Do Chickens Lay Eggs In The Winter?
Maybe. It depends on you and it depends on your chickens. A hen’s reproductive cycle is tied to the seasons and the amount of light she is exposed to.
In the winter months, it is the natural cycle of things for a hen to slow down before stopping laying eggs altogether. You may get an egg here or there, especially from first-year hens and production hybrid birds, but there is no guarantee and you cannot rely on it.
As the days start to grow longer in the spring, your chickens will start to lay an abundance of eggs again. My Orpingtons started back up again in early February for example.
For many homesteaders and backyard chicken keepers, we are faced with a dilemma — should we force our chickens to keep laying eggs in the winter? There are certainly many tips and tricks we can employ to ensure a supply of eggs throughout the winter.
Or should we give them a break and let nature take its course?
There are pros and cons to each side and I am neutral on this topic — especially as the cost of food rises everywhere. Chickens are expensive to feed over the winter when natural foraging opportunities are gone under a blanket of snow. I personally chose last year to give my chickens a well-deserved break, but I do not think that there is anything wrong with the other side either.
Let’s explore this topic in detail and find out how to keep chickens laying eggs in the winter.
Why They Stop Laying
As the hours of sunlight in a day increase and decrease with the seasons, the egg-laying schedule of your hens will change.
When the days are long and warm, their bodies naturally adjust to lay more eggs.
But as the daylight hours wane during the winter, they may produce fewer eggs or stop laying eggs altogether.
While losing their egg-laying potential during the winter is an inconvenience, it does have its benefits.
The hens tend to naturally use the winter months as a resting period and may go through feather molting for 14 to 16 weeks during this time.
The diminished egg laying helps them molt because they’re able to allocate all of the protein and nutrients they eat into their growing feathers.
Should I Force My Hens To Lay Eggs During Winter?
It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether it’s the right thing to do to force your chickens to lay eggs during the winter.
It’s very common to explore different methods of encouraging winter egg-laying. Techniques such as artificial lighting and temperature control are popular for their proven success, and can completely resolve the issue of eggless winters.
All that being noted, chickens don’t lay during the winter for an important reason, and addressing their additional nutrition and rest needs is key to encouraging egg laying.
Natural Ways To Encourage Laying
The most important part of encouraging egg laying during winter, whether you utilize natural or artificial methods, is to increase the amount of food and light available to them.
During winter, they need to eat more to keep their body warm, and they need to eat more for their feather molt. It’s difficult for them to have any nutrients left for eggs unless they’re fed extra!
Culling Older Hens: Flock Rotation for Year-Round Egg Production
Many flocks are managed with culling practices that keep the egg production going year-round.
One benefit of getting new pullets each year is that they don’t generally molt during their first winter, which means that they have all the energy and important nutrients necessary to keep laying.
Keeping younger hens is a great way to keep your egg supply constant.
Culling reduces the prominence of many health issues which can arise from long-term egg laying. Ovarian cancer and prolapses prominent in older hens can be extremely difficult and expensive to manage.
And as egg production declines with age, it isn’t always worth it to keep older hens in the flock.
Artificial Ways To Force Egg Laying
When you’re thinking about encouraging egg laying during winter, it’s important to remember what guides egg laying: food, water, daylight, and temperature.
Your hens should be fed extra for the winter, and they should be adequately hydrated. The daylight hours should resemble spring or summer, and the temperatures should be warm and hospitable.
In such a comfortable climate, they will instinctively feel reassured to begin laying eggs.
Artificial Lights In The Coop
Once daylight hours reach 14 hours per day, chickens begin to make the hormones that stimulate egg production and laying. This will peak when there are 16 hours of daylight each day.
Keeping your flock under extra lighting in the winter is a great way to stimulate their egg laying. This works so perfectly because it simulates the same conditions which encourage them to lay eggs in the summer.
A 40-watt light bulb (NOT fluorescent) is great for lighting a 10 sq. foot area, and you can use multiple as necessary to ensure that your whole coop is well lit.
It’s also important to make sure that the bulb is far away from where the chickens can reach or any flammable material.
You should add a timer to the bulb to have it turned on during the dark morning hours, such as around 4 am to 8 am. This will lengthen the day perfectly to make your hens start laying eggs.
It is important to check your lights frequently to make sure that the timer doesn’t fail. If the hens are kept on a long day cycle and the daylight hours suddenly drop it may cause a secondary molt, which will be disastrous for egg laying.
And do not keep the lights on continuously. That is unnecessary and cruel. Buy a cheap timer, it's worth it.
Diet and Nutrition
Ensuring that your hens are adequately fed is an essential part of encouraging egg laying during winter.
To help them through the challenges of staying warm and molting in addition to egg laying, you should be offering your hens extra food and water.
In the winter I like increase their protein intake with extra scrambled eggs, flax meal, meat scraps etc.
One risk during winter is that the water troughs will freeze, and investing to prevent this is a smart way to keep them adequately hydrated for laying.
Purchasing or DIYing a heated waterer will prevent their water from freezing over — and for the DIY approach, it can be as simple as installing heat-producing lights.
In addition to keeping your hens adequately fed and giving them enough daylight hours, they should be warm enough that they aren’t having to waste precious energy thermoregulating.
Although there are a ton of useful installations on the market for keeping your hens warm, such as wall heaters that warm the coop air, they are not recommended.
They may actually be counterproductive in that it will prevent your chickens from growing the extra down and feathers necessary for winter survival.
Your chickens do not need a heater in their coop.
What they need is a properly winterized coop that is draft free and a run that is dry and sheltered from the elements and wind.
I recommend the deep litter method which actually works to keep them warmer naturally while also making coop maintenance and cleaning a breeze for you.
See my articles on winter chicken-keeping:
If you're going to insist on a chicken coop heater, try this one which is much safer than many other options:
But you really don't need it.
Save your money and buy a rugged, high-quality automatic coop door opener and closer instead to save yourself having to trudge through the snow and cold.
Dangers Of Forcing Laying During Winter
While having the extra eggs during winter is lovely, it’s worth weighing out the pros and cons of this decision before deciding to encourage laying.
Hens instinctually don’t lay eggs during the winter for a reason, because this is the time where their bodies recuperate and molt and need all of the nutrients that they can get.
Additionally, they need the extra energy to stay warm and healthy during the cold winter months.
With all that noted, it can be safe and beneficial to have your hens lay during the winter. Approaching the decision while knowledgeable about all of the potential consequences will enable you to use the best practices possible, and to be proactive in addressing any potential health issues or dangerous situations that might arise.
It’s important to know some of the most common dangers associated with winter egg laying.
Stress & Weakened Immune System
The stress of continued egg laying can sometimes have catastrophic effects on the well-being of your hens.
Winter is generally taken as a time for rest, where hens go through their annual molt and conserve their energy for the cooler temperatures and decreased food.
While hens can lay during the winter, it necessitates providing supportive conditions. This includes extra food, heating, and adequate lighting.
Winter laying hens with inadequate care are especially prone to stress and malnutrition which leaves them prone to disease and decreased lifespans.
Vent prolapse, also known as cloacal prolapse, happens when your hen’s vent muscles become weakened from overuse and the cloaca (the tract used for droppings and eggs) protrudes on the outside of the vent.
The vent doesn’t return to its correct position once it’s outside of the body, and this is incredibly dangerous for hens. The cloaca is prone to infection, and other hens may even peck at it.
The prolapse is painful and harms their ability to thermoregulate.
The chance of a recurring prolapse is high in older hens, and it tends to recur even when the prolapse is pushed back into the body.
Egg Yolk Peritonitis
A particularly dangerous condition that can emerge in laying hens is peritonitis, an inflammation of the inner abdominal membrane, caused by the presence of egg yolk from something like a ruptured follicle or oviduct disease.
The inflammatory reaction is huge, and the yolk material is incredibly prone to growing bacteria. Fluid and blood will gather in the abdomen and cause severe distension. Hens with severe egg yolk peritonitis will have a penguin-like stance and labored breathing.
In the best cases, a hen with egg yolk peritonitis will require supportive care.
If a bacterial infection occurs, they will need medication which may include antibiotics and anti-inflammatories in addition to supportive care.
Ovarian cancer is a concern as hens get older, and the risk is only multiplied when hens are made to lay through the winter.
Up to 35% of domestic hens will develop ovarian cancer by the age of 2.5 years old. This is a result of their daily egg laying, which is essentially daily ovulation — equivalent in amount to a woman approaching menopause!
A secondary molt can happen when your winter artificial light fails.
Due to the sudden shortening of the day, their bodies will suddenly go into another molt. This can be disastrous because it will completely stop their egg laying and you will have to provide support for their molting through the whole winter.
To prevent this, it’s important to make sure that your lights are always working. Y
ou can add failsafe measures like using several lights with different power sources, or having an emergency power source that the coop’s electronics will fall back on if the primary power source fails.