For many hens, winter offers a vacation from egg-laying. But with a lighted, sheltered roosting area, Neal Isley keeps his hens fit and busy laying eggs even when the weather turns cold and the nights are long.

Isley and his wife, Corinne, manage a flock of about 60 laying hens just north of Joseph. They sell eggs to a list of regular local customers, so maintaining egg production is important. Isley’s hens provide about 30 eggs per day in the winter—only half of their summer production, but significantly more than many winter-bound flocks.

The secret? “Light is huge,” Isley said. “We use low-wattage bulbs in their shelter so they have light 24 hours a day. Then we provide a warm, dry place for them to roost. And we have the nesting area where they lay separate from the nesting area.”

The Isleys breed their own chickens — a cross between Barred Rock hens and New Hampshire Red roosters. The resulting non-fertile (sex-linked) chicks grow into hardy hens that will each lay up to 300 large brown eggs per year. The cross is known as Black Comet or Black Star chickens.

This winter has been as tough on chickens as it has on everything else. When the first deep snows fell in December, the hawks decided that take-out chicken dinner would make a better meal than trying to find elusive snow-bound mice. Two of Isley’s chickens went missing, except for a few feathers. So they covered the 1/8-acre winter enclosure with a mesh netting, and haven’t lost a chicken since. Not surprisingly, chickens are loathe to hike around on snow, so Isley shovels out a portion of their yard so his hens can remain warm, happy, and busy laying eggs. “I can’t wait for the snow to melt,” he said.

But Isley’s best-kept secret is Tom—their very large turkey. “He’s like a watchdog,” Isley said. “The hens seem to like him, and hawks and other predators don’t want to mess with anything that big.” Tom also loves to “sit” on a nest, and spends most of his time in the winter keeping eggs warm in the henhouse until Isley comes to collect them in the morning. “He sort of hibernates in there,” Isley said. “But it sure keeps those eggs warm.” Neal and Corrine Isley take egg orders via phone at 541-398-0761. They’d probably be happy to introduce you to Tom and the girls, too.

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