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.

On Preparing Your Chickens for Winter

It’s that time of year. This chicken water froze last night, and our hens are laying fewer eggs than before. There’s still some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook forum that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about our girls as little freeloaders. I mean, they’re certainly spoiled and very demanding. I can’t even walk out the front door without them running up and whining for a treat. But they do give us a delicious breakfast every morning, and with all the research about how beneficial eggs are to our diets, I think it’s okay if we have to support our girls a little as they molt and adjust to light changes. They can be little freeloaders if they need to be.

But fall and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the winter, and after making it through five winters so far with our backyard flock, I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

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Our Rhode Island Reds were a little worried about their very first snow. They had a lot of hesitation, but, pretty soon, they were having a great time playing. We’ve since learned that putting down leaves from the fall helps so much!

1. Handling molting

If your girls are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop down suddenly right now. While they molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Protein is good. Feed with extra protein can help, and sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt.

2. Thinking about light

You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, be aware that light supplementation means your hens won’t get the rest that their bodies may need. If you need to supplement with light for food or financial reasons, be sure to use safe lighting, just a 25 watt bulb and keep that bulb away from feathers and bedding.

3. Keeping clean, fresh water

When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you really, really have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. That is a great idea. We have an insulated coop, plus the girls put out a lot of heat, so we haven’t had to use a water heater. However, every morning, we do get up early and bust out the ice and put in fresh water. We don’t mind too much though. It’s our ritual. I think the key thing is you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.

4. Preventing chicken boredom

Be aware of chicken boredom in the winter months because it’s a real thing and will cause your girls to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our girls go from free ranging within a fenced 3/4 acre giant chicken yard to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband and I shovel because the snow really stacks up here in Maine. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.

One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold. We are religious about shoveling out their run area and some paths around the chicken yard, and the best advice I have for this is to save your leaves right now. Then, after you shovel out the snow, put down the leaves, so your chickens have something to walk on and play in. This is the most genius plan I think we’ve ever had in terms of winter prep. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chickens stay sane in the coming winter.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. Just make sure they are healthy treats, and, of course, always keep a balanced diet in mind. But, last winter, we would share fruit and vegetable scraps, and the variety was good. Working on the fruits and veggies also kept the girls busy.

5. Protecting their combs

And, when you let your girls outside to play in the winter, you should keep an eye on their combs. If you have chickens with large combs, it’s a good idea to put some petroleum jelly on them to help keep them safe in the winter cold.

6. Preparing for the deep freeze

Finally, as we head into fall, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. Just as we work on winterizing our homes here in Maine, it’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have.

You may not need to insulate your coop, but, if you do, make sure your coop has proper ventilation. Ventilation is really key. You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. Chickens can get serious respiratory illnesses, and no one wants that.

According to research, chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so I recommend just keeping a thermometer in your coop to allow you to keep an eye on things.

Our coop is insulated, so we only had to heat our coop a couple of times last winter, though some people will argue you don’t have to heat at all. In fact, unless you are really careful, it may be best not to heat. My husband built a cage to go around a small oil heater, so it didn’t put out much heat and was safe for our girls. It just kept temps above 0 degrees during the worst nights of February. Never use a heat lamp. They are just too dangerous. Every single year, the news is full of barn and coop fires from heat lamps.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. If you have other tips or advice, please share below. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!