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Many chicken keepers are disappointed when winter rolls around because their supply of fresh, delicious egg supply from their homestead flock suddenly slows down or stops. This happens because most chickens naturally decrease egg production during the colder, darker months, as the egg-laying process begins in a hen’s eye. Hens lay only after receiving a light cue, from natural sunlight or artificial light. The light stimulates a photo-receptive gland near the eye, which triggers the release of an egg cell from the ovary. However, with a little knowledge and planning, you can control your flock to produce eggs year-round.
After a chicken’s nutritional needs are met, the two most critical factors controlling egg production are daylight hours and genetic makeup. So over the years, humans have learned to manipulate these factors to consistently obtain eggs. Depending on your chicken-keeping priorities, you can use these methods to control your flock’s winter egg production, too.
Choose A Layer
When daylight increases in the spring, it signals a hen to start laying eggs, incubate eggs (which is to say, go broody) and raise baby chicks. Conversely, shortening daylight in autumn signals her to slow down on egg production, molt, replace feathers and renew nutritional stores.
This natural cycle favors the survival of offspring but slows egg production. Because chickens don’t produce eggs when they are broody, raising chicks or molting, humans have bred hens for hundreds of years to minimize these characteristics. The resulting specialized egg-laying breeds, such as Leghorns, Golden Comets and Sex Links, maximize egg production, minimize broodiness and molt quickly.
A natural method of controlling egg production, then, is to choose modern egg-laying
breeds for your flock, as opposed to choosing more traditional dual-purpose varieties, which were bred for meat and eggs. Traditional chickens that can be used for meat as well as eggs follow the natural cycle described earlier and cease egg production in winter.
Egg-laying breeds typically start laying at 5 to 6 months of age, skip the broody/chick-raising/molting cycle and lay continuously for 12 to 14 months in their first year. Then they slow down or stop egg production as they go through a major molt for two to three months.
Those wanting to obtain eggs year-round naturally can take advantage of the characteristics of these modern egg-layers. New chicks can be started each spring so that they begin laying in fall when last year’s birds start their first molt. Generally, these pullets will lay through their first winter without any added light and will start supplying eggs when last year’s birds begin molting.
When using the egg-production model described earlier, older chickens are usually culled when they start their second molting cycle. That’s because although the specialized egg-laying breeds lay heavily for their first two years, they typically slow significantly after that, while younger birds are much more productive.
Add Artificial Light
To obtain eggs throughout winter, chicken keepers can also add artificial light to increase the hours of “daylight” each day. A chicken needs approximately 14 hours of daylight to stimulate her pituitary gland such that her ovaries release an egg. During the winter in the U.S., the average amount of daylight is about 9 1/2 hours, so there is insufficient light to cause an egg to be released. If artificial light is supplied such that chickens receive 14 to 16 hours of light every day, many hens will produce throughout winter. Even dual-purpose birds that have completed a fall molt will typically start laying again in winter when artificial light is supplied.
If artificial light is used, natural lighting should be supplemented when daylight decreases to 15 hours in the fall. Chickens are very sensitive to changes in daylight, so if even one day of artificially extended light is missed, they might cease egg production. For this reason, automatic timers are highly recommended when extending day length.
Chickens do need six to eight hours of darkness in each 24-hour period to allow them to rest and keep their immune systems healthy. Putting a light on a timer that automatically turns on and off at specific times is convenient. For chicken health and cost reasons, it’s not recommended that lights be left on all night. A timer is an inexpensive and easy way to ensure that laying hens receive the light they require to produce eggs while minimizing electrical bills.
Supplemental light should be added in the morning hours, before dawn. It should not be added at the end of the day, because chickens might get caught off the roost at night. They won’t be able to find their roosts in the dark because they have poor night vision and might become confused, stressed or even injured. By adding extra light in the morning rather than evening, chickens will naturally roost with the setting of the sun.
To provide 15 hours of light in each day, calculate backward from sunset to determine how many hours the light should be on. For example, if the goal is to provide 15 hours of light during the day when sunset is at 6 p.m. and sunrise at 7 a.m., set the timer to turn the light on at 3 a.m. (6 p.m. minus 15 hours equals 3 a.m.) and off at 7 a.m. The timer will need to be adjusted every few weeks to keep up with seasonal changes.
Artificial Light Types
Another item to consider when setting up artificial light is the type of bulb and wattage. Until recently, incandescent or fluorescent bulbs were the only options. Fluorescent bulbs cost less to operate than incandescent but cost more to install and are more difficult to maintain and regulate light intensity. If using fluorescent, use a warm wavelength to mimic sunlight. Cool wavelength bulbs, such as those commonly used in offices, won’t stimulate the hens’ reproductive cycle.
Low-wattage bulbs should provide enough light to make hens think they are getting their daily requirement of light and keep them producing. For example, a 40-watt incandescent bulb placed 7 feet above the chicken coop floor is usually adequate for 120 square feet (a 10-by-12-foot coop).
Adding a hot, breakable incandescent or fluorescent bulb to a coop full of chickens and dry straw or pine shavings is dangerous. Light bulbs can be a fire hazard, and a small drop of water or a bird flapping its wings can cause one to shatter. When adding artificial light using bulbs, it’s critical to install and protect them correctly to prevent accidental fires or injuries.
A newer and far safer alternative to incandescent or fluorescent bulbs in the chicken coop are LED light panels. LED panels are one of the most efficient sources of light on the market today and aren’t easily broken. Small panels can provide light equivalent to a 40-watt incandescent bulb but require only about 2 watts of power.
For the ultimate in safety, efficiency and convenience, chicken coop controllers are now available that turn on and off an LED light panel to provide artificial light for a specified time, open the coop door at sunrise, close the coop door at sunset and prevent the door from opening if it’s too cold outside.
Many flock owners have installed automatic door openers in their chicken coops so that the coop pop door opens at dawn and closes at dusk, all automatically. Automatic coop door openers are very convenient and help ensure that the flock is protected at night.
However, many of these automatic coop door openers operate based on a sensor that reacts to daylight to open the door in the morning and then to dark to close the door at night. If you plan to install a timer to turn on supplemental lighting before dawn, it’s important to consider whether that will interfere with operation of the automatic coop door opener.
If the door opener works from a light sensor, then it might sense when the artificial light turns on in the coop prior to dawn and open the coop door. Of course, that’s not when the coop door should be open, as there might be nocturnal predators outside just waiting for an opportunity to invade the coop. The remedy for this problem is usually as simple as moving the automatic door light sensor to a location where it doesn’t recognize that a light has come on inside the coop.
Some chicken keepers are concerned that adding artificial light in winter will harm their chickens, and that continued egg production will wear them out. However, there is no scientific evidence that supplemental lighting is detrimental or will decrease a hen’s life-span. Chickens do need to molt periodically to replace their worn-out feathers and rebuild nutritional stores. But, as long as birds are fed properly and allowed to molt every 12 to 18 months, hens can safely lay throughout winter.
Adding artificial light too soon, however, can negatively affect young pullets that are just getting ready to lay. If pullets are exposed to too much artificial light too soon, it can stimulate them to start producing eggs before their bodies are ready. So, don’t add supplemental lighting for female chicks until they are at least 16 weeks of age.
There are also rumors that hens will run out of eggs if they produce eggs year-round. But each hen is born with the ability to lay many thousands of eggs, which would take her years of egg production to complete. Hens really stop laying from old age, not because they run out of eggs.
Planning for Production
By knowing the basics about egg production, you can plan to produce your desired number of eggs in winter. If you desire the maximum number of eggs, then start egg-laying-breed chicks each spring, use artificial light and cull older chickens each fall as molting begins. However, if you use egg-laying breeds and natural light, and you cull less aggressively, you’ll get far fewer eggs. Just the same, the latter plan should still yield a continuous supply of winter eggs. If you want to add dual-purpose breeds, those varieties will typically produce eggs in winter when artificial light is supplied but won’t if only natural lighting is used.
Although there are many issues to consider when implementing a program to provide backyard eggs through winter, most chicken keepers find it to be a rewarding investment. By properly managing the type of chickens and light in your coop, you will be rewarded with a year-round supply of tasty eggs.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.