Reading Time: 5 minutes
Keeping hens laying year-round is pretty easy with some minor adjustments for winter layers.
Story by Kristi Cook
Our homestead learned many lessons in sustainable living during the pandemic. While we learned we still have areas in need of improvement, we also discovered several of our preparedness efforts paid off very well. One such area was our flock of laying hens. These aging hens laid an ample supply of eggs not only during the summer months but also during the winter when most flocks cease laying. With careful breed selection, attention to timing, and refreshing the flock as needed, you too can create a reliable, year-round supply of fresh farm-fresh eggs before the next big one hits.
Layers are easily kept in year-round production with supplemental lighting. However, this practice is losing favor as it is unnatural and causes increased stress on hens. Nature created most breeds to take a break during winter, allowing hens to replenish nutrient stores lost during heavy egg production and to prepare for the winter cold with new plumage. These changes help hens maintain a strong immune system, age more slowly, and ultimately live longer, healthier, more productive lives.
Creating a winter-laying flock requires a multi-faceted approach that begins with careful breed selection. While most breeds cease egg production after the fall molt, there are plenty of hybrids and heritage breeds that continue egg production in winter. These winter layers naturally lay two to four eggs per week throughout winter with the official count being dependent upon the breed, the individual bird, as well as its management. Some of the best winter layers that I’ve utilized are the Black Australorp, White Leghorn, Plymouth Barred Rock, Austra White, and Rhode Island White.
After selections, time the hatching or shipping date so that pullets mature and begin laying their first eggs about a month before daylight hours drop below 14 degrees Fahrenheit. This simple manipulation works well regardless of the breed during the first winter and best ensures pullets will continue laying. If timing is off and pullets begin laying sooner than this, it’s not uncommon for pullets of any breed to cease laying in the fall just like the older hens.
On the flip side, if egg production hasn’t begun before days get too short, pullets may wait until the following spring. However, I’ve found this is not an exact science so trial and error will be required. I’ve also learned there are no hard and fast rules even among the same breeds, so my goal is to have pullets begin laying by end of August to the first week in September. This has produced the best results in my area, but yours may be a little earlier or later than mine. Over time, you’ll develop a system that works for you.
Keep It Fresh
After hens experience their first molt, egg production is reduced both during the conventional laying season as well as during winter production. To remedy this drop, traditional wisdom is to replace the entire flock every two years. The thought is that by the end of the second laying season, most hens are worn out and won’t produce enough eggs to justify feed expenses.
This is by far the simplest approach to keeping a flock laying at peak production during the laying season. However, unless you’re replacing the entire flock every year, this process will not produce a winter-laying flock as hens will still molt by their second fall, thus ceasing egg production during their second winter for non-winter-laying breeds unless using supplemental lighting.
The alternative approach is to add a few new pullets annually, beginning the season after the first winter using the same timetable, or slightly modified if needed, as used previously. These pullets will repeat the cycle, maintaining winter production at its highest level while simultaneously replacing those hens lost to predation and other forms of culling. Other than careful breed selection, this is the step that has helped our flock the most to maintain year-round egg production despite maintaining older hens. As an added bonus, I can add those non-winter layers that we so enjoy such as the Ameraucanas and Rhode Island Reds since even those breeds will continue to lay throughout their first winter with the proper timing. With these efforts in place, we rarely notice much of a drop in egg production.
What to do with those older birds if you don’t cull them? It helps to think of a winter-laying flock as a balance between older and younger winter-laying breeds with the inclusion of non-winter layers if so desired. My current oldest hen is about six years old and still earns her keep just in eggs. Part of this is due to her undoubtedly good genetics. However, by keeping the flock healthy with good nutrition, suitable housing, and not pushing egg production with artificial lighting, my older hens still produce more than enough to justify their feed bills.
However, eggs aren’t the only benefit of older hens. I’ve found the hens that reach old age are wiser in predator avoidance. I’ve watched younger hens run for cover when the old ladies scream a warning and watched the youngsters learn where all the best eats are when following these old girls. Plus, I get lots of manure for composting and feeding my gardens, so I’ve never found a need to remove the old hens or worry about the feed bills.
It Takes Time
Building a winter-laying flock is a simple matter of choosing the right breeds, timing the first season’s egg production, and refreshing the flock once a year. When keeping these tips in mind, no supplemental lighting is needed. Over the years, I’ve watched my flock’s size ebb and flow while profits from egg sales are maintained, feed bills are paid for by the girls, and flock health stays in top shape all while keeping farm-fresh eggs on the table 365 days out of the year.
Winter Care Checkist
Winter layers need a little extra care to maintain optimal winter production.
- Provide coops with clean, deep bedding to insulate coop flooring. Deep bedding also offers a cozy place to peck and scratch when the weather outside is nasty.
- Coops must be well ventilated; however, drafts lead to increased stress and illness.
- Windbreaks and covers reduce the impact of wind, keep ramps snow and ice-free, and provide shelter from winter rain.
- In addition to quality feed, offer several handfuls of corn in the morning and 30 minutes to an hour before roosting to increase the body heat produced at night.
- Provide heated water to assist in keeping the flock’s body temperature within an optimal range for egg production.
- If supplemental heat is necessary, opt for the lightless options available at various poultry supply companies.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops and articles.
Originally published online, November, 2023 and regularly vetted for accuracy.