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Chickens & Winter Egg Laying and Lighting

It’s common for people to give their chickens light in the winter, or even all year round. Some chicken-owners aren’t so sure. Here’s a look at...
  1. StarLover21
    Chickens and Winter Egg Laying & Lighting


    It’s a question commonly asked among chicken owners; especially around this time of year. Why aren’t my chickens laying? Do they need light in the winter?

    It’s common for people to give their chickens light in the winter, or even all year round. Some chicken-owners aren’t so sure. Here’s a look at both sides to help you make a decision.

    ~Yes- it helps increase egg production!~

    If you especially care about production, light is the way to go. There are many studies that have proven that, in almost every case, when light is added there is a significant increase in egg production. Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones. As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all.

    Why do chickens stop laying in the winter?
    Most chickens produce eggs at the fastest rate when there is a better chance their offspring will survive to maturity. Chicks clearly would not survive as well in cold weather. For a chicken, that gives them no reason to lay eggs in the winter, so their bodies automatically shut off egg laying for the colder months.

    Installing the light (how and when)
    If you have decided to install a light, please keep in mind that lights can also be potential fire hazards. Don’t put them where the chickens can knock them down. This may create a fire that could burn down the coop and the chickens.

    With that said, if you are only installing a light for the winter, it can actually be a good idea to get one that also gives off heat, depending on your climate. Chickens in warmer areas can be fine without heat lamps, although they may be helpful in colder climates or for younger birds.

    You can either leave the light on 24/7 to provide constant warmth and light, or you can install a timed light. If you choose to use a timed light, you want to ensure that your chicken gets 14 hours of total light. It’s usually advised to give them the light in the early morning hours. If you do choose to let it come on at night, the main side effect may be that you have more afternoon layers.
    An example of a well secured red light

    Red or White Light?
    In general it is advised to use red light, but there are arguments that either work. Red light is more soothing for a chicken, and helps allow them to sleep. As you could imagine, chickens probably won’t want a bright white light shining on them, especially if you are leaving it on all day/night. I’ll discuss additional advantages of red light in the next section.

    Benefits of Using Red Light
    There are several studies that show additional benefits of using red light. In general it is said to reduce cannibalism, be calming to the chickens, and reduce pecking problems.
    This is one article I found particularly interesting on red light:

    What happens when chickens see red?
    “A company* that markets red contact lenses for chickens (at 20 cents a pair), points to medical studies showing that chickens wearing red-tinted contact lenses behave differently from birds that don't. They eat less, produce more and don't fight as much. This decreases aggressive tendencies and birds are less likely to peck at each other causing injury. A spokesman said the lenses will improve world egg-laying productivity by $600 million a year.
    (Perhaps everything looks red and they cannot distinguish combs, wattles, or blood. Or ...perhaps the chickens are happier because they're viewing the world through rose colored glasses.)” http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-vision/color-and-vision-matters

    While this study may seem a little far-fetched, red can make an impact in egg laying. Several other credible chicken books also mention the benefits of red light.

    Note: If you do choose to use a red light, or even if you choose white, it is advised not to switch back and forth. This can further stress out the chickens and lead to drops in egg production.

    Now that we’ve covered the advantages of using lighting, let’s look at the negative arguments of the issue.

    ~No- let nature take its course!~

    Why should we add artificial light?

    Most chicken owners aren’t running commercial operations. If all you really want is production, production, production, then it may make sense to add additional lighting, but if your chickens are pets, why not just let nature take its course?

    Chickens deserve (and need) a rest
    Let’s face it: chickens aren’t egg machines. Egg laying is stressful on a chicken, and it takes a lot of work for chickens to pump out eggs daily. Even humans get time off from their jobs; why not chickens? Winter is a chicken’s time to naturally shut down and rest from laying eggs all summer long. Don’t they deserve a break?

    Providing additional light is taxing in the long run
    If you force a bird to lay during the cold months by triggering her endocrine system with extra light, you can also shorten her laying longevity. To quote poultrykeeper.com:
    “Since a hen is born with all of the eggs she can produce in her life already inside her, if you intend to keep your hens for their entire life then you aren't gaining anything in the long run by providing extra light for them, but you will be able to get a supply of eggs during the winter months.”

    The article goes on to talk about the potential health hazards of forcing your chickens to lay during the winter, especially if you are forcing them to lay when they really need to rest, for example when they are molting.

    While many people advise using lights, there is also a general acknowledgment that this can actually be harmful for their health, and stop them laying sooner. You can use artificial light and get a burst of eggs for a short amount of time, or let nature take its course, and allow the chicken to lay naturally throughout her life. For example, I have a seven year old red star that has never had artificial light, and she still lays. As a whole, lighting can actually have a negative impact in the long run for your flock. Unless you only care about production, you may have healthier chickens by letting them lay naturally.

    As long as you have healthy, happy chickens, you should still get some eggs in the winter. Make sure to also ensure that your chickens are mite and worm free, as these can lead to drops in egg laying as well. If you care especially about getting eggs in the winter, but don’t want to use lighting, you can also look into getting some more winter hardy breeds that are known to lay better, such as the Salmon Faverolle and Easter Egger.

    In conclusion, it’s really your decision. Are you raising birds mainly for production, or keeping them as a flock of fluffy pets? Hopefully you’ll be able to make the perfect decision for your individual flock. I hope this article has helped you with that decision.

    NOTE: (credit/thanks to gickelvolk)

    Should you decide to use a light BE CAREFUL OF THE LIGHT YOU CHOOSE!!!
    "Industrial Duty" and "Break-Free" bulbs have a TOXIC coating (generally a Teflon) on them to prevent shattering upon breakage. The bulb emits a gas from the coating and it is DEADLY to poultry.

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  1. BirdaMay
    I was recently getting ready to install lighting and the thought crossed my mind to maybe let them rest as nature intended. Since rest seems to elude me, and I'm a world-class insomniac, my decision was clear after reading your article. No light for my birds! I will not over-tax their sweet little chicken bodies! My flock and I will seek to remain in harmony with nature. Thanks for the great article, and so timely in when it was published!
  2. BY Bob
    Living in PA, I have a hen, Patsy, that laid all through the winter, including the big blizzard. However, once it got hot this summer, she stopped laying completely. Now that fall has arrived and temps have fallen, she is laying again. My other two hens layed all summer long. I love how each is so different.
  3. chicknmom
    Something that played into my decision on whether or not to add supplemental lighting is that, in areas where the daylight changes are less dramatic than in WA state, chickens lay year-round naturally, with no apparent impact to their health.
  4. AnthonyFlock
    Great article! We were on the fence about additional lighting , especially for safety reasons. We decided to add light anyway but ordered a mr beams remote controlled battery operated light to remedy possible fire hazards ( and eliminate our need for electricity in the coop!). No heat in this coop, even with below zero temps. Proper winter preparation is all that's needed for almost any climate (and the right breeds). We'll be eating our birds when they stop laying so we aren't really concerned with longevity, just health. Now, however, I'm toying with the idea of putting clear, red tape over the lense. Thanks for the info!
  5. Dave from Maine
    I used light the first winter I had chickens. I started with an energy efficient light and I too frozen eggs from the nest boxes. When I switched to a red heat lamp It kept the eggs from freezing but my electric bills went way up. There are other people on my road with chickens who sell eggs. It's less expensive to buy my winter eggs from them than it is to heat my chicken coop. If I could check the nest boxes during the day I could gather eggs before they freeze but I leave for work before the girls start laying.
  6. 222danette
    Enjoyed the article, thank you. It cleared up some questions I had about lifelong egg production.
  7. Balloonjuice
    Thanks for the article -- though I'm coming to it late. My chickens are not pets; they are strictly for laying eggs. I do sell the eggs at a farmer's market. Plus, when the hens quit laying they will end up in somebody's freezer. So if your situation varies from that you may decide not to use artificial lighting. After I decided to use artificial lighting, here is the approach I took.

    I mounted 2 florescent fixtures on the ceiling, attached to an outdoor switch (i.e. weatherized). I installed F32T8 tubes in each of the fixtures (a total of 4 32 watt, 4 foot tubes). The tubes are all "full spectrum" light (5000 K). My son helped me install a timer inside the weatherized switch. We had to use a couple of extensions in order to get all the wire nuts to fit inside. The particular timer we used had a total of 18 possible programs, but we used only two of them. The lights are set to come on at 6:00 AM and go off at 8:00. Then they come on again at 5:00 PM and go off at 8:30. Between the artificial daylight and the natural daylight the hens are seeing 14 1/2 hours a day.

    This was a recent project, so I do not have a lot of data to share so far. But here is what I have:

    On November 1st, my production began to drop until in bottomed at 40% on Nov. 3rd (I had been getting about 80% production by which I mean 8 eggs for every 10 hens). After installing the lighting my production moved to 60% then to 70%, which is where it presently is. As I wrote above, my data are limited at this point.

    I should add that I also began offering the chickens BOSS at the same time. It may be that with the increased oil and protein from the BOSS plus the lighting we are getting the results that we are getting. Anyway, I hope that I have added something to the conversation.
  8. judykarlson
    Good article! Helped me since i have 4 hens and only one is laying Thank you!
  9. ChixWelcome
    This will be my first winter with 15 chicks, don't plan on using a heat lamp since our winters in NC are usually mild. However, from the day we moved the girls into "the big house" we've used a solar light on the inside to help get them into the coop each evening before the door closes. Fairly simple, provides enough light but not too much, and no power needed. The solar panel is on top of the coop, small cords (which I secured with staples) run to each light and attaches up to three lights. Even with some dim lighting there has been a decrease in daily egg count.
  10. kathrynmary
    This is my first winter with my 7 hens. I installed the plexiglass and plywood panels for insulation from the cold and wind. . But, in Minnesota it is not unusual to get -20-30 degrees esp at night. So I have installed a red light which I am keeping on 24-7. I am now going to put a small space heater in the run area to keep it warmer for them during the day when they are out of the inclosed resting and nesting area. I hope this will also help keep the water from freezing which it has once already. When I open the run for them if it is too cold they do not come out at all. Smart birds. I am getting about 4-5 eggs a day since 2 are not laying at all yet. One of the reasons I decided to keep the chickens even in the winter is that they have really just started to lay and it doesn't seem right to butcher them when they have many years of a good life left.

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