During winter, much of nature goes dormant, waiting for spring's arrival. While laying hens obviously don't hibernate, many stop producing eggs or slow down considerably. You can fool Mother Nature, to a certain degree, if you want your hens to continue laying when it's cold outside.
The Right Breed
If you live in a cold climate, it's important to purchase chickens who do well in winter. Certain breeds just aren't hardy in the cold, experiencing higher mortality rates in winter along with easily frostbitten combs. Look for heavily feathered breeds, built for surviving severely cold conditions. Avoid chicken breeds originating in warm regions. Well-known winter-hardy breeds to consider for your flock include Araucanas, Australorps, Brahmas, Cochins, Delawares, Hamburgs, Hollands, Jersey Giant, Orpingtons, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Sussex and wyandottes. Oddly enough, the naked neck, which does indeed boast a hairless neck, does well in cold weather.
As winter approaches, you'll notice fewer eggs in the nest boxes. While when a hen stops laying for the winter depends on her age, breed and temperature, she should start up again come spring. Since hens can only produce so many eggs in a lifetime, older hens might not produce come spring. If she's a pet, that probably isn't an issue. While older hens produce fewer eggs, the ones they do pop out are larger. If you want egg production all winter, you'll need to install lighting in the coop, turning it on as the days grow shorter to fool your birds.
While you might worry about your feathered friends out there in the cold, there's no reason to heat the henhouse. Chickens will adapt to the cold. If you did heat the coop regularly and the heat failed for some reason, hens unaccustomed to the cold could just drop dead. If you're concerned about frostbite, rub some petroleum jelly on your hens' combs for prevention.
Food and Water
Because of the cold, you might want to up your hens' rations during the winter months. Along with commercial feeds, cracked corn can provide some internal heat when the temperature dips. Chickens tend to gobble it up. Your hens need fresh, clean water available during waking hours, which isn't easy in the dead of winter. If you do have electricity in your coop, you can install a heated waterer. If you don't, take the waterer out when your chickens are roosting at night and put it in a place where it won't freeze or empty it for filling the next day. You must replace it very early in the morning, when the hens start their day.
- domestic hen image by hazel proudlove from Fotolia.com