Have you ever wondered how you can keep your chickens laying eggs all winter long? Well, I’ve got the answer for you although you probably won’t like hearing it, especially if you only keep your chickens for pets.
I am including one storage tip for those who have chickens as pets though!
Now, you’ve probably heard all sorts of things you can try like feeding cayenne pepper or providing extra light to keep your hens laying eggs during the dark winter days. However, experienced poultry owners (hey, that’s me with 17+ years of poultry raising under my belt!) know a little “secret” and I’m going to share it with you today.
It doesn’t involve lights (which do work to some extent but can be super dangerous) or cayenne pepper (some folks swear by it) or even winter-laying breeds (a total crapshoot). This is what I do so I never run out of fresh eggs in the winter – usually we have too many eggs and we’re giving them away!
Are you ready for the secret?
The secret is………………………….
Yup. Pullets. As in female chickens under 1 year of age. More specifically, pullets hatched in the spring.
I’m in a lot of chicken groups and every winter there are tons of people complaining about not getting any eggs from their hens. Other new(ish) chicken owners are all like “try lights”, “try cayenne pepper”, “try this breed or that breed”. Yah… so let’s talk about those options before we get into why pullets will keep you in eggs all winter.
Supplementing Chickens with Light to Promote Winter Laying
A hen’s laying cycle is determined by the amount of light that she receives. To continue producing the hormones that trigger egg production a hen needs to receive 14 hours of light a day. So, you can amp up winter egg production (to some extent) simply by providing artificial light for your chickens. Most people who choose to provide additional light use a timer that comes on early in the morning hours every day until around sunrise.
However, there are some cons to this method that you need to keep in mind. One big issue is that running lights in your coop greatly increases the risk of a fire. Every winter many people lose their barns, coops, and even houses from fires caused by providing supplemental light for their chickens.
Another very important issue to consider is that hens need to take a break from laying for their health. This break naturally starts as the daylight hours decrease, triggering them to molt, and then they stop laying for 8 – 16 weeks. The vacation from egg laying allows the hen to rest and build up her stores again for the next laying season.
Using Cayenne Pepper to Keep Hens Laying
There is only anecdotal evidence that sprinkling cayenne pepper in your chickens’ feed will improve their laying. Supposedly it “heats up” the chickens and boosts egg production.
Does it actually work? Well, you’ll have to try it for yourself and let me know. Currently I only use cayenne pepper to season my food.
Choosing “Winter Laying” Breeds (and what a load of crap it is)
Some cold-hardy breeds will lay through the winter. Sometimes. Sort of. It depends.
You see, ALL chickens will molt their 2nd fall and every fall after that. It’s going to happen whether you want it to or not. And when they molt, they pretty much stop laying until they’ve got their feathers in again. By then, it’s wintertime. Now, at this point some hens will just stop laying altogether until springtime while others will start again at a reduced rate.
Now you’re probably thinking that the cold-hardy breeds are the ones that will start laying again after their molt, right? You could just order some of these cold-hardy breeds from a hatchery and have eggs in the winter… except that there are different strains of chickens.
What’s a strain of chicken, you ask? For every breed of chicken there are (usually) multiple varieties (based on color and/or comb type) and every breeder or hatchery has their own strain of whatever variety they work with. Basically the strain is a group of chickens that are related to some degree and tend to have certain traits.
Here’s an example:
Breed: English Orpington
Strain: The Fancy Chick (the breeder)
Now you’re probably wondering what strain has to do with winter laying. It’s pretty simple. If the chickens haven’t been bred to start laying after they molt than they aren’t going to start laying after they molt. Are the hatcheries going to be able to tell you when their hens start their molt, how long they molt for, and how long it takes for them to resume laying? Will most breeders be tracking that?
The answer: Cluck no!
Basically relying on a particular breed to keep you in eggs all winter is going to result in disappointment most of the time.
Why Spring Pullets Will Keep You in Eggs All Winter
That brings us to pullets. Let’s take a look at the life cycle of a spring-hatched chicken, shall we?
- Hatches March 1st.
- Molts down feathers.
- Molts juvenile plumage around 16 weeks old.
- Starts laying eggs around the beginning of September. May have a minor molt of the neck feathers in the fall.
- Keeps laying eggs through the winter.
- It’s March 1st again – the pullet is now a hen.
- Major molt occurs in the fall.
- Takes a much needed laycation.
- Starts laying again in the spring, but at a slightly reduced rate. Hen turns 2 years old.
- Major molt occurs in the fall.
- Takes a much needed laycation.
- Starts laying again in the spring, but at a reduced rate. Hen turns 3 years old.
- And so on, for the remaining lifespan of the hen which can be 10-15 years. Each year the hen will lay fewer and fewer eggs until she is rarely producing any.
As you can see, a hen’s productivity decreases with every year. The only time she can be relied on to lay eggs during the winter is when she’s a pullet because she doesn’t have a major molt. If you couldn’t guess, the molt is very important in regards to winter egg production.
By simply hatching or purchasing spring-hatched pullets every year you can count on having eggs all winter long. Every year you’ll (ideally) want to add 2 spring pullets for everyone eating eggs. You’ll also want to retire 2 hens that are going into their 3rd fall to keep your flock numbers in check.
The Natural Cycle of the Chicken Flock on our Homestead
Every spring the flock population swells with the incubator running and the broody hens a’sittin’. We usually hatch anywhere between 100-200 chicks every year.
Over the summer extra cockerels make their way to the freezer and cull pullets are sold to join new flocks.
In the fall we select older hens and cockbirds to retire from the flock. A final cull of our spring pullets and cockerels happens around the same time. Good broody hens remain in the flock for their entire natural lifespans.
By the first hard frost our flock is at the smallest it will be all year until spring hatching comes around again. Normally we keep only around 10% – 15% of what we had in the spring.
I don’t want to add new pullets to my flock every spring. What can I do to have eggs all winter?
The main thing I recommend is storing as many extra eggs as you can starting in July. Place unwashed (very important!) eggs from your chicken flock into cartons and store in the refrigerator. You can mark each egg with the day it was collected. They’ll keep for 6 months in the fridge.