has a look alike.

That helps identify the individual that never seems to be in a nest.

An even easier way to spot a nonlayer is to configure a flock with birds that lay distinctively colored eggs.

For example, Americaunas lay blue/green eggs, Rocks or Orpingtons produce light brown eggs, while the eggs of Marans and Welsummers are dark brown. Leghorns and Minorca produce snow white eggs.

A flock of hens that each lays eggs of a different hue makes it easy to tell which one isn’t working.

Experienced flock owners use several techniques to spot a nonlayer, even if all birds are of the same color. Here’s how they do it.

The Eyeball Test

Hens that are run down, lethargic, and sickly looking usually aren’t laying.

In contrast, birds that look great with complete healthy feathers, good size, and bright yellow legs and beaks may be prima donnas putting all their nutrition into looks rather than eggs.

Hard working laying hens gradually get a little rough looking. As the months go by their feathers get worn.

Breeds with yellow legs and beaks gradually see this color diminish as egg laying drains pigments from the body.

It takes much work and nutrients to produce plentiful eggs and working girls show the strain.

Good layers usually have healthy combs, while the combs of non-layers are often shrunken.

A Close Examination

Hens are easiest to handle when they are sleepy.

So, the best physical way to locate a non-layer is to enter the coop at night with a battery lantern, flashlight, or headlamp so you can use both hands.

Gently pick up each bird. Position her between your elbow and ribs with her head facing backwards.

It may take gentle pressure from the arm to keep her wings from flapping, and by holding her feet between your fingers she’s not mobile and will likely sit quietly.

Gently place the palm of the other hand on her pelvis. Bones that are easy to feel span the cloaca, where both droppings and eggs emerge.

If a hen is not laying, the bones will be close together.

If she’s laying they will be three or four fingers apart, providing plenty of room for the egg to pass out of her body.

A laying hens vent or cloaca is usually moist and pale in color.

A non-layer’s may appear yellowish.

What to Do With the Non-Layer

For many flock owners a non-layer is quickly destined for the stew pot.

Usually nonlaying hens are plump and delicious but are old enough to have tough flesh. They are best stewed.

Some flock owners would never dream of butchering a bird.

It’s OK to let a non-layer stay in the flock, even though she’ll continue to eat expensive food without returning eggs!