Why Don’t Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?

//Why Don’t Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?

Why Don’t Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?

We hear the phrase ‘The Birds and the Bees,’ and automatically roll our eyes. Memories drift back to high school sex ed classes, or embarrassing conversations with a well-meaning parent. I still remember an excruciating talk with my father who, during a long drive (presumably to avoid eye-contact), spoke in graphic detail about puberty and hormones. When he was done, I retreated into the psychedelic world of Super Mario Brothers, populated with mushroom people who were gratefully devoid of testicles or ovaries.

Free-Range eggs. This photo was taken in mid-February, when our 900 hens laid just under 600 eggs for the day.

Free-Range eggs. This photo was taken in mid-February, when our 900 hens laid about 550 eggs for the day.

Sure, we call this talk ‘the birds and the bees,’ yet how often do we actually discuss the mating habits of avians or insects? Perhaps we’re missing a broader opportunity here: If we’re going to freak out generations of twelve year olds, we might as well teach them how the topic relates to our food system.

You already know a lot more about chickens and eggs than you might think. Pop Quiz: When do birds fly south for the winter? When do we hardly see any birds at all? When do birds build their nests? When do you see birds just hanging out, not doing much of anything?

If you answered ‘Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer’ then go to the head of the class. If not, well… I’ve got an aunt who wants to discuss hot flashes with you.

Late summer, out on pasture.

Late summer, out on pasture.

Nature is cyclical. The earth has a northern and a southern hemisphere, each with its own seasons. Birds fly north in the spring because it’s warm, and there’s lots of food. They find a mate, fertilize their eggs, and spend a month incubating and hatching their chicks. Can you imagine a robin making a nest in Wisconsin in January, hatching her eggs in a blizzard? Of course not. Even a bird-brain has more sense than that.

And this is where farming comes in. Chickens follow the same seasonal cycles as their fellow birds. The big difference, however, is over the course of many centuries farmers bred and selected hens for certain traits. Year-round hardiness. Egg production. Thriftiness. By doing this, the chickens were gradually removed from the seasonal cycle. These days, with automated confinement poultry houses, the entire burden is on farmers to take care of the chickens, no longer Mother Nature.

Looking for a nest, gotta lay an egg!

Looking for a nest, gotta lay an egg!

It’s by remembering that eggs are laid for reproduction—not for omelettes or Egg McMuffins—that we can better understand why or why not a hen might be laying. As with most things, the answers always lead back to nature.

Why Don’t Chickens Lay Eggs In The Winter?

1) Not enough light  Chickens are very sensitive to the length of daylight. Why is this? It’s their internal cue that the days are getting longer, and hence warmer. Remember, chickens lay eggs with the intention of hatching chicks (reproduction). How will a mother hen incubate her eggs on a zero degree night? How will her chicks survive a snow storm? Long days (16 hours of light is best) suggest safe conditions to a hen. If your birds aren’t laying, chances are you need to put a light inside your coop.

Grit and oyster shell are composed of great supplemental nutrients.

Grit and oyster shell are great supplements.

2) Not Enough Water  Water freezes in the winter, and eggs are comprised mostly of H2O. If a hen doesn’t have constant access to fresh water all day, she’ll quickly become dehydrated and stop laying. Again—move aside Mother Nature, more chores for the farmer!

3) Inadequate Nutrition  Hens need lots of calories to produce eggs, especially in the winter when extra forage (insects, clover, etc.) is scare or non-existent. Productive birds require 1/4 pound of 17% protein feed each day, as well as supplemental calcium and granite grit to aid digestion and egg shell production. Remember, it takes 2 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of gain from a chicken. Where will they find that food in the winter unless the farmer brings it to them?

4) Molting  About once a year, hens naturally shed their feathers, a process known as ‘molting’. When they do this, they stop laying for roughly a month as their feathers regrow. If you’re selling eggs for a year-round market, it’s best to stagger the ages of your flock (introduce a new flock every 6 months) so you’ve always got a steady supply.

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New layers enjoying a winter snack.

Young layers enjoying a winter snack.

As you can see, most times when a hen stops laying, it’s because of natural reasons. Despite consumer demand for year-round productivity, chickens will never be egg laying robots. I’d even argue that eggs aren’t ‘supposed’ to be laid in the winter; that it’s really an agricultural trick developed over many centuries. This is why nearly all of America’s eggs come from confinement houses, where food, light, and temperature is constantly regulated. Raising hens free-range on pasture—as we do on our farm—comes with many additional challenges.

Each autumn, as my hens reliably slow down and I quickly sell out of eggs at farmers’ market, well-meaning customers always comment, “Out of eggs already? You need to get a bigger flock of chickens!”

I shake my head, politely disagreeing. “When it comes to chickens,” I reply, “it needs to be June all year round.”

After 30 years of keeping a flock, I’m pretty sure my hens would enjoy that, too.

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By | 2015-09-22T08:56:16+00:00 February 23rd, 2014|Farm|18 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

18 Comments

  1. Lynsi Pasutti February 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the post, Forrest! Great info and well written as always! Very informative for better understanding my own 5 chickens! 🙂 See you in a few weeks!

    • Forrest Pritchard February 24, 2014 at 8:38 pm

      Hey Lynsi, 5… 50… 500… these concepts are completely scaleable!

  2. Gerard Worrell February 25, 2014 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Forrest, That’s why I keep my hens separate by age groups. four flocks and I replace the oldest in spring and fall.
    Jerry

  3. sheila4467 February 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    Gosh I love the way you write. You crack me up, but still manage to teach me something that I can understand, and actually use. That’s pretty great, when you consider that I’m old, and forget my name sometimes.

    So, unless I’m ready to make my entire back yard into a Perfect Garden of Eden, year round, even in winter, plan on buying eggs at the store, right?

    Got it! Now why didn’t I think of that?

  4. Catherine Franz February 27, 2014 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Forrest, I agree with sheila4467, I love the way you write and I’m a writer as well. I sell at the farmers market with your stand. I’m the blond jewelry lady. This is wonderful information. I wondered why you had less eggs during the winter months. Now I know. Thank you for the education. Haven’t purchased the book but will next Sunday at the market.

    • Forrest Pritchard February 27, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks Catherine and Sheila, much appreciated, and happy to help!

  5. sheila4467 February 27, 2014 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Catherine, You will LOVE Forrest’s book, Gaining Ground. It’s fantastic.

    Forrest, I am getting chickens this year, but I will stick to only a few until I know what I’m doing. It’s bits of information like this, that help so much, and I love it when you share what it really takes to care for your animals. At least then I know what I am actually up against.
    Blessings,
    Sheila

  6. woolfarmgal February 28, 2014 at 5:25 am - Reply

    I’m mostly a sheep farmer, but I have chickens and ducks for personal use. I sometimes have a few chicks six or seven months from winter and these young hens often will lay in winter when others don’t. But as you indicated, nutrition is key. Have to give the girls lots if food and water. I still have an outside area for the girls during winter, and I think that helps too, especially for light exposure. But they always have a coop to get into for yucky weather and to be locked up in at night. And the ducks? Love love their eggs, especially for baking, but my favorite dish is a crustless savory quiche with Swiss chard, mushrooms and Swiss cheese. Thanks for your blog post, great to give those off the farm a little country insight.

  7. Bob Haas August 21, 2014 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Forrest. Your the man!!!!! It was great seeing you in Lewisburg. I’m so proud of the man you have become. How/How. Bob Haas

  8. Sean October 20, 2014 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Mr. Pritchard, just got out today and dropped by your place for a quick look. I am beginning my education/quest/plan to start a farm/ranch and chickens are on the radar as a must, both for eggs and for the benefits of having them around for working garden areas and bug control. I want to work seasonally, and native as possible and had a quick question. As far as eggs go, do you transition to something else as eggs become scarce for winter or just forgo that part of your operation, and I would assume is accounted for in your estimated financials either way? Also, as I spoke to Robert he indicates yall are starting or maybe always have had, turkeys. To me this seems a more “native” option for the area, not that chickens aren’t perse, just wondered how much if any there is to compare the two; or possibly/probably there is no correlation?

  9. Mike November 8, 2014 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Pritchard,
    Thanks for this wonderful site, a truly wonderful resource for all of us aspiring farmers. My question is this: if layers should be culled when one year old due to dropping productivity, and they don’t lay in winter, and they arrive as chicks in the spring, then why keep them over the winter? Do the eggs laid the next spring before being culled recoup the feed and labour costs of keeping them all winter?
    Thanks
    Mike

    • Forrest Pritchard November 14, 2014 at 9:50 am

      Great question Mike. We DO keep our hens through the winter (and their first molt), ride out the trough, and enjoy a robust rebound come April. However, from a pure economics standpoint, if you’ve got a market for one year old stew hens, I think it’s probably better to only keep them one season. Lots of other local free range farmers agree.

  10. David Trueblood January 16, 2015 at 3:55 am - Reply

    I’m mostly a sheep farmer, but I have chickens and ducks for personal use. I’m wondering how to grow up the eggs faster? I heard that it’s really easy if I’m using incubator like this one here http://incubatorsatilir.meximas.com/index.htm . Is there any other ways?

    • Forrest Pritchard January 16, 2015 at 8:26 am

      Not sure what you mean by ‘grow up’ the eggs?

  11. Kim Azevedo January 21, 2015 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    Good evening thank you for sharing it so important. That’s how we change the world lots of great small farmer sharing their knowledge. There’s room for us all. I too have a small operation 100 hens. I’m learning working out the kinks before I retire. I cant get rid of the old girls if my life depended on it. A few here n there to Vietnamese folks but before I go big I want a respectful way to move these girls out. There is a local pasture guy that sits there throat and in a hole they go. I want to do better. Any ideas? With
    much gradate and praise. Kim

  12. Chrysta March 19, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Quick couple of questions. You mentioned installing a light in the chicken coop during the winter months….to, essentially, lengthen their days. Would I turn the light off at say, around 9 pm so I’m mimicking the late sunset of summer? Also, is the light solely for “day light mimicking” purposes or should I put in a heat lamp to both increase the day light time and keep them warm? I seem to be finding a great deal of conflicting information online. I live in North Carolina, and the coldest I’ve ever felt in this area was 16 degrees, but that is very rare and only lasted one night. Typical winter temperatures here stay up in the 30’s. Thanks in advance!

    • Forrest Pritchard March 19, 2015 at 11:30 am

      It’s easier to wake chickens up then keep them up, so set your light for about 3 a.m. to mimic an early sunrise. And you’re very welcome!

  13. Jesse Crain June 19, 2015 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Just found your website, as I am in the process of listening to the audiobook version of “Gaining Ground”. Great book, and nice website! I keep a very small flock of chickens (one rooster, 10-14 hens) to supply fresh eggs for myself, family and close friends, and have a dozen guineas, since they eat so many ticks. They have a coop and a wire-enclosed pen, but I let them out almost every day for foraging. Last winter I was lazy and just left the lights on in their coop all the time, but now that I’ve read this blog post it seems like putting a timer on the lights would be a good idea. Let my “girls” rest, and save on the electric bill, too. Keep up the wonderful work, and thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us!

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