Why I’m Not Adding Light to My Chicken Coop This Winter

I’ve been keeping chickens for three years now, and I’ve learned so much during that time. I’m a researcher and a studier of all things by nature. And, for the most part, for the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with chickens.

It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information out there in the world. When even the experts disagree, what can you do? For me, I’ve realized that I’ve had to turn to a whole lot of observation.

Now, I have to confess that I don’t always have time to study my chickens as much as I would like. I mean, I teach and home school my son and have a fairly busy life. But, this summer, my teaching load was reduced, and I was able to do some fairly intense study of my girls.

I learned some key lessons from my summer of study, and one of them was that egg laying is hard on these girls’ bodies. Of course, chickens have evolved to lay eggs, but they haven’t evolved to lay eggs at the rate in which humans have bred them to lay eggs. In fact, wild chickens lay just about 15 eggs per year, which is, of course, a long way from 250-300 eggs per year.

Of course, I am thankful we get more than 15 eggs per year, but you have to wonder, in our eagerness to make chickens into what we want them to be, if we considered the health of the chickens. I think the answer is a resounding no.

I mean, it’s this is not what humans are generally known to do, and you need only look at the situations in factory farms to see that it all too often the case that we put our needs above any consideration for the animal. And, of course, when I say “we,” I don’t mean all of us, but the humans “in charge” have a long history of this kind of behavior.

When we bought our girls from the hatchery online, we researched birds that would be intelligent, hardy in the winter since we live in Maine, and really good layers.

And good layers they were. I just didn’t realize laying this much was costing them. The first year everything was great! We had more eggs than we could deal with and were selling them left and right. I noticed that some of our girls seemed to kind of be born with some health issues, but it didn’t seem to bad and it didn’t stop them from laying.

I had so much to learn.

My epiphany came after we had a broody hen this summer, Lucy, who went broody and was able to sit on some fertilized eggs, as we finally got our first rooster. She was one of our Reds who had struggled with her health from the beginning, so I was really, really worried about her. I thought about trying to break her from being broody, but she was stubborn—and I was selfish. I wanted some babies and thought I could just help Lucy stay healthy with a lot of extra care.

We gave Lucy extra treats and vitamins in her water while she was sitting on her clutch. She took her breaks but always went right back to her eggs. When it was time for the babies to hatch, we ended up with just one baby but were able to add one more baby for her to adopt. With two babies, Lucy was in heaven, but she looked worn.

And with the babies now taking up so much of Lucy’s attention, I was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. She wouldn’t take any treats anymore because she was saving them for her babies. I was really worried about her health, and I remember telling my husband I was worried we might lose her.

After all, she wasn’t in the greatest health when this whole thing started. But over time, Lucy became healthier–much healthier. And, by the time Lucy’s babies were big enough to be on their own, Lucy looked better than any Rhode Island Red I had ever seen. I mean, she was calendar worthy.

It didn’t take long for me to realize why Lucy looked so much different. Maybe some of it was just that motherhood agreed with her, but I feel certain the biggest asset to her health was the 2 to 3 month break from egg laying. I couldn’t believe the difference.

Beautiful Lucy
This is Lucy post babies. She looks so healthy after her summer break from laying eggs. I’m sure her molt helped, but she has molted before and never looked this robust and healthy.

Now, I have to admit that I didn’t just come to this conclusion without reading a lot about chickens and egg production. We had always added light to our coop in the winter, just a few additional hours, to keep egg production up. However, as our hens aged, I could see they were just kind of wearing out, which, thanks to my research, I’ve now learned is a common problem in hens bred to lay 300 eggs per year. Essentially, those girls don’t usually live very long lives, and, of course, the chicken industry in general doesn’t care.

But I care.

That research, plus my experience with Lucy, was all the evidence I needed. I talked to my husband about it, and I began to learn that other chicken keepers did not light their coops in the winter. They believe their chickens need the rest, and I now believe the same thing.

I understand that some people may have no choice but to light their coops. Some people rely on the eggs for income, and I can see that feeding your children or providing for your family would take precedent over the longevity and health of your chickens.

But, if you’re like me and thought that lighting your coop in the winter was completely harmless and without consequence, please know that it’s not that simple.

This winter, for the first time, we’re not adding light to the coop. We have 18 laying hens and, yesterday, we got 4 eggs. That has been our lowest number so far. I thought my husband might be having his doubts because our family eats a lot of eggs. But, no.

“I don’t mind,” he said. He agrees that our hens could use the rest.

We’re thankful to our hens for our food, but they are more than food to us. It seems giving them a rest is the right thing for our family. Though I know it’s not right for everyone, it may be the right thing for your family, too.

*Please note, if you have been adding light to extend the days for your hens, please do not just stop the lighting all at once. Lighting should be reduce gradually (about ten minutes a day) to protect the health of your layers.

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On Keeping Chickens and the Dangers of Salmonella: Are the Warnings Real or Just Hype?

Even if you’re not a chicken person, you’ve probably heard about the rise in salmonella outbreaks in the United States in the last few years. This rise in the number of salmonella cases directly corresponds with the rise in the number of people keeping chickens. But every time this issue comes up–and it does keep coming up–many backyard chicken owners dismiss the CDC reports as conspiracy.

I’ve written about the rise in salmonella cases myself and wondered about my own chicken-keeping practices. When I first wrote that I would have to stop kissing my chickens and shared my post in chicken communities, some readers were downright angry with me.

I have to admit that it’s hard to know what’s real and true about anything these days, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about chickens. I can spend weeks researching something about my chickens, only to get conflicting answers from all the experts I can find. Plus, I totally understand the urge to have at least a little mistrust of government agencies who have very strong ties to agribusiness.

But I don’t think that’s the end of this story.

In the middle of all of those posts in the chicken forums about how all of this salmonella talk is just a lot of hype, I also read a few stories from chicken owners who had contracted salmonella from their chickens. It’s not fun. The women telling their stories were very, very sick.

But where does that leave us?

I always find myself somewhere in the middle on most issues, and this one seems to be no different–and this is after researching this issue quite a bit for about a year. In 2016, I first read about the CDC report linking the rise in salmonella cases to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. Since then, as more people continue to get backyard flocks, the issue comes up again and again.

Recently, NBC news reported on the rise in salmonella in the U.S.

According to the numbers, the cases of salmonella continue to rise, and in 2017, we’ve already had more cases than we had in 2016 total. We’ve had 961 reported cases so far in 2017. But these numbers do seem kind of low to me considering how many people in the U.S. keep chickens. I can’t find any definite numbers on the number of people who keep chickens, but it must be hundreds and hundreds of thousands. One chicken forum on Facebook alone has about 100,000 members. Still, I can’t help but think it would be terrible to get sick from my chickens, and for the people who have gotten sick, I’m sure it’s terrible.

This summer, we had to keep a baby chicken in the house for two weeks to keep it alive, and while I wouldn’t change a thing and am so glad I did it for that little sweetheart, I understand that I was taking a risk. For those two weeks that my baby chick, Buttermilk, was in the house, I was worried and super careful. Was I careful enough? Well, I didn’t get sick. Did I just get lucky? Maybe.

But I think the thing we can all agree on, whether we think all of the salmonella reporting is just a bunch of hype or a serious issue to be addressed, is that some good common sense when it comes to keeping chickens is always a good idea.

Here are some key takeaways from both the reports and from people who have kept chickens for years:

1. Just wash your hands.

Really, anytime you’ve had contact with your chickens, it’s good to wash up. It’s a good habit to get into, though it can be tough to get kids into this habit. I know our little boy often forgets, and I have to stay on him. I can see why young children have the highest risk of contracting salmonella.

2. Use different shoes for visiting your chickens.

This is something we really have to work on in our house. Thankfully, we don’t have babies crawling around on the floor anymore, but, if we did, this would be a bigger issue for us. We really should wear different shoes out to visit the chickens.

3. Be aware that keeping chickens in your house is going to make things tougher.

Of course, the CDC says to never keep a chicken in your house, but people do it. Plus, even though I’m not a house chicken kind of chicken lady, I ended up having to keep a chicken in our house because the baby was sick and needed care. But it’s a risk. I think we have to know that.

4. Finally, don’t kiss your chickens–if you can help it.

I always forget about this one, and I realize that I’m never going to stop snuggling my chickens as the CDC recommends. But, if I forget and kiss a chicken, I clean up. And, after I snuggle a chicken, I never wear those same clothes to cook meals in.

I honestly think it’s ridiculous to expect people not to snuggle their chickens, but I also think that maybe there’s some good points behind all the hype. I’m going to try to be more careful, just in case.

But I’ve also had a chicken give me a hug, so I’m always going to keep chickens.