Chickens have been bred for hundreds of years to lay eggs for most of the year. But even the best egg layers have rest periods, especially during the cold, dark winter. However, since the egg industry started, large-scale factory farm egg production facilities have used artificial lighting to force their hens to lay year-round, and many homesteaders and backyard farmers are duplicating this practice. There’s no doubt that artificial lighting works to maximize egg laying during the winter, but is it really the best decision to make?
How Light Affects Laying
Like other animals, a chicken’s natural cycles are controlled by the endocrine system. This system releases various hormones throughout the bird’s life, influencing functions such as molting, brooding, and egg laying. Places with dark winters have colder winters that are too harsh for a hen to successfully raise chicks. The endocrine system, therefore, reacts to the length of daylight, turning the reproductive cycle “off,” or at least slowing it down, when sunlight dips to below 14 hours a day.
Problems Caused By Artificial Lighting
Despite countless generations of breeding for good egg layers, there’s no doubt that egg laying takes a lot of work and puts a lot of stress on a chicken’s body. When the weather is warm and food is widely available, these birds can handle the added strain on their system just fine. During molting and in cold weather, however, they need time to rest and focus their energy elsewhere, such as on raising chicks, growing feathers or staying warm in freezing temperatures.
Another important thing to consider is the long-term effects of forcing hens to lay: In the long run, it doesn’t actually increase the number of laid eggs. It’s a simple matter of biology. Like humans, female chickens are born with all the eggs that they’ll produce in their lifetime. They don’t make more to replace the ones they’ve already laid. Chickens that are forced to lay in the winter often wear out by the time they’re only a few years old, while hens that are allowed to rest continue producing eggs seasonally for 7 years or more.
Interrupts Proper Molting
One drawback to artificially lighting a chicken’s environment in the winter is that it also affects their natural molting cycles. Like their laying cycle, molting is controlled by the bird’s endocrine system, which is influenced by the number of hours of light in a day. These birds experience an incomplete molt during the long days of summer, and their bodies are tricked into molting the same way in winter. Not only can this prevent the chickens from producing a fuller “winter coat” of downy feathers, it can also decrease egg production, according to Oregon State University’s (OSU) Extension Office. If you do use artificial lighting, OSU experts recommend giving your chickens a proper break, without lighting, during their second winter for at least 6 weeks.
Many long-time chicken raisers also claim that forcing a bird to lay throughout ever winter raises the chances of her developing egg-binding and other reproductive issues.
A common counter-argument is that chickens are descended from jungle-fowl of the tropics, and that chickens near the equator do lay year-round. However, the tropics are different from the higher latitudes in more ways than just sunlight. Winter temperatures do not drop below freezing, and nutritious foods found foraging are available all the time. It’s therefore easy for these birds to focus their nutrients and energy on laying rather than staying warm. The light tropical chickens receive during the day also comes from the sun, which allows their bodies to produce much more vitamin D (a necessary nutrient for immune system function and egg development) than birds kept under a light bulb all night.
Chickens that aren’t kept under artificial lighting do not necessarily stop laying. Even in the middle of winter, happy and well-fed hens in good condition will continue to lay eggs, albeit at a slower rate than in summer. Rather than trick their hens’ systems into acting unnaturally, many flock owners find that there are other, more natural ways to help ensure some eggs during the colder months.
As Much Natural Sunlight As Possible
Exposing chickens to natural sunlight in winter not only keeps the birds happy, it also provides them with a dose of vitamin D, which in turn helps their bodies absorb calcium to produce eggs. Some report that allowing sunlight into the coop and chicken runs in the winter works just as well as artificial lighting. This could very well be true too, but it may not help much in places closer to the poles where daylight only lasts for a few hours.
Staying warm during cold winter weather takes up a lot of energy, and so does laying. Chickens often need to eat 10 percent more than they do in summer just to fuel their body temperature. A chicken’s diet is also less varied in the wintertime, lacking many of the nutrients found in fresh greens. Birds that naturally lay in the winter are often fed a quality diet with added protein and minerals from extra foods like chicken scratch and leafy greens.
Winter can be a very stressful time for chickens. Kept contained in close quarters more often, they experience a more restricted diet devoid of the greens and insects that were so prevalent in spring and summer. Chickens also use up much of their energy keeping warm, and may have to deal with sudden drops in temperature, putting them in a survival mode. Predators are another added stress in the winter. With the drop in natural prey, predators like raccoons, coyotes, foxes and other animals may turn toward chickens instead. Even if their coop is completely predator-proof, the extreme stress of being hunted can cause a hen’s egg production to drop, even if you do use artificial lighting.
Winter Laying Breeds
Some chicken breeds are more suited to thriving, and laying, during the dark and cold winter months. Many of these breeds tend to be the heavier, dual-purpose heritage breeds, although most commercial hybrids are also great natural year-round layers, provided they’re kept warm enough. Some of the most popular winter-layers include:
- Black and Silver Australorp
- Buff Orpington
- French Maran
- Black and Red Sex Linked
- Red Star
- Rhode Island Red
In an age where fruits, vegetables, eggs and other products are always available at the grocery store year-round, it’s easy for people to forget where their food comes from, or what it takes to make it available all the time. The idea of eating seasonally has fallen out of practice, so it’s no wonder that so few question the practice of forcing hens to lay in the wintertime through unnatural lighting. However, there are plenty of old-timers and newbies alike who are putting the well-being of their chickens before production, and enjoying their eggs whenever the hens are naturally ready to lay.