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!

Feeding Chickens in Winter

The days are getting shorter, the girls are finishing up their molts, and you are getting less eggs as winter approaches. You might be wondering, “is this normal?” The answer is, yes, it’s perfectly normal.

Chickens need about 16 hours of light per day to produce eggs, with the exception of some over-eager first year hens who may lay throughout winter. But with the shortened daylight hours, and the cold weather requiring more of their energy resources be directed to keeping their body temperatures where the need to be, egg production will go down.

Chicken in the snow

Just because your ladies have slowed down on their egg production, or even stopped, however, doesn’t mean they need less nutrition. Continuing to feed a quality, nutritious, energy-providing diet, just like you would through the warmer months, will help your girls continue some egg production and provide them the energy reserves they require to stay warm and fit. It will also help them show up next spring in prime condition to start laying regularly again.

You may hear some chicken owners say they feed a cheap layer feed, or even nothing but scratch in winter, because it is cheaper and “they aren’t laying anyway”. If you pay attention, these are often the same folks that lose birds in the winter, or their birds look pretty rough come spring time. Scratch grains should never make up more than 10% of any birds diet – or what they can clean up in about 5 minutes.

Don’t forget to provide grit throughout the winter as well, as they may not be able to find it on their own due to snow and mud.

Chickens in Winter. Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet.

Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates.

Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons.

First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight.

This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once.

They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer.

The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.