This post is brought to us by Nutrena Tips From Nutrena: Part 1 By Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Consultant Raising healthy layer hens is an investment in fresh, wholesome eggs. Yet keeping those hens up to production year-round, especially during the darkest days of winter, requires extra care. Extreme cold can certainly reduce egg production. But darkness is the main reason production begins to slow in late fall. Research shows that chickens lay best when they receive about 15 hours of light daily. In the northern part of the United States, natural daylight can drop to under nine hours or less. This makes supplemental (or artificial) lighting a must. The Connection Between Light and Layers The science behind light and laying is fairly simple. Birds sense light through their eyes (retinal photoreceptors) and through photosensitive cells in the brain. When a hen sees light – natural and/or artificial – the light stimulates a gland within the eye. The gland, in turn, releases a hormone that stimulates egg laying. It makes sense that egg production is stimulated in poultry by increasing day length. In nature, as day length approaches 14 hours per day in early spring, chickens begin laying eggs. This gives chicks the best chance to thrive during warm summer months and mature before harsher weather. By providing artificial light, growers can manipulate this natural cycle and increase the duration of egg laying. How Much Light? Setting up a simple light controlled by a timer solves the problem of waning sunlight. The same silver reflector lamps used for brooding chicks work well for winter light. A nine-watt compact fluorescent bulb is all that’s needed for a typical backyard coop. Plug the light into a timer and have it come on early enough in the morning to give the birds 15 hours of daylight, and they will lay well all winter. If you want to conserve electricity, consider an automatic light system featuring a photocell, a plug-in timer and a light fixture with a compact fluorescent bulb. Set the timer to activate light at 5 a.m. and shut off at 8 p.m. When the photocell senses adequate daylight coming through the coop window, it will cut power to the light to minimize power consumption. Where to Place Lamps? The distribution of light depends on lamp placement. Place lamps so that maximum illumination is spread over the largest area. In other words, don’t just light the nest box. Hang a bulb or lamp at the top of the coop to spread the light. Also, beware of dirty lamps. They can decrease light output by as much as 15 to 20 percent, so clean lamps at least once a week. A Few Other Tips Assuming you’re providing adequate nutrition, fresh water and safe surrounds, there are a few additional ways to keep wintering hens happy. Keep the Coop Cozy Chickens are resilient birds and tolerate temperature extremes well. But, like humans, they will suffer in cold winter drafts. Make sure the coop is free of drafts during winter (but don’t compromise ventilation). You want hens to direct their nutrient reserves to egg production, not the battle to stay warm. Relieve Cabin Fever Chickens enjoy going outside, even if it’s cold, but most don’t like to walk on snow or in the rain. During cold snowy weather, hens may get cabin fever. A good way to perk them up is to provide a block of grain mixed with minerals. Feed stores sell these scratch blocks, which can keep winter birds busy for hours of pecking and scratching. Look for the Nutrena NatureWise Scratch Block at your local Nutrena feed dealer. Minimize Stress It’s not uncommon for hens to stop laying for a couple of weeks if they have experienced emotional trauma. Keep disturbances to a minimum and their routine on track. Caution with Pullets As with older hens, light will stimulate the reproductive cycles of a pullet (a female chicken under 16 weeks). If grown under too much artificial light too soon, the young chick can develop sexually before her body is ready to support laying eggs. Prevent complications by not using supplemental light (other than for heat) before pullets reach 16 weeks or weigh two pounds. Winter Eggspectations Despite the most diligent supplemental light therapy, some decline in winter egg production is normal. The question is, how much? Results can vary widely based on breeds and ages, but here are some very general guidelines. Normally, a flock of healthy birds won’t stop laying completely in winter, but their production will be lower as the days shorten. In general, domestic chickens begin to lay at approximately 16 to 20 weeks of age and will lay between 20 to 23 dozen eggs the first year. That’s about one egg a day for a period of four to six days, with a day or two off for rest. During the coldest, darkest winter months, egg production will drop to about three to four eggs per week. If a hen has been through its first molt – around 14 months – she’ll lay larger but fewer eggs per year, about 16 to 18 dozen. For these hens, their winter production will drop to about two or three eggs per week. Egg Production Basics And, finally, before you focus exclusively on lighting, remember the other factors that impact egg production. They include: • Age -- the hen may be too young or too old • Decreasing day length/molting -- the hen may be taking time off from laying to build up body reserves • Egg-eaters -- the chickens are eating the eggs before you can gather them • Undiscovered nest -- the hen is laying, you just haven’t found the eggs • Undiscovered pest – the hen is laying, but something (dog, skunk, raccoon, etc.) is eating the eggs • Improper nutrition – not enough energy or an overall unbalanced diet is harming egg production. (Learn about the Nutrena line of feeds at www.NutrenaNatureWise.com.) • Disease – health issues are impacting the hen’s egg production For sure, newly laid eggs are the jewels of poultry keeping. With extra care, you can enjoy abundant fresh eggs through every season. Visit Nutrena Poultry Feeds to learn more!