Let There Be Light: Putting Chickens on Overtime

October 5, 2017

A healthy laying flock often frustrates its owners by slowing egg production just as the holiday baking season approaches. Biology explains the reason and modern flock management offers a solution.

Nature programmed chickens to lay the most eggs as day length increases in the spring.   Abundant and increasing sunshine signals birds that it is the season to lay and incubate a clutch of eggs. Day length, rather than temperature, determines production.

Hens normally lay the most when they spend about 15 hours of each day in light. The sun shines about this much daily in northern latitudes and peaks during the summer solstice around June 21. From then on, the sun spends a little less time over the horizon each day until the December 21 winter solstice when it is only up nine or ten hours a day across much of the United States.

People typically start chicks in March or April and they begin to lay in August or September when the days are already shortening. Egg production is usually very high when pullets are young but gradually declines as cool weather and long nights approach. Even during the darkest winter days, a flock of healthy hens will lay some eggs, but often not enough for winter baking needs.

Fortunately, chickens are easy to fool by extending their workday during the dark months. One light bulb controlled by a timer will wake the hens a couple of hours before sunrise and increase egg production.

Assuming a coop has electricity, setting up a lighting system is simple.  Aluminum fixtures that are often used to brood chicks work well for winter lighting. They have a spring-operated clamp, are inexpensive and are sold in stores that sell feed. Screw in a bulb and clamp the light on a beam or ledge on or near the coop’s ceiling where the birds can’t access it.  Run the cord to a timer plugged into an outlet.

Incandescent bulbs consume much electricity and burn out frequently. Fluorescents are efficient and long lasting but don’t work well in cold temperatures.  LED’s are perfect. They instantly come up to full brilliance when turned on, even if it’s cold, last nearly forever, and use little electricity.

Supplemental lighting can be started any time after late summer but a good rule of thumb is to run it from equinox to equinox. In other words, start using artificial light around September 21 and discontinue it around March 21. Set the timer so the combination of artificial and natural light totals 14 or 15 hours. As natural light declines or increases with the seasons change the timer settings to keep the total light in that 14 or 15-hour range.  Set the timer so the light switches off just after sunrise to save electricity.

All artificial light should be in the early morning.  When the light comes on when birds are roosting they’ll wake, hop down, and begin eating.  If lighting extends daylight in the evening it will instantly get dark when the birds are active, and they’ll have a hard time finding roosts.     Let the birds go to bed at sundown and wake them early mornings.

Remember safety.  Electricity can be dangerous. Keep wires out of reach of chickens and dampness. Avoid using extension cords if possible.

Some flock owners prefer to limit manipulating their birds and don’t use supplemental light.   That’s fine but results in sparse production just when most families want the most eggs.   Adding light is an inexpensive and effective way to coax the girls into laying more.

Post submitted by Winding Pathways, LLC.

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