Your frying pan is crying out for scrambled eggs and omelets…
The egg cartons are empty, and the only place you see those brown-shelled eggs is in your dreams…
Winter is a rough time of year for a chicken owner.
Shorter days equals fewer eggs, and you watch the dollar bills fly out of your wallet to pay the feed bills, with little to show for it.
So what’s an egg loving homesteader to do?
Why Chickens Stop Laying in Winter
There are a couple of different reasons you should count on seeing fewer eggs in the nesting boxes come winter:
1. Decreased daylight — The reproductive cycle of a chicken is stimulated by light, and chickens need 14-16 hours of light each day to maintain peak egg production. In some locations during the winter months, you might only see nine hours of light each day, which signals to the chicken’s system to cease production of those gorgeous orange-yolked eggs.
2. Molting — Each year, a chicken undergoes a process of losing feathers and growing new ones. This is the molt. Generally, chickens will molt in the fall or early winter, although it can greatly vary from flock to flock. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty big deal to grow a new set of feathers, (feathers are made of almost pure protein), so it totally makes sense why a chicken would stop laying during the molting period. Their body needs to spend its resources on feather production, not egg production.
3. Temperature Changes — While drastic drops in temperature may play a small role in decreased egg production, I’m going to venture to say that the other two factors are the biggest players here. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if a heavy-duty cold snap throw your flock into an eggless state as well.
Two Ways to Increase Egg Production in the Winter
1. Forced molting — (Note: I don’t recommend this, but felt it needed to be mentioned anyway…) Molting is a bit of an issue for commercial poultry operations, as it’s really not profitable to have non-laying birds sitting around for a portion of the year. Industrial flocksters have come up with ways to control or force a molt by withholding feed or feeding drugs or hormones. However, this is a practice I have no plan of incorporating on my homestead, so don’t expect to see tutorials any time soon. 😉
2. Increased lighting — Although still an artificial method, providing supplemental lighting in the chicken coop is a slightly kinder way to maintain egg production, without the severity of forced molting. However, there is definitely a method you’ll want to follow if you decide to use artificial lighting for your birds.
The Dos and Don’ts of Supplemental Lighting in the Chicken Coop
- DO wait until your chickens are at least 20 weeks of age before introducing any artificial lighting plans.
- DO use a regular 25 watt or 40 watt bulb, hung in a place far away from feathers and bedding.
- DON’T make a sudden switch (i.e. going from zero supplemental lighting, to an extra five hours every day)
- DO gradually increase your lighting over a period of time. Many experts suggest increasing in increments of 30-60 minutes each week.
- DO shoot for 14-16 hours of light each day, for best results. Anything less than 14 hours will mean fewer eggs. Anything more than around 16-17 hours may stress out the birds and cause them stop laying altogether.
- DON’T add the extra hours at night. Opt for the early morning hours instead, as plunging them into darkness when the bulb shuts off at night can be an unnecessary stress.
- DO use a timer so you stay super consistent with your lighting efforts.
So You CAN Use Lights, But Should You?
Believe it or not, there is considerable debate surrounding the topic of artificial lighting in chicken coops…
Pros of Supplemental Coop Lighting
- EGGS! (need I say more?)
- You’re getting something in return for feeding your flock alll winter long.
Cons of Supplemental Coop Lighting
- You have to deal with the hassle of setting up a timer, or turning lights on/off
- There’s a potential fire hazard of keeping a light bulb on unattended in the coop (this is the #1 reason I do not use heat lamps in my coop…)
- Forcing hens to lay with supplemental light prevents them from following their natural reproductive rhythm and some chicken advocates argue it is hard on the birds and causes them to “wear out” faster.
After hemming and hawing about supplemental chicken light for several years, I’ve finally decided to embrace eggs as a seasonal food. This is an obvious concept when you’re growing fruits and vegetables, but can be harder to grasp when it comes to other food products, as we are accustomed to having them available 24/7 at the grocery store.
As we’ve amped up our personal food production efforts, it’s become increasingly clear to me that milk and eggs are just as seasonal as corn and beans. It’s OK to have times of the year when we don’t eat scrambled eggs 4x per week.
Therefore, we currently don’t use any supplemental lighting in our coop. It simplifies chicken keeping for us, and I feel good about giving my hens their natural break. Sometimes I still get a few eggs per week, other times I get none, but I adjust my cooking as needed and we always survive until laying picks up in the spring.
If you’re still struggling a bit at the thought of being eggless, here are a few strategies to soften the blow:
- Eat fewer eggs: This one is obvious, but I’ve found we really can survive on fewer eggs for a portion of the year, and nothing terrible happens. And then of course, we glut on omelets, custards, crepes, and fried eggs when the hens are laying heavily. It’s a happy trade-off.
- Preserve eggs during peak production times: As some of you know, my past efforts with preserving eggs have been a little rocky, but it’s definitely doable. Just in case you’re interested, here is my tutorial on how to freeze eggs, and here are my misadventures with dehydrating eggs (hopefully you have better luck than I did!)
- Buy from the neighbors: Every so often, a neighbor’s flock will continue to lay like crazy during the winter, and I’m happy to buy or barter eggs from them.
- Get creative with your feed bill — If it totally makes you cringe to be pouring the feed to your flock, even though you are eggless, check out this big ol’ list of ways to save money on your chicken feed bill.
Do you use supplemental light in your chicken coop?