Winter for the Laying Hens
The growing year for our laying hens is divided into two seasons – active grazing and winter. During the active grazing season, we are rotating our hens through a series of pasture areas with our movable electric netting. Depending on the rate of recovery on the forage and the grazing pressure from the hens, a new area is given about every 7 days.
In the winter though, the forage is dormant and the rotational grazing comes to an end. But, that doesn’t mean the hens aren’t still foraging and getting some green in their diet.
Winter presents more challenges than just grazing – cold temperatures and biting wind, frozen water, hungry predators, boredom – are just a few.
Here’s how we tackle these challenges with the goal always to keep our hens healthy, occupied, well fed and watered.
Shelter, Water, Nesting Boxes
Our hens are overwintering in our 20′ x 40′ chicken hoophouse, otherwise known as the Beatles House built in the spring of 2020. This structure is used for our meat chickens, but the house is empty over the winter so the laying hens were transitioned to the hoophouse over a period of a few weeks in December 2021. Laying hens don’t like change so we moved them slowly in a series of many steps – first feeding them in the hoophouse, then moving nesting boxes one at a time over a few days, etc. Finally, when the hens had all their “stuff” in place, we began closing them in at night inside the hoophouse. If we didn’t close them in for the night, the hens would huddle together outside on the ground where their former shelter sat. Despite having a perfectly safe, protected shelter just 15′ away to roost overnight, the hens would choose to stay outside on the ground. As I said, chickens do not like change!
After a couple nights of closing them in the hoophouse, the hens decided to call their new place home returning to the hoophouse on their own each night.
The hoophouse has their nesting boxes, heated water, roost for overnight and plenty of room to shelter if the weather is bad. Deep bedding that is continually composting provides some heat for the hoophouse plus the body heat of the hens helps raise the temp. The eggs laid fresh each morning do not freeze even when temps have dipped below zero.
Ranging, Foraging & Keeping the Hens Busy
Hens like to keep busy. During the warmer months, the hens have so much to do! Foraging throughout their pasture, catching bugs, scratching to find any yummy morsel in the soil – they are always on the move until they roost overnight. Over the winter, we try to provide multiple options for the hens to keep harvesting their own snacks. It’s healthy for them and keeps them on the move.
If there is not too much snow on the ground, the hens are roaming over their large area we’ve designate for their winter pasture. The area is approximately 1/4 acre which is plenty of space to range and is surrounded by electric netting. We use Certified Organic in-the-shell sunflower seeds to provide a seek and find snack for the hens. Spreading them far and wide over their grazing area draws all the hens outside to hunt and peck for the seeds. The hens are only allowed in the grazing area during the day and the area is closed at night. If snow is completely covering the ground, the hens do not have much interest in using the area.
We also give them Certified Organic round bales of straw/hay for bedding and foraging. They LOVE their bales and when the weather begins to transition to spring and the ground is wet, round bales of straw are key to keeping their feet dry. But, the bales can also be climbed, used for a nap, pecked at and foraged. The bales are good entertainment especially when there is snow on the ground.
It won’t be too much longer before the weather starts to change and the active grazing season returns for all our livestock. The hens will be at their fence anxiously waiting for us to let them out into their first real grazing of the season. That is always a wonderful day.
But, until then, we’ll keep them as content and healthy as possible so we can keep providing you with delicious BBF Eggs!