In this 16-part series, Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm draws upon her expertise as a farmer, agrarian, mother, and writer to provide the information you need to raise your own backyard chickens.
Words by: Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm
Like most reproducing creatures of the natural world, a hen is programmed to lay her eggs at a strategic time: spring. If she were given the chance to sit on her eggs, they would hatch with the whole summer ahead of them, giving the little chicks time to grow feathers before winter hits. If you are able to let your hens “go broody,” as this process is called, then you’ll find that it’s most common for them to sit on their eggs during the warm months.
However, due to their mutually beneficial relationship with humans, we’ve asked hens to continue laying eggs all year round in exchange for food during the coldest and darkest months. Hens know when winter has arrived based on the number of daylight hours. As the days get shorter, hens begin to molt, losing feathers to make new ones for winter. As they molt, their egg production will begin to drop, too. This is a sign to their bodies to rest and store up their energy and nutrients. Winter is coming.
Rest for animals that produce food is important. Farmers give rest to milking cows, allowing them a few months between their last milking and their next freshening. This period is also known as "drying off." For the same reasons, chicken keepers should give rest to their laying hens. How long of a rest you allow is something you’ll need to decide, balancing the economics of keeping hens that aren’t laying with the energy bill and ethics of adding a light to encourage them to lay.
To humanely keep hens laying through the winter, you will need to ensure that your coop is both insulated and well lit. Offer as much natural light to your birds as possible. In areas with heavy snow, this is especially important, as the birds will not be able to spend much time outside (like humans, chickens generally don’t like the feeling of cold, icy snow on their bare feet).
Passive solar is a great natural, energy-free way of helping the birds along. Some people like to build the south- or east-facing walls or roof of their coop from corrugated plastic. This sort of plastic is thick enough to withstand a rough winter, but will allow light into the coop. It’s a good idea to insulate any walls and parts of the roof that are not south- or east-facing so that what heat does come into the coop can stay rather than flying right out.
Once you have implemented some passive heat and solar upgrades to your coop, you can consider electric options to keep the hens warm and comfortable. A heat lamp is great for exceptionally freezing nights and cold spells. For reference, the night temperature drops as low as -30F in Vermont, and despite having never added a heat lamp to our coop, we have never lost a chicken to the cold. Instead of adding a heat lamp, we keep their coop well insulated, the birds well fed, and the number of birds in our flock just high enough to keep them cozy. Frostbite, however, is a real concern, and hens and roosters with large combs are the most vulnerable. Be sure there are no wind currents coming through the coop by making it as airtight as an outdoor building can be. The benefit of not using a heat lamp is saving energy and money, as well as eliminating the very real risk of fire. If you find yourself worrying about your lamp-less flock during the winter, it might be worth putting a low wattage bulb inside their coop; something to take the edge off. Just take extra care to ensure that the light is hung safely and securly.
To encourage laying during the winter, you must ensure that your hens are comfortable, not overly hot, and have a well-lit coop to lay in. For the latter, you’ll need to add a white lightbulb to their living space when the sunlight hours start to dwindle in autumn. A light that can be set on a timer and turns on automatically when the sun sets is ideal, but a simple manually operated light switch works, too. Beginning at those first early sunsets of fall, start turning on the light for an hour each evening, gradually adding an additional hour or two every few weeks. By winter, you may be adding up to four or five hours of artificial daylight. Do not keep this light on all night, as this will torture the birds. They need rest, and won’t sleep well or at all if exposed to constant artificial light. Be sure to give them at least the requisite eight hours of darkness.
No matter how warm and comfortable you keep your hens, their lay will inevitably slow in the winter. That’s where Pete and Gerry’s comes in: their mission is to be there for you when that happens; to be second best. When the daylight starts to return (even when it might still feel like winter outside), your hens will start their lay again in earnest. By March, your egg boxes will once again be full, and you’ll have a renewed appreciation for the seasonality of all food.
It's especially important to keep your hens occupied and happy through the winter months. Read on to get Kate MacLean's recommendations for preventing and treating chicken illnesses and boredom in the cold months and beyond.
A note from Pete and Gerry's:
For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.
September 24, 2021
Hello 1st time chicken owner
What an exciting adventure, Dawn! It's such a great experience to raise your own, and we hope these tips will help!
June 26, 2020
There is a lot of great information about how to keep chickens warm in the winter, but what about keeping them cool in the brutal Louisiana summer. What temperature range are they comfortable in?
Hi Lauren, that's a great question you bring up. Shade structures are a great, low-cost way to help keep chickens cool in the summer. Just by giving them a place to escape the sun. You could also think about building the coop somewhere that gets a decent amount of shade itself and making it a lighter color that won't absorb as much sunlight.
January 09, 2020
You all are awesome and we absolutely love supporting businesses such as yours. Thank you!!
Hi Danielle, thank you! We love supporting our small family farms, and couldn't do it without you!
December 24, 2019
my little rescued hen with the injured leg continues to pay rent (several eggs per week) her leg is better but she cannot return to the flock. i was looking for a companion for her but no luck. would be great to get an older hen that doesn't lay. love you emails and recipes
December 26, 2019
Hi Louise. Thank you for reaching out. We're glad to hear your hen is getting better. It can take some time to heal. Hope you're able to find a friend for her at the right time.
this was interesting to know.
October 28, 2019
October 04, 2019