I went to my favorite egg wrangler, today, and again, the honor box was empty. So, after my drive all the way out to a country road 12 miles form my home, in the rain and cold, resulted in disappointment. Again, I missed out. Why? Because this farmer lets his hens have natural light. Chickens do not lay year-round, without artificial light. Eggs are not really seasonal. His girls on on a darkness induced laying break. Production is cut by 80%, at least. I will need to wait until the days, again, become longer before they will be plentiful again.
From hatch to egg laying is roughly six months, unless that six-month period happens when the days are getting shorter (mid- to late fall). In that case, without artificial light, the chicken will delay laying until the days begin to lengthen (late January to late March. It is later in the northern latitudes than those farther south). Chickens produce the most eggs in the first few months of laying and more in warm weather and on sunny days.
Some poultry, such as geese and turkeys, lay eggs only in the spring. Chickens lay more eggs in the spring than in the hot weather of summer. When the daylight hours and temperatures drop (late autumn, early winter), egg production declines. The energy is diverted to keeping the chickens warm and to molting (when they lose some feathers and increase new feather production for winter insulation).
Sunlight is the key in stimulating egg-laying hormones and in triggering molt. When the days are at the shortest, the chickens cease laying, completely. When the days, again, begin to lengthen (early January) then they, again, begin to lay. By the time the day and night are equal lengths (daylight neutral) the egg production will be in full swing.
Molting is the process of feather loss and regrowth. In backyard chickens, it can happen once or twice a year. The birds lose their feathers and grow new ones, much as other animals shed fur or hair. It is a normal, natural, and beneficial process that takes place in the fall. A hen stops laying eggs (fall/winter is a bad time for chicks to hatch, anyway, as extremely low temperatures would cause a high mortality rate). Its body concentrates its energy on staying warm and growing new feathers. A chicken goes into a dormant phase in which it does not lay many eggs until the days begin to lengthen. (This is usually triggered by the naturally low light levels of fall/early winter.)
In the spring, when daylight lengthens and the temperatures warm, a chicken loses a fair amount of its downy under-feathers, and if the hen is a broody hen, she will pick her feathers to make a warm nest for any potential hatching chicks. After a long winter’s respite from laying eggs, it resumes doing so. At this point, even older chickens lay approximately an egg a day (chickens never lay more than one egg a day. Young birds lay every day, or nearly so. Older chickens normally lay every few days.)
A broody bird is one that is predisposed to sit on eggs, not all are so inclined. Some chicken breeds are more likely to become broody, some breeds rarely do so. Even with a breed that is said to be a broody breed, only a few individual hens will decide to become broody. However, a broody hen can stimulate other hens to also become broody.
When a hen is broody she turns into a chicken zombie. She will sit motionless on a nest of eggs for days on end. She will refuse to leave the nest and forego food and water or scratching around the yard, like the other birds. If she is moved from the nest she will run back. A broody hen will pull every egg laid by all the other chickens and push it under her. Then defend them with a fierce ferocity. (A broody hen is a pain in the ass.)
Chickens left to molt naturally (with natural light) stop laying eggs for several weeks in the winter. Older birds have a longer resting period than younger ones. As the days start to lengthen, the chickens ramp up the production of eggs.