As we get ready to embark on the first chapter of our homesteading journey, we are bringing the (practically) prerequisite flock of egg layers. Well, first I guess we’re building a chicken coop, the existing one is a bit dilapidated and doesn’t look remotely predator-proof. The previous owner said he never suffered any major loss due to predators, but he had outdoor dogs, and despite appearances, ours are the decidedly indoor type. But, the coop building project is for another post, this one is about the best winter egg layers for the Colorado climate.
I remember being at a county fair with my mom when I was younger and as we pursued all of the lovely chicken breeds on display my mother professed that she thought all chickens were the standard buff-colored ones (Buff Orpington's, I would later learn). Her exact words then were “I’ve never seen so many gourmet chickens.” (My mother has a penchant for accidentally replacing random words with hilarious effects.) I was promptly escorted from the chicken house as I burst into uncontrollable laughter. From that point on, in our family, all chickens, Buff Orpington's aside are now officially “gourmet” chickens. So as I started to research the possibility of handling a flock of my own, one of the first questions I had was which one of those gourmet chickens would lay the most eggs and be truly comfortable in the sometimes harsh Colorado climate.
What Makes a Chicken Cold Hardy?
While there are plenty of chickens out there that actually do better in colder climates than hot, there are definitely some breeds that tolerate the depths of winter better than others. Remember that the definition of “cold weather can vary by region, but when selecting chickens for Colorado, or other cold-climate areas you’ll want to look out for a few key features:
The comb is the large piece of typically red flesh on the top of the chicken's head. Generally speaking, the larger the comb, the more susceptible that chicken will be to frostbite - something that can potentially be fatal to your feathered friends. Another thing to look out for is “rose” combs. They are also less susceptible to frostbite.
Breeds that sport a thicker coat of feathers fare better in cold weather than those who don’t. Think of it like walking around with a down comforter on all day, or for you Colorado natives it would be akin to your Patagonia “puffy coat”.
Feathered Feet and Legs
Same deal here. You wouldn’t go snowshoeing without snow pants on, don’t expect your chickens to do it either. In short, the more natural protection your birds have from the elements the better they will fare in colder temperatures.
The 6 Best Winter Egg Layers
There were a few factors in making this list. Colorado can have some bitterly cold winters. On the flip side of that, particularly in the high plains desert of the Southwest, you can get scorching summers. That means I wanted cold-hardy birds that won’t wilt in the sun. Another factor was that they needed to be year-round eggers. There’s a common misconception by first-time chicken owners that “cold hardy” equals “winter egg layer.” It doesn’t. In fact, many cold-hardy breeds like the above-mentioned Orpington's and Welsummer tolerate cold well but won’t typically egg in the winter. The reality is that most breeds don’t lay eggs in the winter opting instead to preserve heat and energy for survival. The last factor for making this list was cost. Each bird on this list has an average cost of $3 to $5 per chick.
Rhode Island Reds
Yearly Egg Production - 200 to 300 large brown eggs
This hardy and dependable dual-purpose bird has tight feathering with an under-layer of fluff to keep her warm. Rhode Island Reds may actually be the quintessential Colorado bird, for a variety of reasons. First, they do well in nearly every type of weather so from our blistering summers to our freezing winters this bird will be content. Secondly, the Rhode Island Red is a predator-savvy chicken, with the smarts to keep herself relatively safe in a free-range environment. They are relatively quiet birds making them a possible backyard choice, however, they can be bullies so use caution when raising them with other breeds, and if you’re looking for a chicken to cuddle and tolerate kids, this may not be your bird. These birds mature quickly with egg production beginning as early as 16 weeks, but more often between 18 - 20 weeks.
Yearly Egg Production - 200 to 300 light brown eggs
Depending on your elevation, the Speckled Sussex is another great Colorado bird. This calm, sweet dual purpose hen is cold hardy, and fairs well in most conditions, but due to their dense feathers, they do prefer cold weather over heat. One drawback to this beautiful bird is that they are prone to broodiness, to cut back on this tendency egg collection should be done often. The Sussex has a mild disposition so she can fall low in the pecking order and be prone to bullying if you raise her with more aggressive breeds. Not the largest bird in the flock, the hen will average around 6.5lbs. The bird will mature rapidly, with egg production beginning at around 20 weeks. During winter months these birds need plenty of room in the coop so they are better suited to hobby farms and homesteads than urban settings.
Yearly Egg Production - 230 to 275 light brown eggs
These birds have the distinction of being the oldest American breed. They date back to Colonial times when the Pilgrims first brought domestic chickens to the Americas. They are robust little birds, almost bantam weight, with the hens weighing in at only 4.5lbs. Just like the Speckled Sussex, these birds are prone to bullying so be conscious of what other breeds you place them with. The birds are good-natured and calm with what is referred to as a rose comb making them ideal for colder weather with less tendency to suffer frostbite. Egg production will generally begin between 21 and 24 weeks and continue year-round.
Yearly Egg Production - 250 - 300 light brown eggs
Another dual-purpose bird, this breed is great for cold weather due to its dense, close feather coat which offers plenty of under fluff to keep them warm. Due to their dark coloring, they do not tend to fall victim to birds of prey but as distinctly not flyers they are susceptible to ground predators when free-ranging. They have a mild, gentle temperament usually falling in the middle of the pecking order, but can be bullied by more aggressive breeds. These birds mature early don’t often display broodiness, and can often begin egg production at as early as 16 weeks.
Yearly Egg Production - 200- 300 light brown eggs
The Plymouth Rock has a beautiful dense coat of patterned feathers perfect for staying warm on the coldest of Colorado days. Plymouth Rocks are dual-purpose birds that make a great addition to backyard flocks, these birds tend to have sweet docile personalities. Known to be on the quieter side this is a great feathered friend for keeping a more urban environment without angering the neighbors. Egg production will begin between 16 - 20 weeks old though they may not egg through the winter until after their first molt which is typically at around a year. A drawback to this quiet lady is that she is somewhat prone to broodiness. Again reduce the chances by keeping a frequent and consistent schedule for egg retrieval.
Yearly Egg Production - 200 - 300 cream to light brown eggs
Another dual-purpose breed, the Wyandotte is one of the most beautiful chickens out there. They have stunning plumage that comes in 10 different color varieties. Docile birds, they make a great addition to homes with children. These ladies are prolific and dependable layers who aren’t known for becoming broody and tend to be easy to break of the habit if it does happen. The Wyandotte hen is average in size, coming in at around 7lb. Egg production for these ladies will tend to start between 18 - 20 weeks old.
The Breeds in First Our Flock
This article is based on days and weeks of research I put into preparing to purchase our first flock. Before deciding on the breeds that are best for your cold-weather backyard or homestead, research all the characteristics of each bird carefully. A great place to start is Henderson's Handy Dandy Chicken Chart, it’s a great resource for all the breed basics.
When selecting our breeds I had a variety of needs in mind. Since we are homesteading and the birds are meant to feed the family, I wanted birds that were just for laying as well as birds that were dual purpose. In the end, we settled on Wyandottes, Australorps, Dominiques, and Easter Eggers. The Easter Egger didn’t make our list for this blog because they are not winter layers, but they are cold hardy, predator resistant, and well, I just can’t resist the idea of those colorful eggs even if they won't be available year-round. Stay tuned for updates as our chicks arrive, and let us know what your favorite eggers are in the comments.