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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Case Against Adding Supplemental Winter Chicken Coop Light


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 rest over the winter.

Personally, we don't add light in our coop.  Like everything else we do with our flock, we tend towards doing things naturally.  The new research recently has shown that forcing hens to lay using artificial light can lead to ovarian cancer and other reproductive issues.  (We have heard from several fans who's vets have also agreed with this diagnosis.) 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.

(Treatment includes carefully cleaning the prolapse and then pushing it back into place before applying witch hazel - a natural anti-inflammatory which will help tighten the skin and vent, as well as reduce the pain and swelling.  Feed should be withheld for at least 24 hours followed by several days of light rations of mainly greens to try and prevent another egg being laid.  The hen should be kept separate for the duration to prevent pecking by flock members. It is likely to recur and the hen needs to be watched carefully.)

Also, according to a recent article in Your Chickens magazine (Jan. 2014), 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.

I was recently talking about the topic of adding light in the winter with a homesteader 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.

~which to choose? keep reading~
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.  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 the 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 being that winter is not the optimal time to raise chicks!).

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 college 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. 
  • 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
Here's another clever idea to help add more natural light to your coop from our Pinterest board DIY Chicken Stuff.

Photo Credit
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 'professional advice' to you is that getting MORE chickens is the easiest and best way to ensure enough eggs for your family for the winter!



BECAUSE LIFE IS JUST BETTER WITH CHICKENS!


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28 comments:

  1. Great advice! We, too, choose to let our girls take the winter off. We've recently been plagued by internal laying in a few girls (lost one sadly), so that's another reason why. We don't want their bodies to have to work too hard. They are our pets and we'd rather have them around than just be egg machines.

    PS - I love those wire basket nesting boxes! So cute. Looks like the girls love them too as there is a line waiting for an open box haha.

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  2. Good for you. Although I don't think adding light necessarily 'hurts' them, I DO think its more beneficial to let their bodies take that break. The stronger and healthier your chickens are, the better all around. Less likely to get sick etc...and giving them 'time off' I believe will lead to a healthier flock. And yes, they LOVE their open air nesting boxes!

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  3. I use a dusk to dawn heat lamp and that's the only extra "light". Here in Oregon my hens become ducks during the winter :)

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  4. Great info...I am a *panic* freak...I leave a 40 watt bulb on year round....in case I have to run out in the middle of the night and check on them..

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  5. just an "FYI" An extensive study recently published verifies that it is not, in fact, the amount of daylight that the hen's pituitary responds to, but the length of darkness. Same same I know, but just and interesting bit of knowledge.

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  6. ok, so we have had light in our coop the entire time. Our hens are 9 months old and have been laying for 3 almost 4 months. When one went broody they all stopped for about a month but have all begun again. SHOULD we take the light out? We originally had a heat light in, because they were so young. Switched to a light but have recently put a large window in for more air and natural light.
    Can we just turn the light off and them be ok???

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    1. I would turn off the light. Light can actually lead to pecking etc, Better to just go natural.

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    2. ok, thanks so much. I just didn't want to throw them in to molting as you mentioned.

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  7. I wanted supplemental light this first year since my chicken haven't started laying yet. I bought a string of white LED Christmas lights to string in there. I'm going to staple them in place around the top on a timer. They shouldn't burn hot enough to start anything on fire in any case and aren't teflon coated.

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  8. The x-mas lights are a good idea and they might work for my coop...I'm still "on the fence" about lighting, I'm still getting eggs from everyone and we've gone to less than 14 hrs of daylight in VT...

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  9. I just got some baby chicks. Don't they need some sort of heat sorce? I have them in a coop with a heat lamp. At night before I turn it on they are all gathered by the door, then when I turn it on they act much more happy.I live in Oklahoma and tomorrow the temp is supposed to be in the high 30's.

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    1. Yes baby chicks need heat 24/7. Its not wonder they are unhappy without any heat! Have you read anything on raising chicks? This article I wrote on the light is clearly referring to laying hens. Here's information on raising chicks: http://fresh-eggs-daily.blogspot.com/2012/01/chicks-are-coming.html

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    2. We will not be adding light to our girls coop this or any other winter. And we're in Ohio. I want my girls to live long and prosper. Lol..

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  10. Great post Lisa. I let my hens have a much needed break over winter as well, leaving the lights off. I still get enough eggs to feed the family breakfast, but have to buy the store bought (eek) ones for baking over the holidays. I will try freezing, thanks for the tip!

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  11. Here on the border of NY state and Canada, should we worry that the hens will freeze or have problems from the cold. I feel like I should have them in a draft free place and add some sort of heat or at least a heat lamp that I used when they were chicks. Any suggestions?

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    1. Thought I would jump in here since I'm in MN and I know how cold winters get - your hens don't need any heat so long as they're in a draft free coop. Ours make it through the winter just fine and even enjoy time outdoors :)

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    2. I had a Brahma get cold stress last winter here in Maine, so it's not quite so simple. Keep a good eye on them. I use a heater that doesn't get terribly hot on the nights that are sub-zero. The chicken that got cold stress was one of my girls that lives at my mothers in an unheated coop.

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    3. Most likely your coop wasn't well ventilated enough. It's just as important to have it moisture free in the winter as the summer. Not sure what cold stress is, but frostbite is caused in part by moisture, not necessarily cold alone. Also, IF you heat your coop and lose power overnight, your chickens could easily freeze to death because they're not used to the cold and haven't been allowed to become acclimated to it. The right size coop for the number of hens you have and some straw insulation, the deep litter method and you shouldn't need heat.

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  12. A dry draft free coo should keep them warm enough.You can stack straw bales along thr walls for added inflation.

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  13. I use the $1 solar landscape lights that were in my yard anyway, so no added cost. They don't heat up, so there's no fire hazard. The chickens can push them around as much as they want. Even if they come open, the LED bulb isn't hot. I put them in the roost every afternoon and put them back in the sun in the morning, just barely on the ground stake, for ease in moving. I put one or 2 for my little chicken tractor, but one could put more for a larger coup. It doesn't take much light at all to increase egg production.

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  14. Thanks for this post!
    I live in Alaska, and it is DARK in the winter! ;)
    My chickens seem to love having a light bulb on in the early morning and it seems that is the only time they lay. They are so silly though because I made them nice nest boxes and they ALL (i have 5) choose to lay in a carboard box on top of all the nice little boxes. hahaha.
    I keep a red heat lamp on day and night for them...its already been close to zero this year!
    Thanks again!

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  15. I'm new with chickens with summer. My question is: I Live in Wisconsin, so it's COLD in winter. I have 3 big girls, that are supposed to be fine with our winters, but also have 2 little Silkies, because they are so darn cute...... but they need heat in winter. What should I do? Thanks!

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    1. That's a tough one. If your coop is fairly small, their body heat will help keep it warm. Also the silkies will snuggle with the big girls. I would suggest on really cold nights to add some heat. You would hate to lose the silkies.

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  16. thanks this was great help. we just started with chickens last winter. we had to get them before we were incorporated. got them quick and didn't have a clue what I was doing. put a lamp in as it was in the 20s. when I read what this does I decided this winter I don't want a light in. what is best to keep them warm? at what temp is it cold enough to turn on a lamp? our coop is small and any lamp they eventually hit. its big enough for them but not tall? do they really need a heat source at all? I read up and everyone contradicts everyone else so im more confused than when I knew nothing.

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    1. They are most comfortable in temps above freezing (32 degrees) but in a dry, draft-free coop they should be just fine. There are other ways to keep them warm including using the deep litter method, nice thick straw 'insulation' and scratch before bedtime. Chickens don't need either a light or heat in the winter :0)

      There's a tab at the top of the blog - our Ultimate Chicken Care Guide - and there's a section on Seasonal Considerations with a few interesting articles.

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  17. I think part of the decision of whether or not to light the coop lies in where you live. I live in Maine and when we get down to 8 hours of daylight I feel like it's a little mean to keep them in the dark with no food for 16 hours a day. SO, I give them light for a couple of hours so they aren't quite so bored and don't wake up quite so starving. This isn't enough to keep them from taking time off just enough to keep them from being quite so miserable during the long, long winter. I also find they can't find their way to the roosts if I don't turn on the light because they stay out trying to get every last little bit of daylight and by then it is VERY dark in the coop.

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    1. You're right about that. Everyone needs to take their own situation into consideration. I'm trying to point out the dangers, which in my opinion, far outweigh any benefits. Adding a few hours of daylight isn't going to kill them and if it makes you feel better, than I say do it, but do it safely.

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  18. I don't add the "supplemental daylight" to my coop, however I have a heat lamp on a timer attatched the the chain above the waterer to keep it from freezing. My feeder and waterer are both hanging so that the bases are shoulder high on the birds. The lamp is attached with a double ended snap to ensure the lamp doesn't fall or get knocked off. My coop has electric in it so no need to run extension cords. The light at night does add some heat, however the coop is 10 x 10 with a 10 x 6 outdoor run and currently only houses 7 birds so it doesn't get too warm in there and have not had any issues after a power outage.

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Lisa of Fresh Eggs Daily
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