WINTER PREP FOR LAYING HENS ~
Many people are beginning to notice the price of hamburger, chicken and butter going up in price. In fact, this year has registered the highest prices ever for beef and butter, while chicken continues to rise. For those of us who raise organic chickens, dairy milk and eggs, the prices even for organic eggs are nearly $5 dollars per dozen in many places around the country; that’s nearly double regular eggs and $2 dollars more per dozen than just five years ago.
With the rapidly increasing prices of all the items I mention above, many urban farmers and rural micro-farmers are moving into poultry if they weren’t already. Even suburban homes are beginning to incorporate a small vertical garden and a few laying hens.
So, how do you prepare for winter so that your chickens lay?
Let’s start from the beginning. First, you have either purchased chicks or hatched out your own chicks this last summer. (We raise organic chickens and hatch out chicks for our customers. These are a few little hatchlings from our April hatch.)
You’ve spent the summer raising them, going from a brooder under heat lamps, all the way to chickens that look pretty well developed and ready for fall egg laying. Now it is time to prepare their winter housing and also their light requirements so they begin to lay. Hens begin to lay at approximately six months of age. We do our hatches in March, April and May from our parent flock picking top genetics to hatch forward. This hatching window means our hens will begin laying in October.
The second step, after raising them right over the course of the summer, is to prepare their winter facilities so they have ample time to get comfortable. Here we have water sitting on and electrified heater base. Their very clean pen has a small door to an outside covered run that is animal proofed with wire that goes down into the ground four feet. We close that door at night. We also have raised nesting boxes that they begin to sit in, with perches throughout the interior. We leave a ‘dummy’ egg in the nesting boxes. You can use plastic easter eggs too. And, they begin to figure out they nest there for egg laying. Last, we hang a light on a timer. Hens need 14 hours of light to lay. In different areas of the country, farms lose light earlier than others. We get the lighting set up earlier than the time when light drops so that the hens are used to the artifical light. We have the timer set to turn the light on for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. There is no need to have the light on all day as it simply raises your electric bill. Also, you don’t want to have the light on 24 hours as the hens do need to sleep and 24 hour light can mess with their egg laying. The amount of light you need in terms of brightness is ‘enough that you can be inside a read a newspaper’. How’s that for a farmer’s description of light strength.
Third, you want to introduce your chickens to their new home. You want to give them several weeks to become accustomed to their home and the routine of that home.
We have always had our daughter do alot of the handling as she is the one who collects the eggs and the one who ran her egg business selling organic eggs to the local community. This is her getting the chickens familiar with their new home and also getting them familiar with her in the same space. While you do this step, over a period of days you’ll want to sit down inside with your hens and simply have slow motions and talk to them. If you move quickly and have many loud noises, it startles the birds and causes them to frantically move around causing stress to the flock. Staying calm, moving slowly, talking softly to them over a period of time, really helps to build a healthy stress free flock.
Last, you will begin to enjoy the fresh eggs that start arriving. Do not be surprised if your hens’ first eggs are tiny. We often have very small eggs in the beginning from our newly egg producing hens. Within a month the egg size increases. We usually have about 15 hens which gives us approximately a dozen eggs a week. Each hen does not lay every day, more like every other day. So, that is an approximate average we see on our farm. We sell our surplus eggs, and will scale up our hen flock when our customers want more eggs.
Since we raise eggs and poultry in a climate that gets down to negative 30 degrees in winter we have many thoughts on how to do it well after years of experience. I will add a few other pointers below with ‘climate’ in mind. First, we let the chickens run outside in their pens during the day. Even if it is cold the activity is good for the birds. Also, if you keep the chickens locked up inside on a very cold day/days, ammonia can build up significantly in the pens. We therefore let them run outside and also strip their pens very often to assure the ammonia build up does not occur. This can greatly impact their health. We keep their water full at all times as the hens drink a great deal of water and that includes winter. We also do not hatch chicks out in fall as they are still to small to handle the harsh winters.
The above outlines the steps we take to prepare our hens for both winter and egg laying and we hope these suggestions work for you as well.