Our local poultry-owners association welcomes new members regardless of whether they live in our area or in another part of the state. With so many people turning to homegrown foods in order to avoid supermarkets, we’ve seen an recent increase in membership.
Understandably, those new to keeping chickens typically come with questions they hope experienced flock owners can answer for them. Common subjects include where to buy supplies and what feed we recommend. What predators are common in our neck of the woods gets asked a lot, too.
One enthusiastic young homesteader, however, eagerly shared photos of the baby chicks she’d just hatched. She bubbled about all the fresh eggs her chickens would produce come winter time.
Fortunately, our group is very supportive, and not one person commented sarcastically or condescendingly. Not one person commented at all, actually.
As one of the moderators, I dutifully reached out to this newcomer to see if she understood how poultry egg production works. As it turned out, she didn’t.
She and her partner had researched every aspect of keeping milk goats—the primary focus of their homestead. But they had assumed chickens would be self sufficient, foraging and laying eggs all day long, all year long.
Our chat was quite an eye opener. Fresh eggs from your chickens can indeed be had all winter long. It just takes a bit of effort on your part (and on the hens’).
The following information may help you ensure your hens lay eggs during the off season.
The Importance of Light
Layers require 14 hours of light per day in order to produce eggs. This naturally occurs each spring, as the days begin to lengthen and a hen’s reproductive system responds to the increase in light.
As daylight wanes in early fall, egg production also diminishes, nature’s tidy way of preventing chicks from hatching—and perishing—during the harshest time of the year.
This off season also allows hens to recuperate from months of almost daily egg laying, which depletes the protein and calcium levels in their bodies. To alter a layer’s natural production cycle, artificial light must be introduced.
Timing Is Everything
The simplest way to extend a laying flock’s production season is by installing lights in the coop. While this seems straightforward, there are many factors to take into consideration. Foremost among these is that additional lighting needs to be timed in such a way as to not to disrupt your hens’ regular roosting.
Accomplish this by illuminating their coop in the early morning hours rather than at night. As daylight shortens, increase the length of time that your coop lights run so that, together, natural and artificial light total to 14 hours of exposure.
Adding artificial light at nighttime is detrimental. It prevents them from getting to sleep when their circadian cycle dictates. Also, the light increases the chances of them refusing to enter their coops at dusk, leaving them exposed to predation.
Fluorescent vs. Incandescent
In addition to time of lighting, type of lighting is an important consideration if you want eggs from your chickens this winter.
There’s no need to illuminate your coop as if your birds were throwing a (hen)house party. Supplemental lighting should be soft, shedding only enough light to read. Because of this, fluorescent lights tend to be too intense for coop use.
The long fluorescent bulbs also attract the dust that is ever present inside a coop. This requires that both fixture and bulbs be cleaned with frequency. In addition, fluorescent lights function capriciously in cold weather, which effectively undermines their usefulness in an egg-production setting.
Incandescent bulbs are a more suitable choice, with their variety of wattages and warmth levels.
Make certain to select a warm, orange wavelength. This will help stimulate your hens’ reproductive cycle versus a cool, blue one. Incandescent lighting may not be as cost effective to use as fluorescent lighting. But its effect on your layers is the positive trade-off.
Another option for coop lighting is the use of light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. LED bulbs typically have a longer life span and are more energy efficient than both incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. They also emit far less heat than incandescent bulbs and are more reliable in cold weather than fluorescent bulbs, making them the safest choice for use inside a dusty coop.
However, LED fixtures and bulbs cost significantly more than both incandescent and fluorescent lighting, and warm-wavelength LED bulbs are in high demand and may be difficult to find.
Battery-powered LED light fixtures exist and may seem to be the solution for egg farmers whose coops are not equipped with electricity. Unfortunately, these type of fixtures are operated via touch, making them impractical as it would require flock keepers to go out to their coops at 3 AM or so to activate them.
And there’s no guarantee that a curious hen won’t peck the light to shut it off.
Whatever kind of lighting system you select, make certain that it is securely installed. A loose fixture creates a fire hazard, as it can fall onto the bedding below, igniting it through the heat of the bulb.
Install your lights overhead—on the ceiling if possible—at a height higher than your feeder and waterer. Make certain that there are no bare bulbs. Your light fixtures should have cages or panels covering the bulbs, preventing both the accumulation of dust as well as contact with litter should the fixture fall.
Make certain that there is no possibly way for a bird to roost on your fixture, the electrical cord or the timer. Finally, keep track of when you install the lights so that you are prepared to change the bulbs out before they burn out, literally leaving your layers in the dark.
The young homesteader was understandably disappointed. She and her partner had planned on as natural a chicken-rearing project as possible, with no electricity involved. For now, she is sticking to her original plan and simply shifting her eggspectations for eggs from their chickens to late spring instead of this winter.
Should the anticipation prove intolerable, she and her partner will have an illuminating conversation.