One of the small pleasures in life is buying fresh, pastured eggs from a roadside farmstand in the summer. You can grab a carton from the beer cooler, tuck five dollars into an old coffee can, and make it back home without seeing another person. It’s not so easy in the winter — pasture-raised eggs are harder to find. Stands get packed up, farmers’ markets close till spring, and the short, cold days tell the laying hens to slow down production. Walden partners with local farmers to provide a dependable market for fresh eggs, even when the pastures are covered with snow. Let’s take a look at how Walden partner farmers’ hens lay eggs with strong shells, thick whites, and rich yolks in the winter — and how members play a crucial role in the process.
How Do Pasture-Raised Chickens Produce Eggs in the Winter?
Most farmers will agree: there’s no getting around a dip in egg production during the winter. While cold weather is a factor — especially in the Northeast — it’s the decreasing amount of daylight hours that hampers egg production. A chicken will start laying when there are about 14 hours of daylight and will continue until the days begin to shorten again. A hen can only make one egg per day—it takes about 26 hours—and will rarely lay an egg after 3 pm.
“If they’re allowed to follow the natural daylight pattern, they’ll usually stop laying in November and start back up in March when the daylight gets back above 14 hours,” said Walden partner farmer Hugo Gervais of North Hero, Vermont. “The hens would still need to be fed, but they wouldn’t produce eggs and the members would be left with no eggs on the shelf!”
Pasture-based farmers brighten the shortened days of the winter months by increasing the amount of sunlight in the coops — taking advantage of what’s provided naturally. “On sunny days in late February and March I’ll leave the large barn doors open so they can go out and peck at the snow and stretch out in the sun,” said Hugo. “I’m looking to build two covered areas with a translucent cover for natural light that the hens could access in the winter.”
But when there aren’t enough hours of sunlight to stimulate production, many farmers will add a soft white light bulb to the hen houses. The light is set to a timer to replicate sunrise and sunset. The longer periods of light in the hen houses simulates the impulse to lay eggs, and the chickens start producing again after they molt. Our partner farmers know that, just as it is important to replicate sunlight hours, it’s equally essential for chickens to get ample rest. They are careful not to overstimulate the animals. Each breed has different requirements and different characteristics, and each farmer picks their hens based on the traits they value most.
“We purchase Golden Comet pullets. They are a breed of chickens that are meant to produce about 260 eggs in their first cycle and then about 200 eggs in their second cycle,” said Hugo. “Some other breeds produce less eggs, tend to put on body weight, and can be processed for meat at the end. We like the Golden Comet because they are relatively calm, behave well in larger flocks, and convert feed into eggs efficiently.”
Chickens are generally hardy animals and don’t need supplemental heat in many parts of the country, even in winter. The hens’ feathers trap body warmth, allowing them to stay comfortable for most of the cold season; however, here in the Northeast, sometimes Walden farmers need to use artificial heat to keep their coops warm. Temperatures drop below zero in Vermont and New Hampshire for sustained periods, and chickens can suffer frostbite, especially on their combs, the fleshy crest on top of their heads. Part of a Walden partner farmer’s job during winter is to be sure the coop doesn’t have any drafty holes and to know when supplemental heat is necessary.
Raising Pastured Eggs with Walden Members’ Support
When Anna Houston and Rob Perrazo started their laying hen farm, they thought eggs would be a great way to start seeing profits sooner. When farmers buy an animal to raise, it could be eight months or more before that animal generates a return, which is hard for a new business. With laying hens, you can buy a 17-week old pullet chicken and see income within a month.
“That’s the main reason that we started with laying hens as young farmers and young business founders,” said Anna in a previous interview. “But hens take a lot more labor—you’ve got to get 1,500 eggs a day, every day, and then you’re also washing and packing them, which is a couple more times that you’re handling them. It’s a lot.”
Laying hens need sunlight. They need fresh pasture and a place to live, protected from wildlife and the elements. The eggs they produce are fragile and require cleaning and packaging. These daily responsibilities get challenging when there’s three feet of snow on the ground and subzero temperatures. For most farmers, given the time and effort it takes to grow, process, and sell eggs, it makes more sense to focus on other, more profitable types of farming or view eggs as supplemental to the main business of growing broilers — chickens raised for meat — or other livestock.
When Walden partner farmers Christine and Bruce Templeton started their operation, they planned to grow laying hens — or layers, chickens raised to lay eggs — and sell them to local farms as the growing season begins each year. “So we built this great infrastructure and we thought we’d be doing that every winter grow a bunch of layers, and see what happens with meat birds in the summer,” said Christine in a previous interview. “But layers — for most of the farms around here, they have not been profitable and people have gotten out of that business — and now we use that infrastructure for broilers.”
Despite a 16 percent increase in egg consumption per capita in the US, many farmers can’t find the market they need to make growing pastured eggs profitable. Commodity eggs are cheaper and more prevalent than ever. They’re labeled “free-range” and “cage-free” while their laying hens live in overpopulated mega-barns, which misleads consumers looking for healthier, better-tasting, and more ethical alternatives. Walden partner farmers know that members are purchasing their local, pastured eggs every month, which can help them expand their farm, purchase new equipment, or otherwise invest in their business.
“In our first year, our local market was still finding out about us and so it was a slow start,” said Anna. “But then to be able to have someone like Walden who could take a ton of eggs every week and wanted to, that was a pretty amazing opportunity because that demand wasn’t yet there locally. For us, early on, that was pretty important.”
For our partner farmers that raise laying hens, egg sales can be a critical revenue source in the winter. It’s nearly impossible to grow broilers in a pasture-based system when the ground is frozen and covered with ten inches of snow. Most farmers don’t start until April, when there’s visible, thawed pasture that the chickens can access. Laying hens — and specifically eggs — can help carry a chicken farm through the dormant months.
“Some farms are more diversified than others and the egg production is supported by other products that can carry the farm through lower egg production cycles,” said Hugo Gervais. “Our farm produces a great deal of vegetables and flowers during the warmer months and eggs have to be produced through the winter months or the revenues drop too much to make it through.”
Our laying hens live happier, healthier lives, free from physical alterations and other inhumane conditions such as overcrowded coops. Happy, healthy animals that are treated with respect produce better tasting food with more nutrients. Thick whites that don’t spread when cracked into a pan. Rich yolks, perfect when served over easy. Pasture-raised eggs have as much as twice the vitamin E and long-chain omega 3 fats, and 38 percent more vitamin A, according to a study comparing pastured and commercial egg nutritional content conducted by Penn State University in 2010. You can enjoy our partner farmer’s eggs by adding them as a recurring add-on to your monthly share. We think you’ll see and taste the difference.