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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.