Why I don’t add light to the coop January 4, 2013

Last week I wrote about the fact that cold hardiness and winter laying aren’t the same thing, and there were some suggestions to add light to the coop to increase winter laying. It’s true that winter production increases if you add light to the coop (although good winter laying is still breed related)… but adding light something I just don’t like to do. Let’s discuss what actually happens if you add light to the coop—after all, why should it matter?

Many people think the drop in winter laying is caused by the cold weather, but that’s not true. It’s caused by the short days.

why I don't add light to the coop

Even when autumn days begin to shorten, I don’t like to add light to the coop

Light cues tell your chicken’s body whether or not to release an ovum (the yolk plus the hen’s genetic material) from her ovaries. The ovum is what is eventually turned into an egg. Even if the winter weather is warm, if there are not enough hours of light in the day, your chickens will slow down laying in the wintertime. It’s true that very cold weather can also contribute to a drop in laying, because more of your chickens’ bodily resources have to go into keeping them warm rather than to producing eggs. It doesn’t help either that short days mean there’s less time to eat so they consume fewer calories. However, the primary reason for a winter slow down is the light itself.

According to the NC extension service, “The major environmental cue for control of reproduction is day length. Reception of light for reproductive purposes by the pullet is not primarily through the eyes but rather by the light energy penetrating the skull, skin and feathers and then perceived by an organ within the brain.”

Brahma in evening light

Is she watching the sunset with her third eye?

In fact, your chickens have what is colloquially referred to as the “third eye”—the pineal gland on the surface of their brain also perceives light. In some other animals—specifically some reptiles and amphibians—the pineal or parietal eye is well developed: an actual eye that can be seen on the surface of the skin of the head. In chickens, the light is thought to penetrate the skull and reach the pineal gland that way.

This is all technical, I guess, but you have to know what the process is so you can understand why some people choose to add light to the coop  in order to aid egg production, and why others—like me!—prefer not to add light to the coop. For me, the reason is that light cues have other effects on my hens.

For instance, shortened day lengths are a cue for chickens to begin molting. So, one problem with keeping the daylight constant is that if I add light to the coop, it could cause my birds to molt late, in the dead of winter, when it is cold and they need their feathers the most. Chickens will molt annually, regardless of the light situation; however, it is normally the change in daylight hours that triggers it (not temperature changes). If your chickens don’t have that trigger from fading hours of light, they may hold on for several months before finally molting at a time when it is really too cold to be without feathers. That can be very difficult for them, as you might imagine.

Speckled sussex in the snow - why I don't add light to the coop

Keep the light off! I’d rather have my feathers in this weather, thank-you-very-much!

In addition, if their brains are telling them to lay eggs when it’s very cold outside, the resources going into the production of those eggs may well be resources they could otherwise be using to keep warm. To me, it seems as if it could cause undue stress to their systems to add light to the coop, when it would be better for them to have a natural rest to recharge their batteries. That’s a personal decision, though. Perhaps if I lived in warm, sunny California I might feel differently about how much stress my birds would be under with added light.

If you do choose to add light to your coop in the winter to increase production, do it the right way. We hear from a lot of people who have not done their research and don’t know how best to add light to their coops. For instance, it’s usually recommended to only add light to the coop in the morning. The reason adding light in the evening can stress them is that in normal circumstances (with natural light), the light fades gradually as the sun sets, and that gives your chickens time to find their places on the roost and prepare for sleep. By contrast, when an artificial light goes out, it is very sudden, and your birds don’t have the opportunity to wind down and find their accustomed places on the roost. They may be on the floor of the coop eating or drinking when the lights go out, and unable to clearly see how to get back up to the roost, knocking into one another or having trouble jumping up in the dark.

add light to the coop for lots of eggs in the winter--but use caution

Who doesn’t love having lots of fresh eggs?

Believe me, I would love to have plenty of eggs year round, but the welfare of my hens is also important to me, and since I live in a cold-winter area, adding light could potentially be problematic. If you make the choice to add light to the coop, add it only during the morning hours, so that the evening light will fade naturally for your chickens as the sun goes down—and only add light to the coop AFTER your chickens have had their annual molt.

 

 

 

51 Comments
Emily January 4th, 2013

Great article! Thank you.

Gina January 4th, 2013

I use a brood light, on all the time, in the back corner of the coop, simply to warm the environment. It get’s cold some nights in Texas in January and February, occasionally as early as December, and I don’t feel like they have time ti adjust as fast as it gets to that cold, then back to something tolerable again.

Stephanie January 4th, 2013

I do not add light, but my easter egger still decided that in her 7th month, just before November, was the appropriate time to molt… Leading to a very cold chicken currently with about 60% of her feathers in 10 degree weather. WHY!

Suzi January 4th, 2013

Nature knows what it’s doing…I feel chickens need the break or they would not naturally stop laying during the shortened days…No lights for me & my happy chickens…

Yvette January 4th, 2013

GREAT read !! Thank you so much for sharing!

Genevieve Sawchyn January 4th, 2013

We had a light on fulltime for a while for heat, but a long time chicken farmer told us all that was doing was stressing our girls out. Like any one of us trying to sleep with the lights on. So we turned it off – until it got really cold (hey, I AM in Canada). Guess what? We got more eggs when the light was turned off. Interesting, huh?

Francesca Austin January 4th, 2013

I have always added light since my hens are self supporting, i.e. egg sales purchase their feed, bedding, etc. We add at 15 minute increasing
intervals morning and evening to get the required 14 hours and always give them 15 minutes at night even in summer to ensure they go into the coop before dusk so we can lock up. I used to live where it was very cold and occasionally a hen would molt in winter but there was never an ill effect and the molts were usually quick. They lay fewer eggs in the winter even with light.

Suzette January 4th, 2013

This is my first year having chickens and I really messed this up. I read that you should supplement light, which we did staring in fall, but then we noticed the girls were getting really skinny, so early winter we decreased the light to make it easier on them. Now we have weaned them off the light, but it suddenly got really cold and now they are molting :(. I feel really bad for them, but other than looking ugly I think they are OK.

Jessica January 4th, 2013

Good article, I use lights all winter, but mainly cause its currently -25 C here and they are chilly.

dawn s January 4th, 2013

have heat lights (brooder lights) in my coop . i have used a vitamin light in the past but stopped because of how hard it was for my girls.(no natural rest) i usually turn on the heat/brooder lights when overnight temps and day temps drop under 30 degrees

Pam Ewing January 4th, 2013

I live in central NC where the winters are mild. My seven girls were laying one egg every other day beginning in early November. I decided to add some light to see what happened. Sure thing….we were at 6 eggs a day in no time flat, BUT, every now and then I’d get a “half baked” egg. The shell was all soft and the whole thing crumples in your hand when you pick it up. I think I’ll nix the light because I think someone in there’s stressing.
I was cautious about adding the light though. It’s on a timer to turn on at 5 am and off at 7 am, then on again at 5 pm and off again at 8 pm. AM didn’t worry me…except I can imagine everyone jumping off the perch startled by the light. PM was different. I wanted everyone to be in the coop and roosting, not messing around when the light went out. I’d watch the time and would go out to watch what happened the first few times. It was chaos. Then they seemed to learn to be in their favorite perching place BEFORE the lights went out. My girls are very smart.

Lisa January 4th, 2013

Great article as always Lissa. You are right on target with your advice. We don’t add light. We don’t feel that ‘forcing’ our hens to do something that their bodies aren’t willing to do naturally is right. We freeze excess eggs for winter use when they are plentiful in the late summer and fall to get us through the winter and give our chickens a much-needed break to recover from their molt and the toll regrowing feathers as well as the cold takes on them.

Nancy Haslam January 4th, 2013

Temeratures in the low double digits don’t bother my NJ chickens. As soon as I let them out each winter morning, they happily run around looking for scratch. This happens even if it’s snowing!. They seem to dislike deep snow on their legs, but are unfettered by snow on the ground. I chart egg production, and it’s the same now as in the summer. One year I did install a clip on heat lamp that I left on all day. They knocked this off one afternoon causing a smoldering fire that burned a hole in the coop floor! No more lights for me.

Kristy January 4th, 2013

We don’t add light. We are starting our fourth year with chickens, and through the summer the hens are self supporting, but I feel it is only right to allow them a natural break in the winter – egg production drops off but my gals seem to be happy and healthy so we allow things to happen as God intended.

Theresa January 4th, 2013

Good article. I also choose not to use a light, but to help with egg production in the winter I make sure to have younger hens (8months – 1 yr old) by the time September/October rolls around to ensure that I do have some eggs while the older hens are going through their molt.

George Brooks January 4th, 2013

I have always used a light main reason now is the cost of feed can’t really afford to loose all production in the winter. Back in the 70’s I found a Hen House timer which at night switches to a 15 Watt build for a few minutes before lights out. This gives them time to roost. Wish they still made these it’s a special mechanical timer.

Cliff January 4th, 2013

I don’t really care about the eggs. I have 15 hens, and they always produce more than we can use. but I add light because in the winter I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark. I add light until about 6:30pm, so that I can see my pets.

Wonderfully informative article. I’m with you, I don’t add light either, but for different reasons. We are in Sunny CA, but Sunny CA (where I live) has been freezing more often this year, so I fear the coop becoming too hot and causing them to sweat in the earlier evening, which I’ve heard that in the wee hours of the morning, may cause them to be more chilled than they would have without the light. It’s not as cold here as it is in other states, but these are my first chickens, so I’m wanting to be uber careful with them–plus, I’ve only got two, and I don’t want to lose any of them.

In any case, your advice is good and it makes me happy to know that I’m protecting Lucy and Ethel from other things as well as being too chilled. :)

Sara January 4th, 2013

This is our second winter with our girls. Our first year we were so excited to get our first few eggs, that we put a light on a few hours in the morning. They produced all winter long. This year we decided their systems probably needed a break, since they had been laying for almost 12 months straight. They went through their normal molt around October and were ready for the colder weather. We are not getting very many eggs this winter and have had to buy eggs to supplement our consumption. However, we love having our girls so much that we don’t mind it. We look forward to spring when we can start getting fresh eggs once again.

Audrey K January 4th, 2013

Is a heat lamp the same as a light? I have one 40 Watt heat lamp pointing downward to the lower roost in a 4 x 6 coop. The hens roost on the upper supports of the roof eaves. Are they trying to get away from the light or is it because heat rises? It’s been brutally cold here in New England. I don’t worry about the one standard hen, but the three little bantam Polish hens seem vulnerable in this cold. These are pets/hobby chix, not meant for egg production, although it’s a nice benefit. Can anyone help with this question?

Lissa January 4th, 2013

They’re not the same, but most heat lamps do produce light (some that are designed for reptiles don’t light up; they just heat up). Heat lamps are usually 250 watts, though, not 40 watts. It sounds as if you might be using a regular light bulb. It’s tough to know from here what your hens may be reacting to, but my guess is just that they’re trying to roost in the highest spot possible. It’s their instinct to do that.

George Castonguay January 4th, 2013

I turn on a 25 watt light first thing in the morning when I open the door to the run and turn it out when I put them to bed for the night. I got them into the habit of looking for the lighted interior of the coop as youngsters and use the light to lure them in for the night.

Dawn-Marie January 4th, 2013

Can you stockpile eggs for winter in your fridge? How long will they last? I am getting my first pullets in April and I live in Maine where it gets cold. Also I heard that the heat from the lamp is not good for them as it stops them from getting use to the cold and then they won’t be able to go outside. It is like wearing a coat inside all day then expecting that same coat to keep you warm when you go outside. I got Easter Eggers because they seem to do good in the winter.

Lissa January 4th, 2013

Eggs can last a good while before going bad. Read more here. You’re right that heat in the coop is generally not recommended. You can read details in the blog post about cold weather chickens from a few weeks ago : 8 things NOT to do in winter .

Lois January 4th, 2013

I put 2 heat lamps in coop… hanging down low so chickens/Houdini don’t knock them on coop floor. Keeps the coop from getting too cold…lamps produce muted red light which doesn’t seem to bother them. Chickens/rooster roost up high at night and seem settled when I close coop up in evenings. Coop isn’t completely airtight so enough ventilation inside coop so it stays cold… although not quite as cold as outside. Plus helps keep water from freezing… my coop isn’t wired for electric so have minimal plug options. Frankly, it bothers me knowing they wouldn’t have any heat at all. I want my girls and Houdini to be somewhat comfortable during winter weather! And, they spend a lot of time outside even with heat lamps on. They seem healthy, rested and happy… that’s what matters. BTW… live in Cincinnati, OH area so winters aren’t too bad here… albeit we do get frigid spells once in a while!

Gean Vandehey January 4th, 2013

If you have a light during the winter months and keep your hens laying they will run out of eggs faster. Hens don’t have an endless supply of eggs so the more they lay the faster they run out. Then you have a bunch of old hens that don’t lay any more. So if you want them to lay longer leave the light out of the coop.

Lissa January 4th, 2013

Well, it’s true that there is a finite supply of ova, but hens aren’t likely to “run out.” Take this analogy: human women don’t stop ovulating because they run out of eggs; they stop due to hormonal changes that come with age. Hens are similar in that way. They don’t run out of ova… although one does suppose that a life that is less stressful because they are not at peak production all the time will mean they stay healthier (and lay eggs) for longer.

Linda W January 4th, 2013

So which breeds are the best for winter laying? I do use a red 40 watt reptile heat bulb for my Seramas. It’s just enough heat, they love to lay under the heat at night and the red light makes it possible to see slightly.

Carlos January 4th, 2013

Great info. I was planning to add light to my chicken coop but I guess I just changed my mind. I live i southern California but still will keep it natural. I guess I am gonna leave the light for farms more interested on lots of eggs (for money) than on hens. Thank u

Lissa January 4th, 2013

Linda, which breeds will do well in your particular area (climate + latitude) will vary, but my personal favorites are Speckled Sussex. Wellies also do fairly well in my area. Buckeyes are reputedly great, too, although I’ve not personally kept this breed (yet!). Others I can think of include Delawares, Chanteclers, Faverolles, Wyandottes, Rocks, Orpingtons and Dominiques.

Lynn January 4th, 2013

What a great article. I am so glad to know all this! I am down to one chicken (two lost to dogs, one to a hawk) and I have been so worried about her getting cold (serious cold snap happening here in CT right now) without the heat of another chicken in the coop on top of her being bored and lonely. We don’t have a light but we do have the outside of the coop decorated with Xmas lights and I have been wondering if their soft glow coming through the little window and the cracks has affected her laying. She is a very good layer, without any let up so far in production! She’s a 6 month old leghorn. I put a heating pad in her coop, set on low, to emulate the body heat of another chicken. When i look inside at night she’s on her roost, not on the heating pad, and she seems to be doing quite well despite my worrying. She lays her pretty little egg each day on the heating pad rather than in the nesting box of course …. do you see any downside?

Lissa January 4th, 2013

I’m always worried about the danger of fire, but if you’re clear that way (which would conceivably depend on the heating pad), it seems like a neat idea. That’s the idea behind the neat Brinsea Eco-Glow brooders (for chicks)… it’s meant to mimic the heat of mother hen better than heat lamps. They get rave reviews!

Lois January 4th, 2013

I rescued my 5 chickens and rooster from slaughter… getting eggs is secondary to their happiness and well being. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fresh eggs… but when they stop laying, they stop laying. I did the same thing last year and they did fine. Still getting delicious eggs. Thanks for suggestion about Brinsea Eco-Glow… will check it out.

sally January 4th, 2013

I live in mid-to coastal SC and the temps are mostly comfortable, year round. I added a 60 watt bulb to extend the morning light hours, set on a timer to come on a few hours prior to the sun coming up. I did this partly because the East side of our coop is enclosed AND it faces a deep patch of woods which masks the natural sunrise. My girls are laying great but I don’t think it is because of the 60 watt bulb… I think its a “southern thing”?

Reese January 4th, 2013

What is the name of the chicken breed in the middle picture?

Lissa January 4th, 2013

You might be talking about Bunny the Brahma? You can read a good story about her here.

Aneiz January 5th, 2013

Howdy!
Great article, thanks!

I was talking with my Grandma (from really cold Saskatchewan) about chickens, I heard they get super lonely when their numbers are low?

I dont know how much help it is, but I read in a chicken book that in cold climates its recommended to have extra insulation on your walls (and wind breaks etc) instead of a light to keep them warm?

Cheers,

Lissa January 5th, 2013

Yes, chickens are flock animals and need to have the company of other chickens so they aren’t miserable. You should never just keep one chicken. And yes, using a heat lamp to keep them warm can be problematic. The light itself can also be problematic: as I explained above, it can cause late molting and the birds may suffer in the cold. In addition, my worry has always been that it could interfere with my flock’s ability to enter torpor. I’m a geek, though, and I wonder about these these things. I’ve never seen it mentioned elsewhere, and to be clear I don’t know for sure that something like that would happen. (It would make a GREAT study for some poultry science major out there.) In fact, so far as I know, chickens have not been studied to see if they enter torpor as other birds do, although I have seen in mentioned in non-scintific contexts. Also it’s unclear to me what the trigger for torpor in birds is… whether it has to do with light cues, temperature cues or something else. But I know enough to think it’s not wise to interfere with day length (particularly in cold winter areas like mine) until I have more information.

Maria Martinez January 5th, 2013

Hi i am in NC , triad area and it has been chilly of late but this is my second year with chickens and have never used light source for heat or adding daylight etc and have never lost a chicken to the cold. I would much rather have less eggs and healthier chickens and dont want to mess with mother nature. give the girls a break , they need rest too. so what they produce less eggs but in the long run u have healthier chickens. i just add more nesting material, i have some that roost on poles but have sizzles and bantam cochins that dont go on the poles so more nesting material is absolutely neccessary for them. i also just feed them more scratch in the winter months since it keeps them warmer. i am not the most experienced chicken keeper but i have not lost any chickens to the cold so i stand by my decision to not use light. thanks all.

Raquel January 5th, 2013

Great article!
I hadn’t been checking my nesting boxes, because I thought my girls were too young and not getting enough sunlight to lay. I chose not to use artificial light because they were only about 12 weeks old when the days became noticeably shorter. Yesterday, while cleaning the coop, I found three eggs and found another after lunch. A nice surprise on a cold morning!

Susan Gilmour January 5th, 2013

Great article, I do put light on for my hens. It has been up to -23 with the wind chill all week. Once it gets cold like this I leave the light on during the days till the natural light kicks in (for a few months) so I don’t disturb their systems too much then no light till the next winter, it works for me. The coop is insulated so that helps. My hens are getting quite old 3-7 yrs so they don’t lay much anyways, they are pets and I enjoy them emmensely (great eye candy). I have mostly rocks(white, silver pencilled, buff crosses with a few easter eggers crosses thrown in!

City Chicken Dweller January 5th, 2013

We got our girls about a month ago, we got 5 pullets. I am wondering if anyone knows what it means when a chicken(hen) lays down fluffs her wings and stomps her feet. One of my Australoup hens has did this the last two nights when I put them in there roost area.

SusieQ January 5th, 2013

One of the pictures in this article is of a hen walking in snow – this kind of surprised me as I thought it was important to protect their feet from freezing. Comments anyone?

Lissa January 6th, 2013

Birds have special adaptations that help them withstand cold weather. Many birds are able to withstand the cold pretty handily… even without the shelter of a coop and someone to make sure they have plenty of food and fresh, unfrozen water, like your chickens have. Normally you’ll want to let your chickens decide whether or not to go out in the weather. Some chickens don’t mind the snow, while others do. Some of mine won’t have anything to do with it, and won’t set foot outside the coop while there’s snow on the ground, while others go out every day, or at least until the snow gets too high for them to manage.

Katherine January 12th, 2013

I was told to keep a red 5 W light on which was not enough to trigger egg laying I replaced that with a red 5 W LED light and it seems to be brighter. I’m getting 24 eggs a day from my 26 MY PET CHICKENS who are 6 months old. Is this too much light? I don’t really want to light my coop for egg laying, but to give them a little light if there is a predator gets in the coop. Or should I just do total darkness? Also, I could put the light in the barn isle far away to give just a little red light…

Lissa January 15th, 2013

Told by whom? I’ve been told by various people that you can tell the sex of a chick in the egg by looking at its shape. However, one person will claim that a rounder egg means a boy, while another claims a rounder egg means a girl. Neither is true, though. Egg shape is most often affected by breed. (All my marans lay a rounder egg, while all my Ameraucanas lay a pointier egg.)
.

If you feel you must add light for some reason, you only need to provide about 1 footcandle of light. Footcandles are equivalent to lumens per square foot, so how much light you’ll need will depend on the size of your coop. A 5W LED light is about equivalent in brightness to a 40W incandescent light, or 450 lumens. Is your coop 450 square feet? If you have a small flock, probably not. A 5 W incandescent nightlight sized bulb (candleabra base) usually generates about 40 lumens, or enough for a coop that is 8 feet wide by five feet deep.
.
And unless you live in a warm winter area, I don’t recommend adding light to the coop at all. If you must, add it only in the mornings, and only after their annual molt has completed.

Tracy January 19th, 2013

I have clear bulb xmas lights in my run area of the coop…lights come on at 2pm and go out about 10pm…its not enough to light the hen house much but they are able to use the run longer where the food and water are (they free range and return on their own about 4pm, sun sets about 5) …i go out at 8pm to lock the doors and they are all in their spots…i like it because i can see everything that is low or if anyone needs to be moved (my older girls are slowly trying to take over the area the younger birds roost)…they “molted” in november and the lights when up in dec…with the warm up the girls are all laying again….i dont really think that little bit of light helps with production, just helps me not kill myself in the dark lol

Holly January 27th, 2013

Great article. I had not thought about the other effects of adding artificial light…now I know that I don’t want to do that. Hens deserve to rest in the winter too.

Holly January 27th, 2013

Funny thought just came to mind…down below the comment box it says “Please check to prove YOU ARE human” I had chickens on the brain and at first glance I thought it said “Please PECK here to prove you are human” Ha ha ha!

Hey, maybe you should change it to say that!

Just a thought,

Holly

Nancy Walters February 1st, 2013

Thank you for the advice. I won’t use lights this year. My girls deserve a break.

Carol Dorsett January 4th, 2014

I know I am late replying to this post, but just found this site. I gave raised chickens for years. Some with a red heat lamp for a smaller bunch and no lamp for a larger bunch. I have always had Rhode Island Reds. They do well in very cold. My hen house is insulated. With and without heat lamp the hens lived to four or five years and layed well into old age. No molting late problems.

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