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What you’ll need:
- A light and a timer, like the Flyhoom’s solar light bulb with remote control timer (Amazon).
- A heater, like the Cozy Coop (the safe chicken coop heater sold on Amazon).
- A heated water bowl, like the K&H’s Thermo poultry heated waterer (Amazon).
- A layer feed, like Scratch and Peck’s Layer Feed (Amazon).
During the winter months, one of the biggest problems faced by backyard chicken owners is a drop in egg production. Maybe not all of your hens will stop laying, but the daily yield will be significantly less.
The production of eggs is greatly affected by the season and the number of daylight hours. Hens need around 12 to 14 hours of light every day to lay an egg, which they usually don’t get naturally in the winter.
In a typical environment, the birds would stop laying through the winter because there’s a shortage of food and water. Chicks also are less likely to survive through harsh winter conditions, so it makes sense that egg production would decrease by fall.
If you start giving your chickens supplemental light in the chicken coop, don’t stop giving it to them before winter is over because you can throw them into another molt.
It could be very dangerous for your chickens to molt during winter. They need feathers to keep warm!
To begin with, if you want eggs in winter, choose your breeds wisely.
Some chickens are heavier, have looser feathers, and smaller combs. This makes them better at adapting to cold temperatures.
For winter laying, the following breeds do very well:
- Buff Orpington
- Rhode Island Red
- Silver-laced Wyandotte
- Plymouth Rock
- Salmon Faverolle
- Easter Egger
To provide a consistent light you will need to have your lights on a timer and adjust it every couple of weeks.
You can use a timer like the FosPower Timers for Electrical Outlets or get a something like the Flyhoom Solar Light Bulb with Remote Control Timer (Amazon). Both of these work great for more than chicken coops!
Throughout the winter, you need to match the sunset time to your artificial lightbulb timer to make sure your hen’s light exposure stays constant at around 14 hours.
Supplemental lighting should not be added at the end of the day, because chickens won’t be able to find their roosts in the dark. They have poor night vision and might become confused, stressed, or injure themselves.
Chickens will naturally and safely roost at sunset by adding extra light in the morning rather than in the evening.
Type of Lighting
Low-wattage bulbs, like the Flyhoom Solar Light Bulb with Remote Control Timer (Amazon), should provide enough light to make hens think they are getting their daily requirement of light and keep them producing.
A 40-watt bulb is usually enough for a standard 10-foot by 12-foot chicken coop.
PLEASE NOTE: You can use some of the fluorescent lights, but in cold environments, some of these lights will not come on. LEDs work better in cold weather.
Caution: Toxic Lighting
“Industrial Duty” and “Break-Free” bulbs have a toxic coating (generally a Teflon) on them to prevent shattering upon breakage. The bulb emits a gas from the coating and it is deadly to chickens.
I’ve heard that red lights are more soothing for a chicken, reduces pecking problems, and allows them to sleep.
If you do choose to use a red light, or even if you choose white, it’s recommended not to switch back and forth. This can further stress out the chickens and lead to drops in egg production.
LED Light Panels
A newer and safe option to bulbs are LED light panels.
LED panels aren’t easily broken and they’re energy-efficient. Small panels can provide light equivalent to a 40-watt bulb but require only about 2 watts of power.
If your lightbulbs are run by electrical power, be sure to have something like a generator for standby power (Amazon). If the lights go out for a few days, it can cause your chickens to molt (which is very bad news).
Battery powered camping lanterns can also work well as a temporary backup while the main electricity is out.
Please make sure the light is safely and securely hung out of reach of the chickens and litter. Do not put them where they can be knocked down by the chickens. This may create a fire that could burn down the coop.
Keep Them Entertained
As you are giving them supplemental lighting, make sure there is enough to keep your chickens busy. If they get bored, the younger hens are probably going to get bullied.
Try to make small, shaded spaces where young hens can hide and protect themselves (like a piece of wood leaned against the wall).
To keep them busy during the early morning hours, you can leave some feed and water inside the coop at night. This way they can start eating and have something to do until they’re let outside.
Even during snowy winter, I believe chickens are healthier and happier if they spend some time outside during the day to peck, scratch, and explore. Of course, I leave them inside the coop if the weather is too cold and harsh for them.
Safety From the Cold
For the ultimate in safety, efficiency, and convenience, chicken coop controllers are now available that open the coop door at sunrise, close the coop door at sunset and prevent the door from opening if it’s too cold outside.
It isn’t just a lack of daylight that causes hens to stop laying eggs during the winter.
As the cold weather takes over, your chicken’s body naturally has to work harder to keep warm. Your chickens redirect their energy to keeping themselves warm instead of laying eggs.
Keeping the coop warm will really help with their overall health and egg production. This is why it’s important to have a well-built chicken coop to start with!
On really cold or windy days, I even put a tarp on the chicken coop but I’m careful to let air circulate in and out of at least one vent. Good ventilation is a must in chicken coops!
I also use layers of pine shavings to help insulate the coop and the Cozy Coop (the safe chicken coop heater sold on Amazon).
A common mistake made by backyard chicken owners is to not increase their chicken’s feed during the winter months. They need more food in the winter if they’re going to keep laying eggs! I like to give them a layer feed, like Scratch and Peck’s Layer Feed.
If you are going to ask them to lay over the winter months, it is also important that they receive enough protein to do the job. I give them mealworms as treats, and they love them!
While mealworms are not a replacement for conventional feed, it is an easy way to boost protein intake when they start to molt or to increase their ability to lay eggs over the winter.
For extra protein, you can also give them things like scrambled eggs, cooked meat (like chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, or pork scraps), raw or cooked fish, raw or cooked shellfish, seeds, nuts, raw or cooked oats, sprouted beans and legumes, and so much more.
Approximately 76 percent of an egg’s total weight is water, so you won’t get any eggs if your hens are dehydrated.
In those freezing winter temperatures, you’ll need to check that the chickens’ water isn’t frozen every few hours. That’s unless you have a heated source of water (Amazon).
Should You Make the Chickens Lay Eggs in Winter?
I personally believe there are benefits in allowing hens to rest from egg-laying in the winter. Health issues are common with older hens that are constantly in lay.
If they live beyond a few years, hens that lay year round without breaks (other than molting) tend to experience problems such as vent prolapse, egg yolk peritonitis, and ovarian cancers.
Personally, my hens are treated like pets. So, I decided I wouldn’t make them lay in the winter.
An Alternative: Get New Chicks
Typically, egg-laying breeds begin laying at 5 to 6 months of age, skip the molting cycle and lay eggs non-stop for 12 to 14 months. Then, as they go through a major molt for two to three months, they slow down or stop laying eggs.
New chicks can be adopted each spring so that they begin laying in fall when last year’s hens start their first molt. Usually, these pullets will lay eggs throughout their first winter without any added light.
Adding supplemental lighting can stimulate pullets to start producing eggs before their bodies are ready, which can be detrimental.