It IS possible to have fresh chicken eggs all winter!Feeling a little lacking in fresh chicken eggs? You may find at this time of year that your hens’ production starts to tail off somewhat – in conjunction with the days getting shorter. This is a perfectly natural cycle that most birds go through; you’ll find that your heritage breeds experience this the most, but if you have some of the cold hardier types (particularly the English breeds like Orpingtons and Sussex) and also the ‘designed’ hybrids like the Golden Comets and Black Star to name just two, you might find that they remain at a slower but steady egg production through most of the winter months.
We call this a ‘laycation’ and personally, we allow our birds to go through it during the winter months. Some of our birds continue to lay, others stop completely and then start up again the following spring. The reason we allow them to take this break is simple: hens are born with all the eggs they will ever lay, so stimulating them to continue to lay throughout the winter shortens their useful lives. Our birds live a very natural life, free-ranging and scratching in the dirt; and when they stop laying for good, they simply live out the rest of their lives as bug-catchers.
However, if you plan to send birds on a trip to the big crock-pot in the sky when they stop laying, it might be in your best interests to stimulate them to lay throughout the winter, that way you will get all the fresh eggs the chicken has to offer, all through winter, and still have a relatively young (for which read meaty but not tough!) bird for the table.
The reason that birds slow down or stop laying is due to the pituitary gland in the hens’ eyes. When this gland has less exposure to daylight throughout the winter, it signals to them to slow their laying. To ‘trick’ them into continuing to lay, a light on a timer can be placed in the coop to add additional daylight hours to their morning, stimulating the pituitary gland to produce that hormone that signals them to begin laying. Aim for 14-16 hours of ‘daylight’ and 8-10 hours of dark so that the birds still get adequate sleeping time. Regular incandescent bulbs work well for this purpose, but be sure to place lights where they cannot heat up any flammable material and cause a fire.
It is important to add the daylight to their mornings, so that they can continue to go back to the coop to roost naturally in the evenings, and so they aren’t caught short in the dark, almost blind when the light clicks off in the evenings.
Other things you can do to help your birds stay in good condition over the winter months – maximizing the chances that they will lay naturally, without the use of artificial lighting, include:
- Continue to offer a high protein layer ration – as much as the birds will eat
- Give cracked corn as a late afternoon snack; this will digest slowly in their crops overnight and help to keep them plump and warm.
- Some people swear by sprinkling cayenne pepper in their feed, they say it heats them up and encourages them to lay. Even if that is an old-wives tale (who’s to say?) it will mean they get a good dose of a natural de-wormer, with no egg withdrawal period.
- Ensure a constant supply of fresh water – you may even find that bowls work better in the winter months than the screw top waterers, as they are easier to dump out when they inevitably freeze.
- For extra protein, offer your birds scrambled eggs, fish and a selection of green veggies, such as cabbage. Calf Manna is also an excellent source of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.
- Finally, ensure that everyone is mite and lice free by dusting the birds and their living quarters.