two chickens foraging for bugs in the snow

Do I Need to Change Feeds in the Winter?

It is perfectly natural for your hens to significantly decrease or completely stop laying eggs in the winter.  Since these birds are not producing, you may wonder if you need to switch feeds during this time.  In this article, we are going to discuss some various reasons why you may or may not want to switch feeds during the winter season.

How Do Hens Use Calcium in Bone Development?

First, let’s discuss one of the most important nutrients in a layer diet – calcium!  Most of us know that laying hens need a large amount of calcium in order to produce high quality eggs.  Most importantly, calcium is the primary component of eggshells and is directly related to keeping your eggshells strong and your eggs safe by preventing cracks that can introduce unwanted contaminants.  So, what happens to all of that calcium when your birds aren’t using it to produce eggshells?

Chickens and most other types of birds have a unique skeletal structure that is strong, but also needs to be lightweight enough to fly.  Most of our domesticated chickens do not fly, but they still have the same type of skeletal structure.  Within the skeleton of a female chicken is a specialized type of bone called medullary bone.  Medullary bone is a woven bone that acts as a reservoir for calcium.  Female birds can store calcium in their medullary bone, pump the calcium out for egg production, and then reabsorb extra calcium to be used later.  This entire process is hormone driven and most active during times when hens are laying eggs.  However, even when your hens are not laying eggs, they are still building medullary bone and they are also using calcium to regenerate and strengthen structural bone.  

See also  Caring for a Pregnant Rabbit

Should I Keep My Hens on a Layer Feed all Winter?

Let’s discuss the age of your flock and how that affects the need for a layer feed all winter.  If you have young birds (first winter) in your flock, those birds are likely to still produce eggs all winter long.  In all my years of chicken keeping, my first-winter girls have produced all winter, even though I provide no supplemental light and no supplemental heat.  This is because those young hens are at their reproductive peak.  Even my second-winter girls will still provide an egg or two each week.  However, my older girls (3+ years) usually take the whole winter off!  

Since my flock is mixed ages and my younger girls are still producing eggs, I do not change feeds in the winter.  I continue providing 24/7 access to a complete layer feed all year.  Continuing with the same feed provides the calcium my first- and second-winter girls need to produce eggs.  It also provides calcium for my older girls to regenerate and strengthen their bones so they can get ready to start laying again in the spring.   

When Should I Switch Away from a Layer Feed in Winter?

If you have an older flock and you are getting 0 eggs for an extended period of time (greater than 4-6 weeks), then you may consider switching to a different feed.  A high-quality grower or maintenance feed, like our 16% Flock Maintainer, is a great option for mature, non-producing birds.  Just make sure to switch back to a complete layer feed a couple of weeks before you believe your hens will start laying again.  

See also  Caring for a Pregnant Pig

Another awesome option would be using Henhouse Reserve® all winter.  Many of you use Henhouse Reserve® all year but, if you haven’t tried it, winter may be a great time to start.  Henhouse Reserve® has multiple, independent sources of calcium, which allow your hens to self-regulate their calcium intake.  It also has lots of whole grains, which are very popular additions to our flock’s diet in the winter.  However, do not feel like you must switch feeds!  Remember, even our old, non-producing girls are still using some of the calcium in a layer feed to regenerate and strengthen their bones in the winter.  It is okay to continue with the same layer feed as long as your hens are still young enough that they will begin laying again in the spring.

How Can I Keep My Chickens Laying All Winter?

Many of you have asked how to keep your hens producing during the winter.  If continual production is important to you, there are definitely some things to keep in mind.  

Egg production is light sensitive.  A hen needs between 14-18 hours of light per day to stay at peak egg production.  This is a primal instinct that relates directly to spring and summer seasons when resources are plentiful and the odds of successfully raising baby chicks are high.  If you want to keep your hens producing during the winter, add supplemental light so that your birds receive about 16-18 hours of “daylight” per day.  

Another sure-fire way to continue getting eggs in the winter is to continually add younger birds to your flock.  As mentioned earlier, first-winter hens will usually keep laying all winter long, so if you get new chicks or young pullets each spring, you can keep getting fresh eggs all winter.  Just be aware, this is usually where the first part of the “chicken math” equation starts!  

See also  How to Feed Ewes Through Breeding, Pregnancy and Lactation

We hope these guidelines are helpful as you continue on your chicken-keeping journey.  At Kalmbach Feeds, we love our chickens and we know you do too.  Stay tuned!  We are so excited to continue writing about all of the topics that are important to you.  Keeping poultry is such a wonderful experience and the rewards are many!  If you have any questions about the nutrient needs of your birds, feed options, or general poultry keeping, please let us know. 

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.