Your chickens give you plenty of enjoyment. They’re fun and interesting to watch. They help keep your weeds and insect population controlled. And they provide that touch of rustic charm to your property.
But come on. The real reason you host those hens can be summed up in a few words: scrambled, poached, over-easy, sunny-side up and hard-boiled!
For many of us, those fresh eggs are what it’s all about. Given the importance of egg laying, it’s only natural that you’d want to extend you hens’ laying season as long as possible in order to gather as many eggs as you can in a year. And you’re in luck, as there are a few simple things you can do to maximize farm’s egg potential.
So let’s take a look at them.
All About the Light
If you’re experienced in chicken-keeping, you’re probably already aware that your hens generally lay the most eggs during the height of summer. Those numbers dwindle off as cold weather approaches.
What’s happening? This has less to do with heat, and everything to do with light. Your hens require about 14 hours of daylight before their bodies kick into egg production mode. By the time summer is at its height, your birds are at peak egg production.
It’s no accident that your hens produce the most eggs in the summer and decrease toward winter. Despite your culinary intentions for unfertilized chicken eggs, the main purpose of eggs from a chicken’s point of view is to produce chicks. Baby chicks hatching in a natural winter environment (no incubator) is not a good idea!
Producing eggs during cold weather is also a drain on a chicken’s energy resources that they could instead put to use in staying warm. Your hens’ bodies “know” this (it’s called photoperiodism) and thus attempt to avoid laying eggs in the winter.
No January quiche for you!
Here’s the good news. You can easily alter the number of hours your hens are exposed to “daylight” with some inexpensive, simple and safe artificial lighting. Because you aren’t aiming to raise chicks in the cold (you just want the eggs) and you have a nice warm coop where your chickens can go to get out of the weather, artificially extending the laying season in the spring and fall is a safe method to try.
Unlike heat lamps or other heat sources that some chicken owners might use to incubate a brooder or keep the coop warm during frigid weather, your goal here is simply to increase the amount of light your hens are exposed to. This will trigger the starting of egg-laying season in the spring or extend it in the fall—possibly well into winter.
Read more: Selling eggs? Consider your cartons.
Choose a Light Source
Interested in Incandescent?
While you could utilize classic incandescent lighting for the purpose of extending your hens’ laying season, there are a couple of reasons why you might not want to.
For one, incandescent bulbs put off some heat. In a coop situation, this could be undesirable during the nonwinter months when you’re trying to encourage your hens to lay. It’s just an unwanted heat source that might unnecessarily increase the temperature in the coop.
Incandescent lighting also uses more wattage, “pound for pound,” than an LED of the same brightness.
Consider the Color Temperature
What incandescent lighting does have going for it is the warm color of the light. This is called the light’s “temperature.” But it has nothing to do with actual heat.
Low temperature lighting (with a rating of, say, 2,700 kelvins) is “warm” with a yellowish cast, while high temperature lighting (in excess of 5,000 kelvins) is “cool” with a whiter or bluish cast.
For the purpose of extending laying seasons, warm lighting is best, as it does a better job stimulating a hen’s laying tendencies. So aim to avoid bulbs with an overly bluish colorcast.
LED is A-OK
LED lighting will work just fine for your egg-laying birds, as long as you select bulbs with warm color temperatures. In fact, LEDs may just be your best option. They run cool and are power-efficient enough to run off of a small solar panel on your coop’s roof, so you don’t have to worry about running electricity from your home down to the coop.
They also aren’t prone to failure in cold weather the way fluorescent lighting can be.
Moderate the Brightness
Your egg-encouraging lighting doesn’t actually have to be very bright. A 25- to 60-watt (or equivalent) bulb should get the job done.
Choose a Light Fixture
Lastly, you’ll need a coop-safe light fixture that is suitably rated and sealed for outdoor use in a livestock situation and hung in a safe location that is inaccessible to the hens. Plan to keep this light free from dust.
Install a timer
The idea isn’t to run artificially lighting all night. You just want to add some lighting to extend the day. Some people recommend doing this in the morning, others opt to add light in the evening after sunset.
Either way, you don’t necessarily need to make any late-night runs to chicken coop to flick a switch. Instead, just install your light fixture on a simple timer that can handle the job for you.
Don’t Overdo It
More isn’t always better. You only want to extend your hens’ exposure to light by a few extra hours. And you don’t want to over-run your artificial light source.
You probably want to avoid subjecting your chickens to an excess of 16 to 17 hours of daylight, as this can actually decrease egg production.
And don’t leave your light on all night. The chickens need a good night’s sleep!
Add Light Slowly
Think about your own “internal clock” and how jarring even a small adjustment in time can be—the shift from standard time to daylight saving time, for instance.
It’s no different for your chickens, so aim to increase their artificial lighting over a period of about 30 minutes every week for several weeks so that the change isn’t so sudden to your hens.
Read more: Here are some ways to get your coop winter-ready.
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
If you’re trying to keep your hens laying longer into the fall months, don’t wait until daylight is under 14 hours before you start running additional lighting. By then it will be too late and the chickens’ reproductive systems will be shutting down.
Instead, aim to begin adding your light source once total daylight decreases to about 15 hours per day.
Consider Your Coop Location
Your coop may not be easily movable, but, for what it’s worth, a coop located in a heavy shade may affect your hens’ laying season, reducing the number of eggs produced.
On the other hand, many chicken owners prefer to have their coops located outside of direct sunlight to help limit the heat of summer. You may have to experiment in your exact climate and situation to find a balance between light for laying and shade for keeping cool.
A hen in great health that is receiving excellent daily nutrition will have better chances of maintaining a long-term egg production schedule. Keep your hens well fed, and they’ll keep you loaded up with eggs!
Good luck with your flock.
Benefits of Time Off
With a little bit of effort and some planning on your end, it’s a very attainable goal to extend your laying season at both ends of the summer. But with all of that said, keep in mind that some downtime during the middle of winter each year isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, it can be quite beneficial to your flock.
Allowing hens to take a few winter months off of egg laying gives their bodies time to rest and time to put calories and nutrients into surviving winter instead of producing eggs. It’s also an important time to regrow their feathers, as many hens use their egg lay-off to molt and refresh their appearance with a lovely set of brand-new plumage (although some breeds that have been developed for laying may have minimized molting seasons) .
The bottom line is that extending the laying season is just fine. Some hen-keepers do try to keep their flocks laying all year long. But you may want to avoid pressuring and pushing your hens to produce too long into cold weather without a break.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.