This question, along with heating the coop is persistent.
Each winter I always receive emails about this. So this year I’ve put down some thoughts, reasons for and against lighting and related tidbits.
The discussion between the yeas and the nays on this subject can get quite heated at times, so remember, the choice is your decision to make.
There is no doubt that hens are capable of laying year round, but the question is should they?
Here are the fors and againsts for adding light to your coop during winter.
Also, please don’t forget to check out our Winter Guide. It has more useful tips and help for the winter months.
Why Do Chickens Need Light Through The Winter Months?
The first question is why do chickens need light through the winter months? They don’t, but if you want eggs they need around fourteen hours of daylight in order to lay eggs.
The pineal gland in the chickens’ brain is often called the ‘third eye’. It is this gland that somehow knows when the daylight is diminishing and triggers a response- reduce or stop laying eggs.
In the Spring months it detects lengthening days and tells the bird to start laying eggs again.
If left naturally, there would be a few eggs during winter, but not many.
Many keepers prefer to look at their hens as seasonal producers of their goods. Wintertime is their time to rest the egg factory and have a break from the laying cycle.
I admit I’m in this camp- I like my girls to take a rest over the winter.
Other folks look upon the situation from the ‘pulling your weight’ point of view. The chicken still requires feed, water and care through the winter, so they should contribute eggs. Certainly if you are running a business it makes sense to have your hens working year round.
Some folks will tell you a hen doesn’t lay over the winter months because she would run out of eggs- this is an old wives’ tale.
Chickens are born with a ‘preset’ number of eggs, but that number is so huge that a hen would have to lay for several decades to run out.
Reasons to Light the Coop
Chickens need light to produce eggs.
So in winter time when daylight is scarce, extra lighting is needed to give them a consistent fourteen hours of ‘daylight’.
The daylight is detected by the pineal gland, which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to produce hormones that in turn stimulate the hen’s ovary to produce eggs.
Today’s popular egg laying chickens have generally been cross bred with other breeds to make what is called a ‘utility’ or ‘production’ bird. A utility bird has been enhanced by cross breeding to lay a large amount of eggs.
Red sex link, black sex links are examples of utility laying birds that have been bred to lay large amounts of eggs. Although they will lay a large amount of eggs per year, their laying life span is much shorter than a heritage breed in general.
Heritage breeds will not be quite as productive as todays’ production hens, but their laying life span is longer.
Even so, these birds still need a minimum of twelve-fourteen hours of light to trick the hen into thinking it’s daylight.
How to add Light to the Coop
This can easily be accomplished by putting a light bulb in the coop.
The light produced from a sixty watt bulb should be sufficient unless you have a really large coop. There should be enough light produced that the hens can see their way to the feeder. An added bonus of adding light is you are also adding a little heat to the coop.
Most people use a regular household light bulb, either fluorescent or incandescent. Whichever you choose be consistent. Avoid switching lights, it may confuse and upset the already stressed birds.
Fluorescent light bulbs are more energy efficient. They also give a cleaner, whiter light. They are however, more expensive than incandescent bulbs, but will save you on the electric bill.
Lighting Tip: do not use bulbs that are ’industrial duty’ or ‘break free’. They are coated with a Teflon type substance which emits poisonous fumes when heated!
‘Daylight’ hours should be added in the morning. If you add them in the evening the birds are going to be confused and disoriented when the light goes out. Try to keep the evening light as natural as possible.
Be diligent about securing the light. It needs to be somewhere that the birds cannot accidentally dislodge it and cause a fire. Ideally it should have some sort of protective cover such as a wire enclosure.
In order to be consistent with the addition of the daylight hours you will need a timer, unless you really want to get up very early every morning! In New York State this would mean getting up at around 2a.m. in December to give them the required amount of light.
You will need to adjust the timer weekly through the winter months to ensure a constant fourteen hours.
You should check that the bulb is working frequently. If the birds experience a couple of days without the added light it could throw them into another molt.
If you decide to add light in your coop, make sure there is sufficient space in the coop for your ladies.
Cramped quarters can lead to a lot of anti-social behaviors such as feather picking. If you are dedicated enough to open up the coop when the bulb lights up in the morning, you can let them out into a secure run which is also illuminated by a low light.
If you don’t fancy the early start, you could also use an automated door.
The run must be secure.
The hours around dusk and dawn are the hours when predators are most active.
If you are expecting your girls to lay through winter, make sure they have a good quality feed and access to oyster shell. Good nutrition is very important to ensure the best health for your flock.
You can add some greens (collards, chard, kale etc.) to the diet, along with blueberries, apples (minus the seeds) and don’t forget the vitamin and mineral supplements too.
It’s worth saying here that large Industrial poultry concerns keep the lights on all the time to maintain egg production.
They usually change out their hens at around eighteen months because the hens are worn out.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I do not add light to my coops.
Both of my layer coops are inside the barn and I keep a barn light on all night to deter predators. So you could say that they have some extra light, but it is minimal.
It’s not only my theory that wild birds do not lay eggs in the winter for very good reasons.
They likely would freeze to death sitting on eggs and it would be a terrible time to try and raise young. Food and water sources would be hard to come by, predators are hungrier in winter and will take more risk in order to eat and there is insufficient light to trigger the pituitary response.
Admittedly, the chickens in our care are less likely to live life on the edge. But it is still important in my opinion, to let the egg machinery have a rest.
Plus, hens that produce year round are more susceptible to prolapsed vents and ovarian cancers. I have not found any studies that support this information, but many older, more experienced keepers believe this to be true and consequently do not light their coops.
As a hen ages the muscle that prevents the vent from prolapse weakens.
If the hen has to strain to push the egg out, sometimes the vent is pushed out too.
It can be difficult to re-insert the vent. Oftentimes you will have to prevent her from laying for a while. It entails keeping her quiet, in a darkened place with no food for a couple of days- not an ideal situation all around.
Sometimes this is effectively the end of an egg laying career.
As I mentioned earlier, some of my birds- notably Rhode Island Reds and Welsummers, lay through the winter. They don’t lay as frequently as summertime, but they do lay.
If you have the space in your set-up, you can always invest in buying or raising a few pullets in the early Spring. These birds will be at the point of lay when everyone else is taking a break. I have done this for the past few years and it has worked well for me.
You should be aware though, sometimes pullets will not start to lay until Spring.
You will need to have chickens that are known to thrive in the colder and darker zones. Examples would be the sex link chickens, Rhode Islands, Delawares and Welsummers. These last three have been consistent producers for me.
The questions of lighting and heating in the coop can be very contentious, each side professing they are right. There really isn’t a ‘right or wrong’ answer, you must do what works best for your situation and beliefs.
My philosophy is to allow my girls to rest if they need to- those that continue laying do so without added light.
The pullets I have will soon come into lay- so I will not be without eggs for long!
If you had an ‘overdose’ of fresh eggs in the summer months, hopefully you have managed to save some by freezing and pickling.
The frozen eggs from summer aren’t great to eat (better than store bought), but are excellent for baking.
Whatever you decide to do, keep it up for at least one season and don’t change halfway through the season. This will confuse the birds and might throw them into a molt mid-winter.
We hope this has been thought provoking and helpful.
Let us know in the comments below what you do with your girls!