Winter Eggs

Before there were battery-cage “farms,” eggs were a seasonal food. By New Years an egg was precious. In the winter eggless gingersnaps were baked instead of layer cake. Eggs weren’t eaten for breakfast. A farmer could sell an egg in February for twice what a June one brought, and that income often made all of the difference in a farm’s ledger. A productive hen would be expected to lay about 140 eggs her first year. Egg production decreased 20% a year after that. Once in awhile a hen laid through the winter. Once in awhile a hen had a short molt and resumed laying before the others. These hens were kept and bred. But, by age three the others would be in the stew pot.

Today a hen, in a large commercial operation, is genetically designed for maximum egg production, and is kept in a warm barn, with light 14 hours a day, fed a controlled diet designed for maximum egg production, and is expected to produce upwards of 260 eggs a year, some almost 300. By the end of her second year, before her second molt, she’s spent. Most are thrown out – they aren’t even worth putting into soup. I think about this when I make decisions about how to care for my hens over the winter, and what I expect from them.

I don’t keep chickens for a cheap source of food, or even to have eggs to sell to my neighbors. I have chickens because I want fresh eggs for my own table and because I like having hens in my backyard. I have a lot of chickens for a three-person household, so they don’t have to all earn their keep. The girls in the HenCam coop are retired. Agnes, being a hybrid designed for laying, still leaves me a few eggs a week. She takes an amazingly short two-week break for a molt. But the other old hens only use the nesting boxes for a cozy place to take a rest. Agnes can’t keep me in enough eggs for breakfast, and unlike a farmer in 1921, I do want eggs and toast on cold winter mornings. So, this past spring I got a new batch of chicks, the Gems (so-called because I named them all after pretty rocks).

The Gems are a mix of breeds that mature and lay eggs at varying rates. They were slow to start laying, and then it got into late fall, with shortened daylight hours and dipping temperature. I was hoping for a few eggs this winter and not expecting to fill my egg cartons. But, they’re pullets. They’re healthy. They’re fed well. This is what I had in my egg basket yesterday:

The big egg in the back is from Agnes. The rest are from the Gems. That’s a wealth of eggs. I’m giddy with eggs. I made a double-batch of Peach Bread Pudding for my local library’s employee appreciation lunch. I had enough for a cheddar omelet for breakfast. I made vanilla banana pudding. There are hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator for snacking. And I still have two full cartons calling to me from the fridge.

This abundance isn’t going to last. Night will fall earlier. It will get colder. But, kept in the refrigerator, in a carton, an egg will remain fine for baking for up to eight weeks. If I can rein in my baking exuberance, the Gem’s eggs will see me through until late February when the spring laying season begins.

I’m often asked if I light the barn at night to encourage more egg laying. Off and on over the last fifteen years of hen-keeping, I’ve experimented with this. But what I’ve learned is that the pullets lay anyway. The really old hens won’t lay whatever you do. As for the girls in the middle, I think that they deserve a break. It’s hard work and physically depleting to lay an egg day in and day out. After the first year, a chicken molts and grows new feathers which uses up even more of the hen’s resources. They need a break from egg laying to do this. I believe that a winter’s rest sets them up to have a healthy and productive laying season, hopefully well past the age when the hens in the factory farms are discarded.


  1. I feel the same way about the subject of artificial light and I keep chickens for all the same reasons! What a joy they are.

  2. I can’t agree more – I saw last year a Chicken Farm it made me sick to my stomach. I’m so glad there are folks who don’t treat the chickens in such a horrible way but give them quality of life and production.

  3. Thank you for this lovely entry. I have 6 hens; 2 hybrids, coming up to 3 years. One is laying most days, one is not but seems well and happy. My two girls, hatched in May, are not laying and one other girl is on what seems to be a never-ending moult. She hasn’t laid for perhaps 4 weeks. Is this normal? I carry my one precious egg back each day like it was an infant!

    • This would be normal for a one-year old hen. The molt is timed to go into the winter, when the hens don’t lay anyway. Some molts are obvious, some not. Some take 2 weeks, some 2 months. You’ll be getting eggs by the end of February. However, the first molt doesn’t happen until about 18 months of age, so if your pullet is losing feathers and looking poorly, check for external parasites and check for feather picking/eating.

  4. Terry, I love your blog and especially love how you care for all your hens, Pip, Caper and Candy. There should be more “farmers” like you, the world would be a better place!

  5. Lovely post, Terry. And I love your egg-holder. Thank you for the bit of education, and for giving your opinion and explaining your choices. :)

    • That egg holder had more air time than I did on the Martha Stewart Show! I brought it with me and a producer grabbed it and put it on the kitchen counter for the cooking segment. So, I have an egg holder that is more of a celebrity than me. (For new readers of this blog, I was on Martha in 2010.)

      • I saw that Martha! the only and only time I have ever watched. I was in the final throes of getting up the nerve to get my first chickens and a friend alerted me about the show. I loved seeing you and your sweet girl, and the book. I was fascinated to see Martha herself unpacking the carton of peeps in her (palatial) barn and showing how it’s done. And what impressed me the most was the camera shots of the studio audience, all of whose members seemed to have beautiful live chickens sitting on their laps. Peaceful and calm. So thanks again for doing that show. I turned off the tv, turned to my husband, who had been watching with a certain degree of fatalistic amazement, and said, ‘that’s it. I’m going to order the coop’…….

  6. Bless our fuzzy girls and guy. Each and every one of their eggs is a joyous gift. Our girls bring us so much fun, entertainment and love in their own ways. And thank you for each and everyone of your blogs that help us to take care of our feather friends and give us all the best in the circle of life.

  7. I don’t have my hens for their production either, but I appreciate each egg they give us. And I try to remember to thank them each day. There are only two of us in our home and alas, I am allergic to eggs. So we have dozens that we give away to friends and at Erik’s office. People LOVE to receive the eggs and it makes us feel good to give them. I have no interest in selling them whether we get a few on the cold days or a dozen during the Summer. It’s such a joy to have these silly girls.

  8. A group of friends of mine (18th c reenactors) have done fall demos of 18th C methods of food preservation. One woman has demonstrated storing eggs. She really did it. Last fall she larded up her eggs and stored them in her basement, which was not quite the right temp and humidity, as a real root cellar would be, but her eggs kept almost all winter!

    Read about it here:

    So, there *were* eggs available all winter, for those who had enough extras in the fall to store.

    • How interesting! I’ve been reading twenty years of farm diaries from one woman back at the turn of the last century, and she used water glass.

      • Our first year we were told the hens probably would not lay, or lay much, and would nearly stop over the winter if they did lay. So when they started laying the end of September, I started putting eggs down in waterglass as I didn’t have fridge room to store them.

        I ended up putting down 23 dozen. I also had 4-5 dozen in the fridge. What I found was the waterglass eggs stored perfectly in my root cellar for 8 months. The fridge eggs had all gone bad, except maybe 1 egg per dozen, by the end of 2 months.

        But the hens never did stop laying all winter. I had 19 of them and eventually found a farm store where I could barter the eggs for raw milk. That year they did not have a light, but did have a heat lamp.

        So waterglass done properly does work very well for long term storage.

        • Very interesting, Pam! I wonder why your fridge eggs went bad. Supermarket eggs are legal to sell 8 weeks after lay. They’ll thin out and they’ll pick up some flavors from the fridge but they shouldn’t turn bad. I’ve never had an egg stored in water glass. I’ve heard they’re good for baking but not for plain eating. Do they have a changed flavor or texture?

  9. Yum! Vanilla banana pudding sounds wonderful. Is it in one of your cookbooks? I’ve listed your books on my Amazon want list for Christmas. I seem to think I saw a show on PBS about milk and it was a seasonal food item also. I’m with you – no artificial lights!

    • I used the vanilla pudding from my 1000 Lowfat Recipe Book (and yes, it really is low calorie and delicious with 1 % milk), Just add sliced bananas. A few gingersnaps crumbled in adds to it, too. BTW, not only was milk and butter seasonal, but the flavor changed depending on what was growing in the pasture!

  10. I am embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of the seasonality of eggs until a few years ago when I began buying locally pastured eggs. What a beautiful reminder of the rhythms of nature and what damage we do when we fail to respect them. Egad, woman, you write well!

  11. Love this blog! Sadly I just ate my last egg from Lucy….I enjoyed every bite. And like you I crave eggs in winter and need the for baking. Sooooo I drove downtown D to the Eastern Market and bought some fresh eggs….bought! An talked of stewing hens etc….

  12. Thanks everyone for your words of affirmation. Sometimes the simplest of sentiments are the hardest to write down succinctly.

  13. I love this post and am in total agreement with your methods of giving them a winter break. So glad to hear others are with you on this too.

    Drat. I missed your sign give away by 45 mins!

  14. Love this post!

    I feel the same way, love having the fresh eggs but also love having their company as pets.

  15. I don’t do anything to encourage laying in the winter either, well not intentionally anyway. I have to go out to the coop at about 6 am during the week so I do turn on the light so I can see to fill the feeder and waterer. So they get about an extra hour of light. I too like my hens to have a rest. I am getting about 4-5 eggs a day from 23 hens of varying ages.
    Battery hens do live a miserable, stressfull and cruel life.
    Working in a metropolitan area and surrounded by “city slickers” I’m amazed at where people actually think their eggs and other animal products come from or more specifically how the animals are raised.
    I tell them the image of the big barn and hens ranging over a large field on the egg carton is a fantasy. People actually believe that image!!!
    I also direct them to Youtube and tell them to search for battery hens, some have done it and no surprise are appalled.

      • Don’t you wonder what the reaction would be if they showed battery hens on eggs cartons with all their missing feathers,toenails that look like the blueprints for a roller coaster, pale white combs and last but not least 6 jambed into a cage the size of two milk crates?

  16. Thanks for your thoughts on this. In my first winter last year, I had a timer for light in my henhouse to keep the hours high and the eggs flowing. All the books seemed to recommend it. In the back of my mind I had a sneaking thought that maybe it would wear the hens out faster, to keep them laying when normally they would stop, but I figured they were the experts, not I. I’ve learned a few things since then, including the fact that pullets tend to lay through the winter anyway and that the girls slow down the second year no matter what you do. But your words have a lot of weight with me, and I am doing only minimal lighting this winter and feeling better about letting my girls rest. Well, and a couple of them are molting like crazy and only my two pullets are laying anything right now.

  17. I want to keep chickens because I want outdoor pets to look after and give a happy life to and fresh eggs is a bonus. I have been sponging up all the information from you to help me on my way.

    I plan on getting three in spring when I will have everything ready for them. I have read books and blogs to prepare me and can’t stop thinking about chicken’s.

    I am so excited!

  18. Very timely post. I decided this year to forgo the extra light. A friend of mine has lots of hens, has never provided light, and he has 6 year old hens that still lay an acceptable amount in season. (He also feeds a general flock grower, not laying feed…another topic.) I wavered the other day, but my husband reminded me that the older hens barely laid during the summer. He seriously doubted that light would make a difference now.

  19. Lucky girl! I am getting 0 or 1 egg a day from approx 30 hens. I know it is time to cull the older hens for the crockpot but I will have to be really bored and really tired of buying laying feed for hens that don’t lay eggs to get to that day. I ma predicting Christmas break when the kids are all home and driving me crazy and I’m desperate for anything to do outside to keep them busy and tire them out.
    Stevie @

  20. I loved the comment that showing idyllic scenes of hens in a farmyard on egg cartons is false advertising. If I had the courage, I would print off some pictures of battery hens in their cages and quickly attach to a few of the egg cartons in a store that is selling commercially produced eggs. Every once in a while, I will post a YouTube video on my Facebook account showing battery hens and it is frustrating to hear comments like, “as long as I don’t have to see them…” or “I’m against it, but money is tight and where can I buy humanely produced eggs for 99 cents per dozen?” There isn’t always a simple answer.