When Fall arrives, molting is not far behind.
In fact, broody hens have probably already molted.
Those that have finished molting are now sporting bright, tight new feathers, red combs and wattles, but… no eggs.
The amount of eggs that chickens lay is hugely affected by the season and the amount of daylight hours.
In today’s article we are going to look in depth at why hens don’t lay year round and what you can do to change that.
When Do Hens Stop Laying Eggs For Winter?
Chickens’ egg laying cycles are heavily impacted by the amount of daylight and time of year.
Once the amount of daylight starts to reduce, it signals the chicken that it’s time to molt, shedding old feathers for new, a time for repair and restoration.
When the days start to get shorter, special signals are sent to the brain by the eyes and the endocrine glands. The two glands involved in this message are the pineal gland and the hypothalamus, both situated in the chickens’ brain.
The hypothalamus regulates growth and reproduction and the pineal gland regulates the circadian rhythm (day and night).
These glands can ‘sense’ daylight through the skull and regulate the chickens’ response to decreased daylight.
The pineal gland regulates the circadian rhythm of all creatures. Because of this little gland, even a totally blind chicken will sense the changing seasons.
We should note here that chickens ‘see’ light differently to humans. They are able to see beyond the spectrum visible to humans.
In summer, with at least twelve hours of light, the pineal gland does not produce as much melatonin, therefore the chicken lays her daily egg.
And if motivated, will produce chicks if allowed to – courtesy of the hypothalamus signals.
During winter, with reduced lighting, more melatonin is produced and signals the bird that it’s time to rest and replenish. The natural rhythm is telling the bird it’s time to gather energy and resources to survive the cold months ahead.
Now we know what causes the decrease in eggs and the annual molt, what are we going to do about it?
Keeping it Natural during Winter
If you prefer to keep your birds on a natural cycle of rest during the winter, be prepared to be short of wonderful, fresh eggs!
Not all of your birds will stop laying, but the daily output will be significantly less.
If you have sufficient room with your chicken set-up, you could invest in a couple of fresh pullets/chicks every year.
Pullets won’t molt until around fifteen to eighteen months, but they should lay eggs for you!
Be sure to choose a breed that is known as a good layer.
If you had a glut of eggs during the summer months, hopefully you froze some for this time of year. Although frozen eggs don’t have that wonderful, fresh laid taste, they are still fine for baking.
There are definitely benefits (for the hen) in allowing them to be natural.
In a wild setting, the birds would stop laying through the winter because there is limited food and water.
All the energy available will be used in foraging, finding shelter and avoiding being eaten or frozen to death! Mother Nature is not a kind Mother…
Our domestic hens also use this time for rest and building up their energy for another busy season of egg laying and chick rearing. I think it’s important to let the birds be as ‘natural’ as possible.
This rest gives the egg laying department a much needed break and let’s tired muscles have time to recuperate.
Hens that are forced to lay year round without a break (other than molting), tend to experience problems such as vent prolapse, egg yolk peritonitis and ovarian cancers if they are allowed to live beyond a few years.
I have never put lights on to encourage my girls to lay, I think they have earned a well-deserved rest!
Getting them through the winter with its’ inclement weather is enough stress for us all.
I have always been fortunate that a couple of the old diehards have provided enough eggs for us through the winter and I try to get a few chicks in the Spring so that they will be laying by winter.
Keep Hens Laying During Winter
Hens’ need anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours of daylight to lay an egg and it needs to be constant.
If you start with light and then decide you don’t want to make them lay – wait until next season.
Messing around with the light can throw them into another molt.
If you were to throw them into a mid-winter molt it could be very dangerous for your birds.
To provide a constant light you will need to have your lights on a timer and adjust every couple of weeks to keep it constant. A few minutes either way is not going to make a huge difference, but try to keep it consistent.
It is best to add light in the early morning hours. That way in the evening they will experience a natural dusk and be ready to hop up on the roost at bedtime.
If you experience power outages in your area, be sure to have a generator for standby power. If the lights go out suddenly and remain that way for a few days, it can cause them to molt – something you really don’t want to have happen.
Adding light to your coop also increases the ambient temperature in the coop.
A forty watt bulb should be sufficient for a small coop around eight by four feet, six foot high. The chickens themselves add about ten watts of heat per bird, so the coop will be very comfortable for them.
Please make sure the light is safely and securely hung out of reach of the birds and litter.
Coop fires can start within a couple of minutes, so be very cautious.
This little video shows how easily a fire can start.
As you are lighting the coop for twelve of more hours, make sure there is enough to keep them busy. If they get bored and restless, the younger hens are probably going to suffer from picking and pecking.
If you have the available space, try to make small, darkened areas where the timid birds can hide from the bullies.
It doesn’t have to be fancy – a piece of board leaning against the coop, a cardboard box even. It gives the bird a chance to rest quietly.
If the coop is outside with a run attached, if at all feasible clear the run so they can venture outside during daylight.
Windbreaks can be made from a variety of materials – I like to use tarps. They are strong, versatile and inexpensive. Placing tarps over the roof and on the ‘weather’ side of the coop will help to keep the run clear.
If you are going to ask them to lay over the winter months, it is also important that they receive enough protein to do the job. If you have switched over to twenty per cent feed during the molt, stay with it.
Eighteen percent feed is acceptable as is game bird feed (usually twenty to twenty two per cent). The extra protein converts to energy and the increased ability to lay over the winter. You can return to sixteen percent in the early Spring.
One important thing to note here is that health issues are common with older hens that are constantly ‘in lay’.
For instance vent prolapse and egg laying problems.
Industrial hens are usually disposed of at eighteen to twenty four months, so the issue doesn’t arise for them.
But for those of us who keep our hens ‘until death do us part’, we will likely see these types of problem more frequently if they are forced to lay over winter.
Aside from the Lighting Issue:
Your chickens need to conserve their energy to stay warm, especially in cold climates. It’s important to understand that, while the shorter days directly affect egg production, so do the temperatures.
In fact, these two factors are intertwined, and one might say that there’s a good reason chickens don’t lay eggs during the winter.
They need to be able to make it through winter, to begin with, and keeping warm takes a ton of energy…energy that can’t be “wasted” on egg-laying.
With that being said, if your chickens are reasonably warm, have the protein they need, and enough daylight, they can safely lay eggs throughout the winter without it negatively affecting their energy, thus health.
There’s a bit of a controversy over the decision to heat a chicken coop…mostly based on fire hazards and the risk that comes with electrical outages. Chooks who were used to the warm coop would chill and die if their heat source suddenly ceased to exist.
Some swear by heating their coops to ensure their chickens are warm, others believe that chickens regulate their body temps quite well on their own, as long as they have the shelter they need.
What you decide is ultimately up to you. But the point is, cold temps, require more energy to survive which means less energy will be spent on eggs.
So, in a nutshell your ladies need light, warmth, food and a nest-box to get them in the mood for laying eggs through winter!
Remember though, they aren’t machines and although the egg output will increase, it will not match the summer output.
Whatever you decide, they need fresh water too.
Those freezing cold winter temperatures have a tendency to freeze the available water! You will need to check the availability of water every few hours unless you have a heated source of water.
Don’t forget to add vitamins and minerals into the water weekly. If you are a big fan of ACV, again once a week should be sufficient.
To lay or not to lay is a personal decision, there is no right or wrong, simply differing views.
I choose to let them rest and suffer the consequence of a ‘seasonal product’.
I also don’t run a business, so my income doesn’t depend upon the chickens’ working twelve months a year.
Let us know in the comments below: to lay or not to lay!?