I provide them with a clean living environment, free ranging fun, food, and protection, and they provide me with eggs. When they stop laying eggs my family eats them. Some chicken owners may wince at this outlook but my family lives on a shoestring and we cant afford to feed animals that aren't giving something back. Our dog provides protection, alerts us to strangers and danger, hunts, while also being a great companion, our goats provide milk and eat down weeds and pasture, our cats keep the mice down. I strive to give each animal a happy life. But to me it must also be a useful life.
As you can imagine I want to keep my hens laying throughout the winter. This can be a problem as the temperature drops and there is less light. The old proverb "An ounce of Prevention is worth a pound of Cure" is so true when it comes to raising animals. Here are the challenges you must combat in the winter and how to counteract them.
Water Unfrozen water is absolutely essential to egg production. Even one day without water can throw off egg laying for days.
Solution: I like to use a automatic waterer like THIS ONE and check it every day in winter to make sure it hasn't froze up. It keeps the water clean, takes a long time to empty, and doesn't freeze up easy.
Shelter Most animals need shelter in winter and chickens are no exception. In fact if you want eggs it's best to provide a shelter that is well sealed against the elements. Not only will this keep your hens safe from colder temperatures and predators, but it will also give them a place to lay your eggs that you can find easily.
Solution: Shelter doesn't have to be fancy for chickens to be happy. If you don't already have a chicken coop a truck cap is enough in a pinch. You could also use straw bales with a sheet of plywood over it. It simply needs to be draft free, keep out the rain and snow, and be fairly easy for you to get into to check for eggs.
Heat There will come a point if you live in the north, when it just gets too cold and your chickens will stop laying. They may even get frost bite. Chickens need heat to produce eggs. If they are too cold they will stop laying because most of the food they eat goes to heat production not egg production.
Solution: Have a safe source of heat for your chickens. There are many on the market now like THIS ONE but I still use a heat lamp right near their waterer. Not only does it provide heat and light, but it also keeps the water from freezing. Also sealing any holes and drafts will help immensely.
Food A few homesteaders believe in letting chickens forage for themselves while not providing food (I do not reccomend this). This may work ok in the summer when food is plentiful and if you have enough land, but if you want eggs in winter you will need to provide feed to your chickens. Also it is pretty cruel to not feed your chickens in winter when there is so little to forage for.
Solution: Buying bags of layer pellet feed is the best option. Also providing corn or scratch will help your chickens maintain condition through the cold with its nice high protein content. The more energy your chickens expend on keeping warm the less eggs they will lay, as that energy is going to come from either their body or their food.
Breed Selection Some chickens are better suited to certain climates than others. In fact there are some chicken breeds that will literally die if they go through a typical northern winter. So breed selection is very important to your winter egg production.
Solution: If you live where it gets cold and dark in winter then choose chickens that are known to lay well in winter. My favorites are Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, and Araucanas as we live in a very cold winter area. A good place to compare different breed of chicken is the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. In their descriptions of the different breeds they specifically note which chickens are good at winter laying.
Light This in fact is the most important and least understood reason that chickens stop laying. Chickens need a certain amount of daylight to keep laying. When it falls off their bodies tell them to stop laying until springs extended sun hours arrive.
Solution: Put a light in your chicken coop and leave it on. You can shut if off at night if you want but we don't because it adds heat and the chickens do fine. I use brooder lamps like THIS ONE. These can be picked up at any feed store or even Walmart for less than $30.00. You can choose from white or red bulbs. The bonus to red is that it helps to prevent chickens from picking at each other.
Litter What you use for chicken litter will depend on your personal preferences. I like pine wood shavings because they mix well with the manure and absorb and dry it while adding a nice scent. Having a layer of dry litter is important to laying production because if your wet your cold. Also chicken manure is high in ammonia and lets off the stuff in large amounts. This can irritate your chickens lungs. Your chickens will be spending much more time in their coop during cold weather so keeping their coop dry and their air clean will help with egg production.
Solution: Every week spread an inch or more of litter in your coop. Adjust frequency and amount as needed.
Supplement's Egg laying chickens use allot of nutrients to produce an egg a day. Providing a balanced diet is easy if you use layer pellets.
Solution: Provide oyster shells for added calcium even if your using layer pellets. Chickens will take what they need. Also providing grit is also a good idea since dirt may be covered with snow and if your feeding corn or scratch they need the grit to grind the grains. I also feed my chickens scraps soaked in sour milk. They love it and it adds calcium and protein.
Cod Liver Oil An essential supplement that I have found highly effective to keeping my chickens in lay is Cod Liver Oil. The reason why is that not only does cod liver oil provide omega oils, it also is a great provider of Vitamin D. Now the interesting thing about Vitamin D is that it is produced by sunshine. Human bodies cannot produce it on its own. This is why mothers a hundred years ago made there children take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day in the winter. Are vitamin D levels an influence on egg production, cuing the chickens brain back into laying? I don't know but it works every time I use it.
How to Use: I simply buy a big bottle of the cheaper Cod Liver liquid LIKE THIS ONE. Then I squirt a few tablespoons into the water of my chickens. That way they get the same dose approximately. I figure a few tablespoons per day for a few days until egg production starts up again. Then the same dose a few times a week. Be sure to use this in conjunction with a light in your coop.
Easy Sprouter and you can find it on amazon.com by clicking HERE. The Easy Sprouter is of course for human use, but providing such high nutrition greens to your chickens will not only help them lay, but also make their eggs taste better. Or you can give them leftover salad that has wilted. Another option is to ask your local grocer for produce that they are going to throw out. Your chickens will bless you for the treats. Just avoid onions, garlic, cabbage, and any of the brassica vegetables as they can give a bad taste to your eggs.
I hope this helps other chicken raisers to keep their hens healthy and laying all winter.
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