If you live in Michigan then you don’t need me to tell you that the weather is getting cold and the days are getting darker. Our yard has already been covered in a dual blanket of leaves and snow several times this month. Another sign at Arcadia Farms that cold weather has arrived can be found in the chicken coop. Or, more specifically, can’t be found in the chicken coop. No eggs. Our hens have stopped laying completely. We’ve been eggless for over a week now.
Making the transition from egg producers to egg consumers has highlighted how blessed we are to have our own chickens. Last Friday my grocery list included eggs for the first time in about six months. I confess that I felt almost like a fraud as I reached into the cooler of eggs at Meijer. In addition to my farmer-shame, I discovered that ‘natural’ eggs at the store are up to $4 a dozen now – Yikes! I’m eager to get our girls back into production, so here’s the plan.
Why Hens Stop Producing Eggs in Fall/Winter
In early October our hens’ egg production slowed to four or five eggs a day rather than the usual six. We suspect that the hens were in the process of molting. Molting is when chickens produce new plumage for winter and shed their summer feathers. The process is aimed at preparing the bird for winter and takes a significant amount of energy to complete. The energy normally spent on egg production is consumed by the molting process.
We’re cool with losing out on a few eggs here and there while we wait patiently for nature to do its thing. Or at least, we were, until nature started to look like an empty nesting box.
Last week our chickens abruptly stopped laying completely. The event coincided with me cleaning out the coop and refreshing the bedding. Though I knew that was an unlikely culprit in the lack of eggs, I decided to keep the hens in their paddock for an entire day to make sure they hadn’t just picked a new favorite spot to nest. No dice eggs.
Thanks to a little research and feedback from a homesteading Facebook group I discovered the other two reasons why chickens stop laying eggs as the weather cools: Lack of warmth and lack of sunlight.
Chickens require about 14 total hours of sunlight per day to produce eggs. An article on Backyard Chickens does an excellent job of explaining why:
“Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones. As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all.”
Another cold-weather factor impacts egg production is (no surprise here) temperature. Chickens lay best when the ambient temperature is between 52 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures fall outside of those parameters, egg production slows or stops. Also sudden, extreme changes in temperature can trigger an equally sudden stop to egg laying. (If ‘sudden, extreme change in temperature’ doesn’t describe fall in Michigan, I don’t know what does!)
Our hens had already begun molting in early October (with a subsequent drop in eggs) but during the week of our first official snow (which contained a sudden and large drop in ambient temperatures) they stopped producing entirely.
How to Re-Start Egg Production
The prescription for getting our hens producing again is pretty straight forward. Step 1 is to provide more light. After research and discussion with experienced chicken owners, it appears that adding heat and changing diet may be helpful but don’t always prove necessary.
Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop
Artificial lighting can be used to supplement sunlight and provide chickens with the total 14 hours needed daily to produce eggs when days are short. We’re not able to hardwire a light in our coop at this time so we’ve run an outdoor extension cord to the same light we used to keep our birdies warm when they were chicks.
Based on my research the best practice is to add early-morning light rather than evening light. Additional evening light can have an impact on the birds’ temperaments and might also result in adjusting the birds to be afternoon layers. For some people these potential side effects might not be a burden. In the event of adding evening light, a low-tech way is to turn the light on in the evening when you’d normally turn your house lights on (5:30ish these days) and turning them off when you go to bed. For early-morning light, or for those of you who want a more hands-off approach, installing a timer will do the trick. I plan to spend between $20-$30 at a home improvement store to find the right solution to add early-morning light without having to get up in the wee hours of the morning.
I’ve talked to several homesteaders who’ve had success getting their hens to lay in winter by simply using a white light bulb (40 or 60 watt). Using a high efficiency bulb can make this an environmentally and financially friendly option. Meanwhile, using a red heat lamp (like the one used to keep little chicks warm as they grow) costs more to operate; however, the red light may actually be more beneficial to your flock. Research cited by Animalens Inc. shows that chickens who wear red-tinted contact lenses (yes, seriously) “behave differently from birds that don’t. The chickens are calmer, less prone to pecking and cannibalism; the mortality rate is lower. For a variety of reasons, some not fully understood, they also tend to eat less feed while producing, on average, the same size and number of eggs as other chickens (even a bit more).” I’m not itching to run out and buy contact lenses for my chickens (especially at $20 per pair!) but I’m willing to buy the fact that red might be overall better for the disposition (and egg production) of my birdies.
Warming the Chicken Coop in Winter
Of course using a red heat bulb in the coop helps to address both lighting and warming. If red lighting isn’t an option for you, proper insulation will go a long way to helping your chickens to stay warm. Your inclination might be to simply close up the coop tightly, but remember that proper ventilation is important! You don’t want a direct breeze blowing on the place where your hens roost, however, air flow is important to keep molds and mildews from building up as your chickens add heat and moisture (body heat and breath) to the coop. Overarching all of this is the admonition to select birds that do well in winter weather. In general heavier breeds will be more likely to thrive during cold weather.
A good point to keep in mind is that if you heat your coop your chickens will learn to depend on that warmth. What happens then when if you lose power? A natural way to add a small amount of heat to the coop is to use the deep liter method. With this method the decomposition of liter and manure will add some (not sure how much) heat to the coop all winter long.
In addition to what’s around them, chickens can be kept warm by what is in them. One site suggests feeding the chickens corn in the evening so that they are digesting during the night (adding warmth). Warmed water may also help your birds stay warm. You can buy water heaters from a store like Tractor Supply Company.
Or you could try something like this…
Should We Re-Start Egg Production?
You can see that re-starting egg production (or keeping it from stopping) when the days become short and cold can be very straightforward – add a heat lamp. But before you head out to the coop, consider this: Should you?
Healthy, happy chickens are likely to produce at least some eggs during the winter. Clearly adding artificial light and heat means you’re adding things that naturally-raised chickens have survived without for many, many generations. There’s some debate about whether or not adding artificial light and heat may have long-term negative effects on the health of your chickens. More specifically, there is debate about the health impact on a chicken who is forced to continue laying when she should be molting.
One fact that is not up for debate is whether or not adding artificial light will shorten the laying longevity of a hen. Chickens are born with all the eggs they will ever produce, so, inducing them to lay (by using artificial light) when they naturally would not (cold, light-deprived winter days) is essentially hastening the day when your hen will be ready to retire. For those of you keeping chickens as pets, this is a serious point to consider. For those raising chickens for their eggs, it may be of less concern.
I want to treat our chickens humanely and provide them with a healthy environment. However… I also want eggs. And though I am planning to keep these birdies for their whole life, I’m also planning on their life ending right about the time they stop laying (likely about 3 years). After that, I’ll keep them… in a ½ gallon canning jar on the shelf or sealed in my freezer. You can imagine then that I’m not too concerned about hastening the advent of each hen’s final egg. I am, however, concerned about raising my hens in a way that is healthy for them (and ultimately, my family). I don’t like the idea of our flock adjusting to artificial heat (i.e., red heat bulb) because I worry about the potential harm it could do to them if when we have one of those famous Michigan winter power outages. Though red light may be more soothing than white, my hope is that providing light from a regular bulb will feel more natural when delivered in the morning (kind of like an early sunrise… maybe I’m kidding myself…). If I see a change in temperament in the flock I’ll likely switch to a red light for good since I also read that switching back and forth can be even more stressful than simply using a white light.
I’ll need to do more research, but I’m considering giving our flock a good 4-6 weeks off each fall (October and November) to molt without the presence of artificial light and heat. After that time, then I think I’ll move on to adding artificial white light. What do you think? Any concerns about that plan? Any tips you can provide this rookie chicken-keeper with? You know I appreciate all of it!
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