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!

Select the right light for your winter coop

Bulbs_1_CargillHens lay best during long summer days but production drops off as nights lengthen in the fall. Installing a light bulb controlled by a timer in the coop keeps chickens happily laying through winter’s short days.

Here are some basic must do’s when lighting your coop:

  • Set the timer to turn the light on in the early morning and shut off shortly after sunrise.
  • Lighting does not have to be fancy or extremely bright. A good rule is that the light in the coop should be just light enough to read by.
  • For optimal winter laying, artificial and natural light should total about 15 hours per day.

To start an artificial lighting program, most chicken keepers simply screw an incandescent bulb into a fixture and control it with an inexpensive timer, without a second thought.  Thing again! That bulb is costing you money – and there may be better options. Incandescent bulbs, invented over a century ago, are inexpensive, work well in the cold, and create bright light the instant the switch is flipped on.  Unfortunately, they are fragile, burn out frequently, and are expensive to operate.   Incandescent bulbs convert most of the electricity they consume into heat instead of light.

About 20 years ago compact fluorescent bulbs entered the market.  Much more efficient than incandescents, fluorescent bulbs convert most of the energy they use into light, not heat. Unfortunately they are not ideal in the coop as they are fragile and don’t work as well in the cold. While fluorescents last thousands of hours before they burn out, when temperatures are below zero they barely glow. The bulbs also contain tiny amounts of toxic mercury.

A few years ago ideal bulbs for coops, outbuildings and barns entered the market.    LED, or Light Emitting Diode, bulbs are perfect for cold locations like chicken coops.   LED’s are durable and have no glass to break.  Their globe is plastic, comes on instantly at any temperature, hardly ever burns out, contains no toxic chemicals and is amazingly efficient. Their only disadvantage is cost, and that is rapidly dropping.

By giving your girls a little extra light through the winter and utilizing the right bulb to do it, you can keep them happy and productive even during the coldest months of the year!