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Should I Light my Chicken Coop this Winter?

Your flock's lay rate will slow naturally as the days grow shorter. A chicken needs approximately 14 hours of daylight in order to stimulate her pituitary gland to stimulate the ovaries to release an egg.

In the winter, it can take two or three days to accumulate enough daylight naturally, but to combat the slowed laying many backyard chicken keepers (and all commercial egg farms) add supplemental light to keep lay rates high year round.

A low watt light bulb (or even a nightlight in a small coop) should provide enough light to trick the hens into thinking they are getting the daily requirement of light and keep those eggs coming all winter long.

However ... there are two schools of thought on this topic (as there is with much of raising chickens).

Neither view is necessarily right or wrong, however new research coming to light is finding heavily in favor of allowing hens' bodies to take the natural break they're craving and rest over the winter. I mean, have you ever seen what a battery hen looks like after two years or so of laying year round day after day?


She's spent. I am not raising battery hens and would never force mine to lay.
 

Personally, we don't add light in our coop. Like everything else we do with our flock, we tend towards doing things naturally. And in fact, new research recently has shown that forcing hens to lay using artificial light can lead to ovarian cancer and other reproductive issues including lash eggs. 

Chickens need 6-8 hours of darkness in each 24-hour period to allow them to rest and keep their immune system healthy, so if you DO add light, it should be on a timer and not just left on all night.


(Side note: I've also heard from several fans who's vets have also agreed with this diagnosis, and incidentally, most of the reproductive issues I hear about fans are in high production breeds. Coincidence? I think not.)

And since hens can be prone to ovarian cancer anyway, we figure why chance increasing their chances of contracting it? The potentially fatal condition called Vent Prolapse is more common in chickens forced to lay through the winter instead of being able to adhere to a natural laying cycle as well. 

This occurs when the end of the oviduct is pushed out through the vent and is outside the hen's body. It can sometimes be corrected, but also can tend to be recurring. 

I was recently talking about the topic of adding light in the winter with a friend who's a homesteader and who I respect very much and she said that they don't light their coop either, and consider their eggs a "crop", just like any other produce they pick from the garden.

In the summer, when eggs are plentiful, she prepares them in various ways, and eggs become a part of many dinners in addition to breakfasts. In the winter, when eggs are more scarce, they just eat fewer.  Her family considers them a seasonal menu item. I love that mentality because it makes so much sense.

But back to the potential dangers of lighting your coop. Light bulbs are a huge fire hazard in a wooden coop filled with dry straw or shavings.  

Even a tiny drop of water can shatter a light bulb, leaving sharp shards on the floor which can cut little feet. Worse, shatter-proof, Teflon-coated bulbs emit noxious fumes that will kill your chickens, as has been recently reported on the news and in the various chicken magazines [read the full article HERE].

There are too many heartbreaking stories every winter of coops and barns burning down due to light bulbs or heat lamps catching fire to the bedding.

 

But the main reason we allow our chickens to 'take the winter off' is that one of the reasons chickens are programmed to naturally stop or slow their laying is to allow their bodies to stockpile calcium stores for strong eggshells in the spring. (The other main reason being that winter is not the optimal time to raise chicks, so eggs are unnecessary as far as expanding a flock goes!).

Many of our hens are just coming out of a molt at the beginning of the winter, which greatly drains their bodies and leaves them depleted of nutrients, so we allow ours to use the winter to recoup. We don't like to mess with Mother Nature, so our girls get a well-deserved break.  We want them strong and healthy come spring and ready to LAY!

Instead, so we don't run out of eggs once production slows and have to buy store bought eggs (BLECH!), I freeze any excess eggs during the glut of summer laying to use through the winter [read more here about how to freeze eggs...] They are not only perfect for holiday baking, but also scramble up just fine.

We also get new chicks each spring that start laying in early fall. Generally pullets will lay pretty well through their first winter without any added light.

There are also some breeds that tend to lay better through the cold months including Sex Links, Australorps, and Rhode Island Reds, so choose a breed known as being a good layer if year round egg production is important to you.

In addition, we raise ducks who lay very well year round without any added light.

So between freezing eggs, using fewer eggs through the winter, and relying on pullets and our ducks, we manage to collect enough eggs without having to light our coop


If you DO decide to add light to your coop through the winter, here are some things to consider:
  • You can use incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, but if using fluorescent, choose a 'warm' wavelength bulb to better mimic sunlight
  • Bulb/socket needs to be well-secured so a flapping chickens can't dislodge it or break it
  • Don't position the light anywhere near a water source, to prevent the bulb from shattering
  • Consider using a timer so you don't have to remember to turn the light on and off - if you turn the light off manually, be consistent with the times you turn it off

    Ideally, the additional light should be added in the morning hours, pre-dawn, not some in the morning and some in the evening.  Chickens don't see well in the dark at all and you don't want your light switching off after dark suddenly and leaving hens stranded and disoriented when the light goes off instead of comfortable on their roosts. (Although a dimmer can be installed so the light gradually diminishes in the evening in which case adding a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening, or all in the evening is fine)

  • A very low wattage bulb will provide enough light, 25 - 40 watt, or even a nightlight might be sufficient in a smaller coop
  • DO NOT use bulbs labeled 'Teflon-coated', 'Tefcoat', 'Rough Surface', 'Protective Coated' or "Safety Coated' - TEFLON, when heated, creates fumes that can be fatal to your hens.  Sadly, these bulbs are still on the market, some marked with warnings, some not. [Read article HERE.]
  • Consider instead cutting more vents and openings in your coop (cover them with 1/2" hardware cloth to prevent predators from gaining access) to provide more natural light which can help to extend the laying season a bit and also get your hens started laying again sooner in the spring (see below also for another way to add more natural light)
  • Don't decide to add light and then change your mind and stop lighting the coop because it can throw your entire flock into a molt - which is NOT what you want in the dead of winter.  Decide what you will do and stick with it all winter
  • Although you may be tempted to put a heat lamp or other light in your coop 24/7 through the winter, be aware that when spring comes and you turn it off, the chickens, used to 24 hour 'days', might perceive shorter days and stop laying
Whatever you decide, be sure you do it safely. We choose to respect our chickens' natural body cycles, but you may choose to add light. Just remember that our 'expert advice' to you is that getting MORE chickens is the easiest and best way to ensure enough eggs for your family for the winter!


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