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Why Don't Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?

New chicken keepers usually start with baby chicks in the spring. The excitement of the chicks growing into adults, then that first egg in late summer or early fall is undeniable. And the eggs keep coming all through that first winter, right into the following spring and summer.

But that next fall, all of sudden egg production drops and the hens stop laying eggs. What's up with that? They laid through their first winter.

And that my friends is the way of the world.  Although not all chickens stop laying each winter, most do. They generally slow down or stop in late summer or early fall when the annual molting season begins, and then shut down their egg factory until the following spring. 

But why? Why don't chickens lay eggs in the winter?

Although there can be various reasons why your chickens have stopped laying eggs including age, poor nutrition or stress, the most common reason you'll stop finding eggs in your nesting boxes is shorter days.


Why Don't Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?

Looking at it logically, it doesn't make sense for chickens to lay eggs in the winter. They need all their energy and resources to recover from regrowing new feathers and to keep warm. 

Wild birds don't lay their eggs in the winter either - and for good reason. There are limited food sources and finding water can be tough.  They have a hard enough time keeping themselves sheltered and warm without having to worry about babies too! 

While cold temperatures can reduce egg production, it's predominantly the shorter days that cause a reduction in laying. In order to understand that, it's important to understand what triggers egg laying in the first place. 

What Causes a Chicken to Lay an Egg

Essentially it's daylight that signals to a chicken that she needs to lay an egg. As an aside, chickens don't sense the light through their eyes - and even blind chickens will lay eggs. The light is absorbed through the chicken's feathers and skin directly into the brain. 

As long as the chicken is exposed to at least twelve hours of constant daylight (with 16 hours being optimal for egg production), she'll lay an egg roughly every 26 hours. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that providing more than 16 hours of daylight don't do anything to increase egg production further.

As long as the chicken gets the prescribed hours of daylight, the neurons in the pituitary gland in the brain secrete three hormones essential to sending a signal to the ovary to release an egg yolk into the oviduct: the follicle stimulating hormone, gonadotropin-releasing hormone and luteinizing hormone.

Then when days start to get shorter in the fall, the pineal gland and lypothalamus receive the signal to decrease egg production. More melatonin is also produced by the chicken's body during the longer periods of darkness. That melatonin sends a signal to the body that it's time to rest up and stop laying eggs.


So How Do I Get Eggs in the Winter? 

Once you get used to fresh, delicious eggs from your backyard, it's tough to go back to the store bought eggs. Fresh eggs are definitely better! 

So what to do when your chickens stop laying eggs in the winter? Well there are a couple of things you can do to ensure fresh eggs year round.

  • If you have the space, then adding baby chicks to your flock each spring will ensure eggs each winter from them while your older hens take their much-needed break. 
  • You can freeze extra eggs in the summer when you can't keep up with production to use through the winter
  • You can choose breeds known for high production. Certain breeds tend to be better winter layers including the so-called hybrid "production" breeds such as Red and Black Star, and I'm told that Sussex, Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red and Faverolle all tend to lay through the winter
  • Consider adding a few ducks to your flock. Ducks often will lay right through the winter - for five or six years! 

* I don't recommend lighting your coop. Hens that are forced to lay year round (like commercially raised layers) without giving their bodies a break can be more prone to reproductive issues such as egg binding, egg peritonitis, vent prolapse and various types of ovarian cancer.  

Commercial layers are generally only kept for 18 months to two years then disposed of, so those health issues rarely arise in them... but for us backyard chicken keepers, our girls will hopefully be around for years and years...so think twice before lighting your coop.

Sorry for getting kind of science-geeky on you in this article, but chickens are fascinating creatures, and I think the fact that they lay eggs day in and day out for most of the year is pretty fascinating as well.

So in summary, chickens bodies naturally adapt to the increase and decrease in hours of daylight to allow them to adjust their egg production to what's optimal for them.

And trust me, I feel your pain during each winter's "egg drought" although I do generally get a few new chicks or ducklings each spring to lessen the pain. 

But even if egg production has stopped for you, don't despair! Winter doesn't last forever and before you know it, spring will be here and you'll have more eggs than you know what to do with again.

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