• By Adam Probst, Extension Agent

Agriculture & Natural Resources

Winter care of your laying hens

Source: Dr. Richard Brzozowski; Univ. of Maine Poultry Specialist Keeping laying hens productive through the winter months means keeping them well fed, well-watered, healthy, and comfortable. Below is a checklist of management tips that is designed to assist the farmer/grower in keeping their farm flock comfortable. Any stress on the birds could force a molt and the decline or end of egg laying.

Provide 14 to 16 hours of light per day for your laying hens. There is no advantage to supplying more light than this. Place lights on a timer for convenience and consistency. Keep light bulbs clean for light quality and quantity.

Provide two to three square feet of floor space per bird. Birds need ample space for their comfort, reduced stress and ease of movement. Also provide comfortable roosts so that all birds can roost at the same time. Provide at least six to eight inches of linear roost space per hen. Roosts should be 1.5-3 inches in diameter. Round stock is preferred. Clean tree branches with bark work fine as roosts.

There needs to be an exchange of air for laying hens to be healthy. This can be accomplished with intake or exhaust fan(s) or natural ventilation. If the smell of ammonia is evident, adequate ventilation is lacking. An exhaust fan with a thermostat is a reasonable investment and works well without causing drafts. Ammonia tape can be used to monitor and detect high levels of ammonia. Ammonia levels in the poultry house/pen should be kept below 20 parts per million (ppm).

Laying hens begin to slow egg production when temperatures drop below 55 degrees F. Provide adequate warmth for the birds. Keep a thermometer or sensor inside the pen at bird level to monitor the temperature. Try to maintain a temperature at least 40 degrees F during cold spells. Be aware of any potential fire hazards when using heaters and heat lamps.

Monitor feed use through the winter. Compare these records with feed use in other seasons. Supply a 14 to 17 percent crude protein layer ration so the birds are never without feed. Also, provide ample clean water daily to the flock. Keep water from freezing with specially designed electric heaters, warm bricks placed inside the watering container or frequent changing. Watch for leaks on waterers that freeze.

Birds will suffer if they are without water for more than 10 hours. If a nipple watering system is used, consider changing to copper nipples as the plastic nipples might break with freezing temperatures.

Birds can get frostbite on extremities (combs, wattles and toes). Birds should be kept from walking on snow and ice. To help prevent frostbite in small flocks, apply petroleum jelly to wattles and combs. Hens naturally clean themselves by dust bathing. A shallow wood or metal box with three to four inches of clean sand, wood ash or a mix of sand and wood ash would be a good addition to the hen house or coop for the winter months. Dust bathing helps deter external parasites and can provide comfort to hens. If space allows, a kiddy pool might make a good dust bath container for hens.

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