Assuring Winter Egg Production, by A.J.

Canned, dried, frozen, and preserved foods are excellent for winter survival. And they always have been. A fresh bit of produce or dairy, however, can go a long way in keeping you healthy by providing fresh vitamins. And they break up the monotony of menus, as the cold days drift by.

Eggs are a prime food for such circumstances. Packed into each egg are a quality assortment of vitamins, protein, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids that are fresh, and simply a gold-mine during a long winter of canned goods and stockpiled food. I personally consider fresh eggs are one of my most valuable winter survival foods.

Eggs from a healthy free-range hen will give you:

  • Protein. About 6 grams per egg. Approximately equal to 1 ounce of meat.
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Beta Carotene
  • Folate
  • Omega-3
  • Omega-6
  • Choline
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B2
  • Iodine
  • Antioxidants (lutein and zeaxanthin)

…and many more nutrients, which makes a big difference when the garden is under the snow and fresh vegetables are months away. Especially when vitamin supplements are hard or even impossible to get.

For those of you who have chickens, you know how egg supply drops drastically—and sometimes stops—in winter. I’ve raised egg layers over a decade. Implementing the right strategies, we have a steady daily production of about 10 eggs per every 20 hens, all throughout the winter.

Here are my three tips:

#1. Lighting

The most common thing you’ll hear for year round egg production is to use artificial lighting to fool the hens into thinking it’s still summer. I personally have only used lights during one winter. I used solar powered lights. In a grid down situation I don’t want to use my limited power resources on my chickens. I’d rather use them for other things. Nor would I want light advertising their presence and drawing anyone passing by in the woods at night who might want to help themselves to an easy meal with my flock. I don’t live as far north as some of you, so I do have more hours of natural sunlight per day and can get away with not using artificial lighting easier than most.

It is indeed what commercial farmers use for a steady production, and a good option for some. I personally decided it was a poor use of my resources, too high-maintenance, and not as easy for a long-term survival situation as the next two strategies below.

#2. Protein

While it may seem counter productive to feed chickens protein, just so you can get protein back, it’s not. And it’s a very tried-and-true strategy from before the factory farming industries started and changed the industry. If you go back 100 years in America’s farming history, you’ll find that the youngest son often had the job of hunting pests and predators during the winter to feed to the chickens for protein. A lack of steady protein after the crickets, grasshoppers and other insects disappear with the first heavy frosts is one of the three reasons laying stops in the winter months. Feeding on the fresh carcasses kept the chickens laying, and, as a side benefit, it gave real life practice that honed the hunting and sniper skills of the child to razor sharp.

Pests and predators vary from state to state, but everything from possums and raccoons to coyotes and wolves are fair game. Dried meal-worms from your local feed store work as well, but are obviously not a reliable source during any grid-down situations when supply chains are weak.

#3. Biological Clocks

If I could only implement one of these tips, I would choose this one. It has by far made the greatest difference of anything I’ve tried.

Lets suppose you’ve had your hens for a couple of years. As summer is winding down, their bodies start slowing production and getting ready to molt, and layer on fat for the cold dark nights. It’s hard to override this natural cycle without a lot of time and effort on your part. So, what should you do?

It has to start in the Spring. If you hatch out a fresh batch of chicks at just the right time in Spring, then they will become mature just as Autumn starts to set in. Their hormones will be coming in so strongly as they gear up for “adulthood” that they will override the seasonal down-shift as their hormones reach the peak and they go into full gear.

The Best Time for Hatching

Now here’s the tricky part. Short days come at different months in different parts of the country, so you have to figure out for yourself what the best date is to hatch your chicks so they are at their optimal hormone peak at the time laying usually tapers off in your area. Or you can ask a knowledgeable neighbor in your region.

Here’s how I figured out the prime time for me to hatch chicks every year.

First I kept meticulous eggs laying records for a few years. I pinpointed the 2-week time in fall when production slowed.

Second, I figured back 6 months and marked the date on my calendar. Why 6 months? 5 months is average for a chick to reach laying age, but I found through experience that for optimal winter laying it works best if you give it an extra month.

For you folks who order chicks by mail or through the feed-store, simply have them arrive at that time.

I hatch my own eggs in an incubator. So, after I went back 6 months and got the exact date I wanted my chicks, I then went back 21 more days. That’s the date I started my incubator full of eggs.

Using this method about ¾ of my spring-hatch flock lays eggs steady through the winter. Granted, the eggs are small to start, but they quickly get up to full size.

Often when hatching chicks early on your date it will still be very cold. In short-term emergency situations, or in TEOTWAWKI, electricity is often scarce, and even if you do have it, you may not have enough to want to power a heat lamp over the chicks all the time. Wood stoves are always an option for the first few days. What I have found to work the best though, is farmer Justin Rhodes’ method of simply using a cardboard box at nights. You can place the young chick’s container in an extra room in your house or a warm barn. Then you take a box just barely larger than your chicks when they huddle tight together, and poke a couple tiny holes in it. At night you simply place it over top of your chicks in their enclosure, and they can easily keep themselves warm with mere body heat in a tiny area like that. Particularly after they are 3+ days old. That cuts your heat-lamp troubles and electricity needs for them in half!

I’ve used the cardboard box method during the nights successfully in power outage situations, and have never lost a chick due to the lack of a heat-lamp.

So to round things up, of the three tips mentioned above, I implement the second and third together, and have excellent results. All three implemented simultaneously would be ideal. I also let my chickens out of the coop to free-range whenever possible for whatever they can find during the winter afternoons whenever the dog is available and can keep predators away. And that makes a difference in production as well as the quantity of fatty acids and vitamins in the eggs. (if your hens spend time in the sun, studies have shown their eggs will be significantly higher in vitamin D).

A word about the old laying hens

If you do hatch out chicks strategically every Spring, as I do, then you end up with a lot of older hens. Hens are most productive for the first two years of their lives. Every year I have three ages of hens in my flock: my young “winter-laying” pullets, last year’s hens, and then those that are just getting older than two years.

Throughout the Fall and Winter I butcher the last group; all those older than two years. They are slightly tough, but they make the richest bone broth when simmered all day, and keep the soup pot full throughout the cold months. We butcher 1 or 2 a week as needed, and they usually last us until Spring—just in time to hatch out a batch of fresh chicks for next Winter’s laying hens.

For those of you who want to read further, or build a good farm library, my personal top two recommendations for books on chickens are:

  • Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow. It’s a classic handbook for a very good reason. If you’ve never raised chickens, this would be my top recommendation. For those of you who have experience it does make a handy reference book for when the Internet in not available and you need to look something up.

  • Pastured Poultry Profits, by Joel Salatin. This book is primarily about meat-chickens as a farm enterprise, but it has some great all-purpose chicken information, as well as one chapter on raising egg-layers in the back of the book.

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