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The Endless Battle of Dark and Light (As it Pertains to Chickens)

Reposted with permission from Green City Growers’ poultry expert, Khrysti Smyth. See the original here.

Egg laying in winter… Shed some light, or embrace the darkness?

Some questions I get asked a lot around this time of year are about light and heat in the winter…

“They need a heater, right?”
“Do I have to bring them inside in the winter?”
“Why aren’t my birds laying?”
“My sister’s grandfather’s brother-in-law says I should always use lights and that I should plan to get new birds every 2 years.”(1)

chickens-0215-1Well, these questions are really about two separate issues – light/laying and heat. Since light is what affects winter egg-laying, let’s turn the burner down for a moment and walk towards the sun…

The lights-or-no-lights question can usually be boiled down to a matter of priorities:“higher production now” or “longer egg-laying life”. Occasionally with a splash of” natural, seasonal food experience” thrown in as a bonus round.

Personally, I tend towards embracing the dark (said no fantasy or sci-fi hero ever), at least when it comes to chickens.

I got into the local food movement as one way of counteracting our thoroughly-unsustainable industrial food system, and I feel that embracing seasonal cycles is part of that. That said, I completely understand, support, and respect that others have different priorities and therefore may have different approaches. So I’m here to help you make an informed choice.

The Gist of It

Hens hatch with a set number of potential future eggs in their single functional ovary (it’s the left one… not to be confused with Katy Perry’s Left Shark), and while all birds naturally have a dormant period in fall/winter, day length is the cue that tells their bodies what season it is. (2)

Thus, when it’s time to make a decision about whether to include a light or not, you need to think first about your goal, then move from there.

Goal: Maximum Production Now!

chickens-0215-2If your goal is for your hens to lay as many eggs as possible, as quickly as possible, then having lights on a timer will trick their bodies into thinking it’s not winter and keep them laying. Not as much as spring or summer because there are a few other factors at play, but still more.

If you’re going with Mission: Production, then I recommend using a *very low heat* light source (Christmas lights, perhaps? And they look cute too!) and setting them on a timer to wake the girls up 14-16 hours before dusk and turn off after the sun is up. Letting them have a natural dusk in the evening will ensure they still put themselves to bed on their own and help keep you from having to round up confused hens when the lights suddenly go out and they’re all left wandering around the run.

As for the type of light, there have been studies showing that white LED bulbs are the most effective, and they are also, conveniently, the ones that give off the least heat so they are also the safest option (see our next post for more on heat, but the short of it is: don’t bother).

DON’T use any of the Teflon-coated “shatterproof”or “safety-coated” incandescent or fluorescent bulbs – they can emit vapors that are deadly for your birds.

Also DON’T leave a light on all the time!  The cold of winter is enough for their bodies to deal with without adding 24 hours of artificial insomnia into the mix.  Use a timer, have it come on at 5AM or whatever is appropriate for 14-16 hours of daylight before a natural dusk followed by 8 hours of shut-eye.

Note that all hens will go through a molt in the fall to replace their feathers, and will stop laying for a bit while this is happening.

Goal: Laying for a Longer Life (Or, Embracing Your Hens’ Dark Side)

chickens-0215-4Given that they only have a fixed number of total-eggs-for-their-entire-life to work with, adding artificial light to keep them laying means they’ll run out of eggs sooner in life, so if it’s more important for you and your family that your girls are able to have a “longer egg-laying life” overall, and possibly keep laying until their 8th year or even later, then I’d leave the lights out of it and let them have their winter rest.

Yes, that means you might need to buy eggs during the winter OR change your family’s eating habits while you’re not getting as many eggs. That’s where the “seasonal food experience” part of the larger global food system conversation comes into play…  If part of your goal of having chickens is to have a closer connection with your food – where it comes from, how it’s produced, etc. – then accepting that most naturally-produced foods are seasonal may be part of that experience for you. Just as leafy greens grow best in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, and squashes and melons and apples get harvested later because they tend to need most of the growing season to mature, chickens have their most prolific egg production during birds’ natural breeding season in the spring then lay less in the fall and winter.

(How long they live and how well they lay later in life is also related to breed and bloodlines – I strongly suspect that birds sourced from many of the big hatcheries, which includes chicks bought at nearly all feed stores, tend to be less likely to lay over time and also be more susceptible to health issues after their first year or two.  This is why I love being able to help connect backyard chicken owners with birds from local breeders who have higher-quality bloodlines!)


chickens-0215-6(1) The maximum production option also means that you may want to plan to rehome your ladies as they stop laying as much, which tends to happen after their 2nd or 3rd year depending on the individual bird. This isn’t an easy-breesy thing to do – the reality is that many city hens who get rehomed to the classic “friend’s farm in [rural area]” or wherever end up dying within the first year from complications resulting from the stress of moving, disease exposure from being in a new flock, or predators they’re not used to. You also may have to work a little harder to find a home for your beloved pets that you can be 100% sure doesn’t involve a stewpot.

(2) Egg-laying hormones are governed in part by the pineal gland, which is a part of the endocrine system that lives in the “third eye” brain area just above and behind the eyes and is affected by light. It is also the gland that produces our sleepy friend, melatonin.)

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