I love my chickens. They are the most easy to care for and more rewarding of all farm animals, in my opinion. However, I am also a pragmatist. My chickens are here to DO something, and that something is lay eggs. These are not pets; they are food producers that I also find beautiful and entertaining. I provide them with a clean living environment, free-ranging fun, food, and protection. In turn, they provide me with eggs. When they stop laying eggs, my family eats the chicken. Some chicken owners may wince at this outlook, but my family lives on a shoestring, and we can’t afford to feed animals that aren’t giving something back. Our dog provides protection, alerts us to strangers and danger while also being a great companion. Our sheep provide lambs for food, and they eat down weeds and pasture. Even our cats keep the mice population down. I strive to give each animal a happy life, but to me it must also be a useful life.
As you can imagine, I want to keep my hens laying throughout the winter. This can be a problem as the temperature drops and there is less light. The old proverb “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so true when it comes to raising animals. Here are the challenges you must combat in the winter and how to counteract them.
Most animals need shelter in winter, and chickens are no exception. In fact, if you want eggs it’s best to provide a shelter that is well sealed against the elements. Not only will this keep your hens safe from colder temperatures and predators, but it will also give them a place to lay your eggs that you can find and easily access.
My Solution: Shelter doesn’t have to be fancy for chickens to be happy. If you don’t already have a chicken coop, an old truck cap is enough in a pinch. You could also use straw bales with a sheet of plywood over it. It simply needs to be draft free, keep out the rain and snow, and be fairly easy for you to get into to check for eggs. There are quite a lot of ideas for homemade, do-it-yourself chicken coops on the Internet and youtube.com. It is also good to give the chickens a dedicated laying box that is secure from predators. Some people build boxes, while others use old milk crates or other existing boxes. The key is for the chickens to be able to easily get inside the laying box, yet have some sides for a bit of privacy, and hold a bit of dry straw or wood chips to provide a soft spot for egg laying/dropping.
Many homesteaders believe in letting chickens forage for themselves, while not providing food for them. This may work okay in the summer when food is plentiful, but if you want eggs in winter you will need to provide feed to your chickens. Also, it is pretty cruel to not feed your chickens in winter when there is so little to forage for. Often, in the winter the ground is frozen, making it hard for them to scratch beneath the surface to locate any bugs or seeds.
My Solution: Buying bags of layer pellet feed is the best option. Also, providing corn or scratch will help your chickens maintain healthy condition through the cold with its nice high-protein content. The more energy your chickens expend on keeping warm, the less eggs they will lay, as that energy is going to come from either their body or their food.
Some chickens are better suited to certain climates than others. In fact there are some chicken breeds that will literally die if they go through a typical northern winter. So breed selection is very important to your winter egg production.
My Solution: If you live where it gets cold and dark in winter, then choose chickens that are known to lay well in winter. My favorites are Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, and Araucanas, because we live in a very cold winter area. A good place to compare different breeds of chicken is the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. In their descriptions of the different breeds they specifically note which chickens are good at winter laying.
This, in fact, is the most important and least understood reason that chickens stop laying. Chickens need a certain amount of daylight to keep laying. When it falls off during the short winter hours of daylight, their bodies tell them to stop laying until spring’s extended sun hours arrive.
My Solution: Put a light in your chicken coop and leave it on. You can shut if off at night, if you want, but we don’t; the light additionally adds heat, and the chickens do fine.
Chickens need heat to produce eggs. If they are too cold, they will stop laying because most of the food they eat goes to heat production rather than toward egg production.
My Solution: The easiest way to heat your coop is have a heat lamp hanging from the roof inside. These can be picked up at any feed store, or even Walmart, for less than $30.00. You can choose from white or red bulbs. The bonus to red is that it helps to prevent chickens from picking at each other. An additional way to keep heat inside the coop and cold outside is to seal any holes and drafts; this will help immensely.
What you use for chicken litter will depend on your personal preferences. I like pine wood shavings because they mix well with the manure and absorb and dry it while also adding a nice scent. Having a layer of dry litter is important to laying production because if you are wet you are cold. Also chicken manure is high in ammonia and lets off the stuff in large amounts. This can irritate your chickens’ lungs. Your chickens will be spending much more time in their coop during cold weather so keeping their coop dry and their air clean will help with egg production. It is important to remove dirty litter as well. If an egg gets broken into the litter, it is important to remove the broken egg, dirty litter, and to clean so that there is no remaining egg contents. Otherwise, the chickens may eat it and develop a taste for their own eggs.
My Solution: Every week, I spread an inch or more of litter in their coop. You should adjust the frequency and amount applied, as needed. I also replace litter as it gets dirty and try to keep the area clear of any excrement. This helps me have clean eggs that don’t require washing. (Leaving the bloom on the eggshell helps seal the pores and make the egg stay fresh longer.)
Egg laying chickens use alot of nutrients to produce an egg every day. Providing a balanced diet is easy if you use layer pellets.
My Solution: Provide crushed oyster shells for added calcium, even if you’re using layer pellets. Chickens will take what they need. Providing grit is also a good idea, since the dirt and gravel may be covered with snow, and if you are feeding corn or scratch, they need the grit to grind the grains.
Cod Liver Oil is an essential supplement that I have found highly effective to keeping my chickens laying. The reason why cod liver oil is important is that not only does it provide omega oils, it also is a great provider of vitamin D. Now the interesting thing about vitamin D is that it is produced by sunshine. Human bodies cannot produce it on its own. This is why mothers, a hundred years ago, made their children take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day in the winter. Are vitamin D levels an influence on egg production, cuing the chicken’s brain back into laying? I don’t know, but it works every time I use it.
How to Use Cod Liver Oil: I simply buy a big bottle of the cheaper Cod Liver liquid jells and cut them open. Then I squirt them into the water of my chickens. That way they get the same dose approximately. I figure one pill per chicken for a few days until egg production starts up again. Then I give them the same dose a few times a week. Be sure to use this in conjunction with a light in your coop.
Chickens loves fresh green stuff like lettuces, grass, and weeds. You can sprout your own greens at home super easy. I love my Easy Sprouter, which you can find on amazon.com. Additionally, you can give them leftover salad that has wilted. Another option is to ask your local grocer for produce that they are going to throw out. Your chickens will bless you for the treats. Just avoid onions, garlic, cabbage, and any of the brassica vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts), as they can give a bad taste to your eggs.
I hope this helps other chicken raisers to keep their hens healthy and laying all winter.