It can be difficult to keep chickens healthy, hearty and laying productively through the colder fall and winter months, but it can be done, say the authors of the old-time poultry books we’ll look at in this article. Some, in fact, prefer winter chickens. Myrtle Wilcoxon was one of these.
“Chicks can endure cold weather better than extreme heat,” she wrote in Common Sense on Poultry Raising (1906). “Disease, lice and mites always come with summer months. The expense of feeding is no greater in winter. Profits can be realized from broods hatched in November, December and January.”
Winter hatches, she explained, don’t grow as fast as springtime chicks, but they feather out faster in winter months, are more solid and compact, and are just the right size to sell in April and May. The larger breeds do best, she advised, adding this astounding comment: “One winter, I raised 500 in a vacant room in the house. I could almost see them grow.”
Providing hens a balanced diet was more difficult before the advent of bagged commercial feed, and each of our authors has a different take on what makes winter chickens tick.
For basic winter feed, Wilcoxon suggested clipped clover hay, green cut bones (“the raw bones from the butcher,” but we’d probably substitute bone meal today) and wheat. Meat is also an important part of a hen’s diet.
“Lean meat, or its equivalent in insect life, is one of the essentials of egg production,” she wrote. “If meat in some form was supplied daily, there would be sufficient eggs secured, over and above the number that would be obtained without the use of meat, to not only pay for the meat but to increase the profits.”
Wilcoxon doesn’t recommend the high grain diet some other writers prefer. “On the range, the pullets have been accustomed to a large amount of exercise and a great variety of food, and taking them from the above in the fall when laying or just at laying, confining them and feeding them mostly grain is not calculated to push them right as to laying,” she wrote. “The opposite happens, and the splendid harvest of eggs in prospect vanishes.”
Wilcoxon also cautioned that some hens lay well only when they’re what might be termed as “fat,” but few or no hens lay well when they are “lean.” “[This] teaches us that most eggs come from hens well-nourished and in good condition,” she wrote.
Edward Farrington, author of The Home Poultry Book (1913), agreed that well-fed hens lay more eggs, and that getting them to eat enough to stay in prime condition is important. “It must be remembered that in midwinter the hens keep short hours,” he wrote. “With two-thirds of their time spent on the roost, they should have no time to waste during the day. The poultry keeper wants them to eat all they will, and a busy hen has a much better appetite than one which stands around idly.”
Farrington also offered a recipe for a nourishing mash, which would work as well for today’s winter chickens as it did more than a century ago:
“Try feeding a warm crumbly mash, containing a liberal amount of beef scraps or meat of any kind, once a day, two or three times a week. A teaspoonful of mustard for each 25 hens may be included in this mash, which, for the rest, may be made of two parts bran, one part of ground oats and one part of cornmeal.”
A.T. Johnson, who wrote Chickens and How to Raise Them (1909), believed that November is an especially important month in a chicken-keeper’s year. The pullets, he wrote, require special attention this month as regards feeding. He advised feeding meat scraps or green-bone and allowing some maize occasionally in the afternoons.
“Keep the houses dry and well littered and encourage scratching exercise under cover in bad weather,” he wrote. “Remember that dampness retards egg production, and the layers must be kept comfortable without being coddled. Some pea or bean meal will be a useful addition to the staple diet, and linseed meal is also highly beneficial in cold, damp weather.”
But feeding winter chickens isn’t everything. “Of course, the hens should be given all the water they need, as well as grit and oyster shells,” Farrington noted. “A box of charcoal is also worth while. It is even more important in winter than in summer to provide everything that is needed for the making of eggs and to keep the hens in first-class condition.”
A dust bath in the henhouse for winter chickens is important, too, and Farrington detailed how to make a good one.
“It is useless to expect the hens to lay well if they are preyed upon by lice, so a dust bath is very necessary, unless there is an earth floor into which the birds can burrow,” he wrote. A few upright boards can be fastened together to make a dusting place, and earth or ashes with a little lime added given for the dusting material.
Coal ashes are good, except that they tend to rob the plumage of its luster. “Hens like coal ashes and will eat many of them,” Farrington wrote. “Dry sand is often used, but the fowls seem to prefer heavier earth. It is well for the amateur to lay in a barrel of earth or road dust in the fall to be used in the course of the winter.”
Alfred Gibson, author of My Poultry Day by Day (1917), defined the term “winter eggs” this way: “When one speaks of winter eggs, what does one mean?” she asked. “Not, as the layman would assume, January, February and March, when the frost is hardest, the snow most persistent and the cold most general. The worst months of the year for eggs, as will be seen from the published prices, are October, November and December. By winter eggs, then, we mean really only the last three or four months of the year.”
Winter weather, he wrote, isn’t why hens fail to produce. “Some people seem to think the reason why hens do not lay in winter is because of the cold weather,” Gibson wrote. “That is not the real reason. If birds are warmly housed and properly fed, the winter cold, except in very severe and long, continued frosts and cold winds, won’t interfere with the egg production.”
The trick to harvesting winter eggs, our authors contend, is to keep first-year pullets instead of old hens. “The reason why birds in their second year don’t lay to any extent in the last three months of the year is that they have been moulting and haven’t yet got all the surplus vitality that leads to the creative impulse,” Gibson wrote. “Few birds lay and moult at the same time. It’s quite impossible, then, to get a generous supply of early winter eggs from fowls in their second year. It’s necessary then, to fall back upon the 9-month-old pullet for winter eggs.”
Clinton Down, author of The Liberty Manual of Chickens (1919) concurred: “Whether you hatch the eggs or whether you buy the chickens
makes no difference, the time of hatching is what counts,” Down wrote. “Light weight active breeds, like the White Leghorn, must be hatched later than heavier breeds that take a longer time to develop. March, April and May are the hatching months and the time of hatching can be set in that period according to the nature of the breed. Chicks hatched too early will moult before winter as a rule, and that means no winter eggs.”
Farrington summed up the solution for good winter-laying nicely. “Use pullets which reach the laying age before settled cold weather,” he wrote. “House them in their permanent winter quarters by the first of October; keep these quarters dry and free from drafts, but with fresh air entering in abundance at all times; keep a deep litter on the floor so that the hens will be obliged to scratch energetically and persistently for their grain; give them a wide variety of rations; and the eggs will be reasonably sure to come.”
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.