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!

Watering Backyard Chickens – Winter Water

Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.

Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.

Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.

For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.

Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.

Let Electricity Do the Work

By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies.  They all work.

Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing.  Thermostats soften the electric bill.

A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs.

These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.

A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.

Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks.

It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.

Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens.

Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production.

Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.

If There’s No Electricity

Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable.

Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Take advantage of free heat from the sun.  Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
  2. Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
  3. Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink.   Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.

Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores.

They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake.

Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail.

Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid.

Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected.

Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.

Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof.

Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.

When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.

Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.

Decreased Egg Production In Chickens: Molt and Winter Lighting

Molt is the natural cycle where birds lose feathers and gradually regrow their plumage.

Molt usually occurs when the days start to shorten in late summer and it can go well into the fall season.

The feather shedding process can take as long as 16 weeks to completely cycle through and has the potential to greatly decrease egg production in your chickens.

When chickens molt, a lot of the energy in their bodies is used to regrow feathers and less energy is available for egg production.

Many chicken owners will see a huge drop off in the number of eggs they find in the nesting boxes this time of year.

However, there are a few potential shortcuts to reduce the impact of molt on your birds.

Nutrition plays a huge role in getting through the molting cycle and having a proper diet can reduce the length of time your birds are in molt.

Feeding an adequate level of protein and proper amino acid profiles can greatly help boost energy levels in your birds.

A product like NatureWise Feather Fixer, that offers 18% protein, can be a great option for molting birds.This product is meant to be fed as a sole ration and it has the potential to get your girls through molt several weeks faster than if they were on a traditional layer diet.

Another key factor in decreased egg production in the fall is related to diminished sunlight.

Chickens usually need between 12 and 16 hours of daylight to maintain maximum egg laying potential. With daylight getting shorter in the fall, you can introduce supplemental lighting to maintain egg production for your flock. Setting up a generic 75 watt light bulb in your coop will produce enough light to keep egg production at a similar level to those long summer days.

We do NOT recommend using a heat lamp in your coop. Heat lamps generate a lot of heat and can become a fire hazard.

The purpose of the light bulb is to generate enough light in the coop to “trick” the chickens into thinking it is still daylight outside. It’s recommended to have the light set to a timer and have the light come on early in the morning rather than extending daylight later in the day. This way the chickens are awaken by the light bulb and they can use it as an alarm clock to start the day.

If the light is set on a timer at night, the chickens may not expect it to go off and it could disorient them or cause stress when it suddenly gets dark in the coop.

There’s no doubt that reduced egg production is a challenge, but with some small adjustments you can help your flock get back on track.