Keeping Your Flock in Production Through the "Off Months"

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

November 29, 2022
Keeping Your Flock in Production Through the

Commercial-type egg production facilities can produce eggs year-round without much trouble, resulting in a steady supply of eggs to grocery store shelves. Therefore many local egg customers, especially those who are new to purchasing eggs from small farms, anticipate that they will always be able to get their eggs locally throughout the year. This is not usually the case. This time of year, egg production from pastured laying flocks is down while demand increases going into the holiday season. The cyclical nature of hens' laying patterns can result in missed sales opportunities and the potential movement of customers to another farm that can meet their needs. However, there are some management tactics that can help maintain production through the winter months. These are based around the 4 inputs for optimal egg production: Daylength, hen age, hen breed, and feed and water availability.


Daylength is the most important factor to consider for optimizing production. Hens are seasonal creatures, maintaining their wild ancestor's reproductive strategy of hatching chicks when food is plentiful. While domestic chickens will outlay their wild cousins, they still hold much of their genetic code which tells them to slow down and eventually stop laying as daylength decreases. For most flocks, this begins in October until egg production becomes a trickle or stops entirely by the winter solstice.

One of the ways to overcome this is to provide a steady daylength to your hens artificially. The optimum daylength for laying eggs is 14-16 hours. By early October, daylength has decreased to 12 hours. On December 21st, a day is a mere 10½  hours. However, keep in mind that daylight for chickens is slightly longer than from sunrise to sunset. Chickens can perceive the small amounts of light present during the shoulder times of sunrise and sunset, known as civil twilight. This adds an additional hour to the effective daylength. Even still, this is not enough daylength in the winter to promote egg production.

There are two ways to provide artificial light to poultry. The first is to keep them in a facility where a light is timed to keep 14-16 hours of daylight in the living quarters year-round. This can include a combination of natural and artificial light hours. The second option is to provide more light once the birds are moved indoors from pasture. At this time, daylength is extended in intervals of 30 - 60 minutes weekly from the current daylength until 14-16 hours a day is reached. Not much light is needed in an artificially lit system, since hens can see in light as low as 1 foot-candle, which is a term that describes there being enough light to read a newspaper 1 foot away from your face. Having the supplemental light come on in the morning hours and letting dark occur naturally is most comfortable for the birds. A word of caution with increasing light: if light is increased faster than 30-60 minutes a week, hens may be at increased risk for prolapses. It is also worth mentioning is if hens are producing under artificial light and that light isn't consistent, it may throw them out of lay.

A Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) research project found that hens exposed to 14 hours of artificial and natural light a day during the winter months produced 1.125 eggs/week/hen as compared to 0.25 eggs/week/hen from hens exposed to 10 hours of natural light daily. If eggs are selling for $6/dozen and all eggs coming from the hens are saleable, a flock of 50 hens would produce 44 more eggs, valued at $21.88, per week with the supplemental light.

 

Hen Age strongly influences how well a chicken will produce in the winter months. Young hens have more "get up and go" than older hens, which tend to molt sooner and stay in molt longer. A typical production flock will lay well for two seasons, going through one molt. Keeping hens for 3 years of production isn't unheard of, but following year 3, it's important to consider if keeping lower producing hens is financially viable, especially if you want your flock to maintain higher egg production in the late fall and winter.

The time of year the chicks are hatched will also influence how well they will lay their first winter. A chick hatched in springtime will take anywhere from 18-26 weeks to come into lay. If she is hatched in mid-to-late summer, it's likely that she will not begin lay until after the daylight patterns increase in January/February. When daylength decreases while the chick is growing, there are fewer hours per day for her to eat and grow her body and egg tract in preparation for lay. This in combination with a natural decrease in daylength-sensitive reproductive hormones creates a double-edged sword. Starting chicks no later than June will help ensure that they lay their first year and possibly through their first winter. That said, chickens that start to lay in late spring/early summer may end up going into molt in their first winter vs those that start to lay in later summer, but this is not always the case. Production breeds are more likely to lay through winter with a later start than heritage breeds… more on that later!


Hen breed influences not only how many eggs a hen will produce, but also her sensitivity to daylight patterns. Production breeds such as Red Sex Links (also known as Production Reds, ISA Browns, Bovan Browns, Cinnamon Queens, etc.) and White Leghorns (especially if they are from a production line) will tend to lay relatively persistently through their first winter. They have been bred to not be as sensitive to daylight changes, thereby increasing the number of eggs they will produce per year. For example, a White Leghorn or Red Sex Link may lay up to 320 eggs per year whereas a Wyandotte or Ameraucana may only lay up to 280 eggs per year.

Another consideration is body size. Those birds that are heavier bodied like Plymouth Rocks or Orpingtons tend to lay more persistently through winter than lighter-bodied breeds like Legbars or Andalusians. That said, some of the heavy breeds may lay fewer eggs overall, even if they are more persistent winter layers.

 

Feed and water availability are important for optimized eggs production. Just one day without water can stop egg production for up to two weeks! Water management is especially important in climates where water tends to freeze during the day in the winter months. Heated waterers or waterers that have ice regularly removed are the best for any flocks, but especially important for production flocks. Remember that even heated waterers should be checked at least once daily to ensure functionality.

In winter, poultry tend to burn more calories to keep warm and take part in normal behaviors. Once they have enough energy to meet their needs, the rest of the energy can be directed to egg production. Therefore, a free choice, nutritionally complete diet should be the primary winter diet. The provision of snacks of any kind should continue to be limited to 10% of their total feed intake, which is about 1/3 pound/hen/day. Fat and protein deficient treats like vegetables and fruit can dilute nutrients and slow down egg production. Carbohydrate dense treats such as cracked corn can result in fatty hens and vent prolapse if not restricted. A further consideration is to limit the feeding of wetted feed if it freezes during the day, since chickens don't need to waste extra calories pecking frozen blocks of feed to get their daily nutrition!

 

While these four components should be considered for optimal egg production in the late fall and winter, keep in mind that molting is a natural part of a chicken's lifecycle. Molts are how chickens reset their reproductive systems to provide larger, higher quality eggs when they come back into lay as well as provide them a with period to rest and recharge. Hens that produce more eggs for a longer period and don't go through a natural molt tend to "burn out" quicker, while hens that produce fewer eggs overall and/or are allowed to molt tend to produce quality eggs over more years with fewer health complications.   

 




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