The answer to the poet’s question of, “What is so rare as a day in June?” was, until recently, a farm fresh egg in the middle of winter. Egg laying was essentially a seasonal activity and was greatest only when the hours of daylight lengthened.
Egg output increased as producer experience and skills increased and were motivated by the demand for eggs in the cooler months when baking is increased and appetites are heartier. Take stock of your flock facilities and management techniques for successful winters to come.
Earlier egg producers learned to make the most of what nature offered them. Poultry houses were built with larger southern-facing walls, often with large numbers of windows to catch as much of the thin winter sunlight as possible. They were whitewashed inside each fall as both a sanitary measure and to further amplify the light factor inside the building.
When electricity became more available many began to light their laying houses to stimulate egg production in the darker, gray months. It is a practice that continues with good effect though not always done well.
For greatest benefit, henhouse lighting need not be elaborate nor blinding, but does need to be brought into use in a more thoughtful manner:
- A single clear 40-watt bulb should be adequate lighting for up to 100 square feet of housing. One bulb might then be enough for a small house.
- Be careful with long life and shatter-resistant bulbs as they may be treated with substances that could be harmful to birds coming into contact with any shards of broken bulbs. There are bulbs now that produce light wavelengths comparable to those of sunlight that can be used to benefit both growing birds and layers.
- The house, if it is to be lighted, should be lighted to the length of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer.
- Artificial lighting could come on early in the morning and go off well before natural sunlight ends each day. The hens should also be held in the house until mid-morning, when there is good daylight outside. It is also a measure that facilitates egg care and collection. There is an old rule of thumb that hens that don’t lay before 10 a.m. should be culled. Henhouse lighting should be timed to prevent the house from going dark with the hens not settled in and on the roosts.
Traditionally, pullet chicks were started as early as mid-February to be of good size and at point-of-lay as the fall season begins. Pullets will reach point-of-lay between 22 and 26 weeks of age with the lighter-weight egg laying breeds beginning lay at the earliest ages. Some of the larger brown egg laying breeds may not reach point-of-lay until 26 weeks of age, and poor quality starting and growing rations will both delay the start of laying and the level of egg production.
Generally, the later a bird is started in the year, the slower its growth pattern. This is due to the declining hours of sunlight, the growing chill of the seasons and the need for more feedstuffs to go to the bird to simply maintain condition. Development of the reproductive tract will be slowed the most, and the darkening of quarters has been used to boost frame growth and feather quality at the expense of sexual maturity. It has even been used to “turn off” older layers and push them into a molt.
A spring-hatched pullet should begin a laying cycle of 9 to 13 months’ duration sometime the following fall. A natural molt will then occur late the next summer or fall. The molt is not seasonal, but comes at the end of each 9 to 13-month laying cycle, and its onset will hinge on when the females started laying.
The next laying cycle may be somewhat hastened with lighting and added protein in the ration, but the birds must have some rest to renew and restore their bodily reserves drawn down in the season of lay. Egg production per bird is usually less in the second half, and early-molting birds should be culled as poor performers. Expect to have culled at least 10 to 15 percent of the flock by the end of each laying cycle.
Going into the cold months, poultry housing needs some weatherizing, but should not be swathed in plastic and insulation like some sort of cocoon. Good bird health will depend upon regular exchanges of fresh air within the poultry house. A building with a strong ammonia smell is a poultry house where health problems arise.
Chickens can withstand a substantial amount of cold if protected from dampness and drafts. They will largely harden to it if allowed to experience the natural changing of the seasons. Not that long ago, virtually all poultry housing, with the exception of brooder houses, was cold housing. Laying house heating can increase egg production somewhat and fertility levels very early in the year, but its cost-effectiveness must be determined very carefully.
In weatherizing any livestock building, it must be borne in mind that the birds or animals experience that environment at very different levels than their human caretakers. Humans experience such environments largely at head and shoulder level. Chickens live at floor and roost level and it is there where sources of chilling drafts and other problems must be addressed. Even a very small popped knot hole along the north wall at roost level can cause a lot of winter problems if it goes undetected.
Heavy plastic sheeting can be used to cover doors, windows and pen fronts before the cold weather arrives and will seal out drafts. Again, be careful not to seal up too tightly lest air quality issues develop. I have seen pen fronts covered with old feed sacking with good results, and it can then be taken down and disposed of each spring.
The birds are not hothouse orchids to be protected at all costs. They will come through the cold fairly well if allowed to adapt to it as the seasons change. There are no grasshoppers for them to chase through the snow, but as long as they are protected from chilling drafts and kept out of the mud and slop they will fare quite well.
Many now use what is termed a deep litter system in the floors of their winter housing, generally over dirt floors. Early in the fall a layer of bedding material at least to the depth of 4 inches will be applied. This may be shavings, chopped straw or a similar cost-effective material. Straw should be chopped as problems with dampness build up under long-fibered litter material can occur.
I believe it is best to give the henhouse a good cleaning and the house floor a healthy sprinkling of ag lime before applying the litter material. Producers lay down litter material at varying depths with 4 inches being a minimum. A fresh topping up layer can be applied as needed, and wet spots in the floor litter can be lifted with a fork as detected and added to the manure stack or compost pile. Spring and fall used to be the traditional times for a full clean out and the laying down of a new application of lime.
Those first pretty days of spring and last days of fall warmth would have me sent to the henhouse with pitchfork, scraper and scoop shovel in hand. When all of the surfaces were scraped down, everything would get a fresh coat of lime whitewash — including me. A continuing practice to keep the floor litter fluffed and fresh is to strew a bit of scratch grain atop it each day. The scratching action of the birds turns the floor litter.
Scratch grain is something that I believe can be overfed. Chickens prefer the grains to their complete laying ration (I think of it sort of as candy for chickens). If allowed to overconsume scratch grains, their diets will become unbalanced and egg laying performance will decline.
A suggested practice is to offer scratch grain only at the end of the day, in amounts that the birds will clean up in 20 minutes or so. It will be the needed incentive to draw ranging birds back into the house at the end of the day. This light feeding of grain at the end of the day can give them a bit of added food energy and body heat generated by digestion for the winter night to come.
A supplemental feeding practice that will help to maintain rich yolk color through the winter months is to offer the hens a bit of good alfalfa hay two or three times each week. Flakes of such hay can be suspended just above the birds’ heads in mesh bags or basket-type feeders. It will prevent waste and give the birds some added stimulus. Green, leafy hay and other dietary boosters and treats offered on the ground are often trod in and wasted.
Stalks of collard greens and other greens crops can be suspended above the birds’ heads in a similar manner. They too will boost yolk color.
Non-flavored cod liver oil and wheat germ oil, and more recently, olive oil, have been used to bolster winter layer rations. Once or twice each week a couple of pencil-thick lines of one of these can be drizzled atop troughs filled with the birds’ regular laying ration. A quart of wheat or oats, to which a cup of one of these has been added forms a ration bonus that can boost winter performance and bird appearance when offered once or twice weekly.
Water has nutritional value, it aids in digestion, and the birds must have it for their health and well-being. We once had a waterer that dated from early in the last century. It was heavily insulated and was filled by turning it on its side and pouring water in through the drinking fountain. It never froze, weighed a lot, and it was a far cry from so much of the plasticized feeding and watering equipment that we see now.
There are still metal waterers, along with some plastic ones, that will hold 10 gallons or more of water. They will all freeze up on a January night in eastern Missouri. I have seen plastic watering bowls with attached heating coils and pan-looking heaters on which to set metal waterers. Both require an electrical outlet in or near the henhouse and are generally only effective down to about 10°F. Some will provide the birds with heated water, claiming numerous benefits. Water drawn from a deep well will have a temperature of about 55°F — the constant soil temperature below the frost line.
A winter watering system I have seen employed over the years is to set 3-gallon or larger watering pans into shallow pits or old truck tires. Beneath them is a layer of sawdust or other insulating material and such material is also packed in tightly around them. It will measurably slow the freezing process if they are well maintained.
Here it can get very cold including a fairly regular early-March cold snap that will turn your head around and give you fits when tending poultry breeding pens. I water twice a day in black rubber water pans (they are inexpensive, durable, and a capful of hydrogen peroxide will keep them free of algae in the summer) that will hold from 1 to 3 gallons of water — no need to overwater in cold months. The second watering is done later in the afternoon to give the birds a good drink before roosting up for a long winter night. They can be freed of any accumulating ice by flipping them over and stomping on them or by sharply tapping them with a rubber mallet.
Breeds with rose and pea combs and smaller wattles are much less likely to experience freeze damage, and some breeds were developed for cold weather.
Tips for Preventing Freezing Damage
One of the real concerns of winter poultry care is protecting the birds from freezing damage to combs and wattles. Such damage is not just unsightly, but can cause loss of tissue such as comb points due to sloughing following freeze injury. Such birds can no longer be exhibited in competition, and until fully recovered are generally infertile as the birds may run a fever as part of the healing process.
I have bred from many a bird showing freeze damage to the head appendages, but it can be many months until fertility is fully restored to an injured male. The males are more vulnerable because when on the roost they don’t tuck their heads under a wing as hens do. It is the male’s nature to keep the head up and to remain more alert.
Here are some points of winter care and management that can help address this potential problem:
- In those areas where winter weather is most extreme, breed choice is the place to begin. Some breeds have large combs and wattles that will make them vulnerable to such injury.
A veteran breeder with experience in cold climes once outlined to me an interesting factor in his selection process. When evaluating single comb birds he sought those with a wider base to their combs. This, he believed, gave increased blood flow into the comb, keeping it warmer.
Breeds with rose and pea combs and smaller wattles are much less likely to experience freeze damage, and some breeds were developed for cold weather. The prime example of this is the Chantecler breed that originated in Canada. The Wyandotte also has northern origins. There are rose-combed varieties available in breeds from the Rhode Island Red to the Leghorn and Wyandotte, though many of them currently have rare or minor status. Some old-timers also favored black-feathered breeds in very cold climes.
- Select winter watering equipment that is less likely to cause water to splash on the face, comb and wattles. Many farmers position waterers so that the birds will have to reach up and into them to drink, reducing splashing.
- Combs and wattles can be protected on very cold nights by a liberal application of petroleum jelly, but be careful when applying it around the nostrils.
- Because males are especially vulnerable to this type of injury, in extreme weather it might be necessary to relocate them to warmer quarters.
- Round roost poles are more apt to cause freeze damage to toes and feet because the birds must grasp them and cannot fully hunker down on their feet and legs to warm them.
Two-by-fours and two-by-sixes turned wide side up are better choices for roosting. The boards’ edges should be slightly rounded. The birds can better nestle down on their feet and legs on the wider surfaces.
- With heavy breed brown egg layers, roost height should be no greater than 18 inches or so. This is to prevent foot and leg injury as the birds come down off of the roosts, a primary cause of a condition known as bumblefoot.
- Baffling and offset doorways into poultry houses and the openings into the sleeping and nesting areas in smaller growing and breeding units will greatly reduce drafts. It is a practice that also helps to create a warmer and more secure microclimate for the birds.
By Kelly Klober. This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A.