Supplemental Lighting in the Chicken Coop

how to use supplemental lighting in the chicken coop during the winter

Your frying pan is crying out for scrambled eggs and omelets…

The egg cartons are empty, and the only place you see those brown-shelled eggs is in your dreams…

Winter is a rough time of year for a chicken owner.

Shorter days equals fewer eggs, and you watch the dollar bills fly out of your wallet to pay the feed bills, with little to show for it.

So what’s an egg loving homesteader to do?

Why Chickens Stop Laying in Winter

There are a couple of different reasons you should count on seeing fewer eggs in the nesting boxes come winter:

1. Decreased daylight — The reproductive cycle of a chicken is stimulated by light, and chickens need 14-16 hours of light each day to maintain peak egg production. In some locations during the winter months, you might only see nine hours of light each day, which signals to the chicken’s system to cease production of those gorgeous orange-yolked eggs.

2. Molting — Each year, a chicken undergoes a process of losing feathers and growing new ones. This is the molt. Generally, chickens will molt in the fall or early winter, although it can greatly vary from flock to flock. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty big deal to grow a new set of feathers, (feathers are made of almost pure protein), so it totally makes sense why a chicken would stop laying during the molting period. Their body needs to spend its resources on feather production, not egg production.

3. Temperature Changes — While drastic drops in temperature may play a small role in decreased egg production, I’m going to venture to say that the other two factors are the biggest players here. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if a heavy-duty cold snap throw your flock into an eggless state as well.

artificial light in chicken coop during winte

Two Ways to Increase Egg Production in the Winter

1. Forced molting — (Note: I don’t recommend this, but felt it needed to be mentioned anyway…) Molting is a bit of an issue for commercial poultry operations, as it’s really not profitable to have non-laying birds sitting around for a portion of the year. Industrial flocksters have come up with ways to control or force a molt by withholding feed or feeding drugs or hormones. However, this is a practice I have no plan of incorporating on my homestead, so don’t expect to see tutorials any time soon. 😉

2. Increased lighting — Although still an artificial method, providing supplemental lighting in the chicken coop is a slightly kinder way to maintain egg production, without the severity of forced molting. However, there is definitely a method you’ll want to follow if you decide to use artificial lighting for your birds.

The Dos and Don’ts of Supplemental Lighting in the Chicken Coop

  • DO wait until your chickens are at least 20 weeks of age before introducing any artificial lighting plans.
  • DO use a regular 25 watt or 40 watt bulb, hung in a place far away from feathers and bedding.
  • DON’T make a sudden switch (i.e. going from zero supplemental lighting, to an extra five hours every day)
  • DO gradually increase your lighting over a period of time. Many experts suggest increasing in increments of 30-60 minutes each week.
  • DO shoot for 14-16 hours of light each day, for best results. Anything less than 14 hours will mean fewer eggs. Anything more than around 16-17 hours may stress out the birds and cause them stop laying altogether.
  • DON’T add the extra hours at night. Opt for the early morning hours instead, as plunging them into darkness when the bulb shuts off at night can be an unnecessary stress.
  • DO use a timer so you stay super consistent with your lighting efforts.

is it natural to use lights in a chicken coop during winter?

So You CAN Use Lights, But Should You?

Believe it or not, there is considerable debate surrounding the topic of artificial lighting in chicken coops…

Pros of Supplemental Coop Lighting

  • EGGS! (need I say more?)
  • You’re getting something in return for feeding your flock alll winter long.

Cons of Supplemental Coop Lighting

  • You have to deal with the hassle of  setting up a timer, or turning lights on/off
  • There’s a potential fire hazard of keeping a light bulb on unattended in the coop (this is the #1 reason I do not use heat lamps in my coop…)
  • Forcing hens to lay with supplemental light prevents them from following their natural reproductive rhythm and some chicken advocates argue it is hard on the birds and causes them to “wear out” faster.

supplemental light in winter chicken coop

My Conclusion…

After hemming and hawing about supplemental chicken light for several years, I’ve finally decided to embrace eggs as a seasonal food. This is an obvious concept when you’re growing fruits and vegetables, but can be harder to grasp when it comes to other food products, as we are accustomed to having them available 24/7 at the grocery store.

As we’ve amped up our personal food production efforts, it’s become increasingly clear to me that milk and eggs are just as seasonal as corn and beans. It’s OK to have times of the year when we don’t eat scrambled eggs 4x per week.

Therefore, we currently don’t use any supplemental lighting in our coop. It simplifies chicken keeping for us, and I feel good about giving my hens their natural break. Sometimes I still get a few eggs per week, other times I get none, but I adjust my cooking as needed and we always survive until laying picks up in the spring.

If you’re still struggling a bit at the thought of being eggless, here are a few strategies to soften the blow:

  • Egg fewer eggs: This one is obvious, but I’ve found we really can survive on fewer eggs for a portion of the year, and nothing terrible happens. And then of course, we glut on omelets, custards, crepes, and fried eggs when the hens are laying heavily. It’s a happy trade-off.
  • Preserve eggs during peak production times: As some of you know, my past efforts with preserving eggs have been a little rocky, but it’s definitely doable. Just in case you’re interested, here is my tutorial on how to freeze eggs, and here are my misadventures with dehydrating eggs (hopefully you have better luck than I did!)
  • Buy from the neighbors:  Every so often, a neighbor’s flock will continue to lay like crazy during the winter, and I’m happy to buy or barter eggs from them.
  • Get creative with your feed bill — If it totally makes you cringe to be pouring the feed to your flock, even though you are eggless, check out this big ol’ list of ways to save money on your chicken feed bill.

supplemental light for chickens during the winter

Do you use supplemental light in your chicken coop?

Other Posts from the Coop:

15 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed

how to save money on chicken feed

It’s a heartbreaking moment…

When you first realize your homegrown eggs are costing you more than what you’d pay for eggs at the store…

The current state of mass food production has duped us into believing things like milk, eggs, and grains cost much less than they actually do or should.

For example: Even though we have our own milk cow, our milk technically costs me MORE than it would to simply buy a gallon at the grocery store.

The good news? Saving money isn’t the primary reason we’ve chosen to own a cow. For us, it’s really about the quality of the product; our milk is fresh, beyond organic, and wonderfully raw. Not to mention owning a cow just plain makes me happy, so it’s a quality of life thing for us as well.

Chickens and eggs fall into the same category. While it depends on feed prices in your area, I’m still going to venture to say if you are looking for “frugal” eggs, you’ll probably be better off to buy eggs from the store. But, that’s not the reason most of us keep chickens, right? We love the bright yellow yolks, the satisfaction of watching the hens peck around the yard, and all that comes with chicken-ownership.

However, if you experienced sticker-shock the last time you walked into the feed store, take heart! There are plenty of ways to save money on chicken feed, AND boost your flock’s nutrition in the process. This list will help you get started—>

15 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed

1. Shop around. When I started calling different feed mills, I was surprised at the huge difference in prices. Just remember– cheaper isn’t always better, and if you are feeding an ultra low-quality feed, it can be very hard on your birds. Never sacrifice your chickens’ health just to save a buck.

2. Mix your own feed. I say this with a wee bit of hesitation, since depending on your situation, it may actually be MORE expensive to mix your own feed… However, I do suggest finding a recipe you like (all my homemade chicken feed recipes are in my Natural Homestead book), and then shopping around with local feed stores to see how much it would cost for them to mix it for you. Also, don’t forget to check with the local farmers in your area. Sometimes they’ll have older grains sitting around that aren’t fit for human use, but would be fabulous for your flock.

3. Buy feed in bulk. I buy everything in bulk, including my chicken feed. Often feed stores will give you a cut if you purchase a pallet of feed, rather than just a bag or two. Another trick is to split a large order with a friend. My one caveat is this: chicken feed which has been ground/processed/cracked, rapidly looses nutrition as it sits. It’s probably not a good idea to purchase a year’s supply at a time, unless you are using a recipe that calls for whole grains–they are much more shelf-stable.

4. Ferment your chicken feed. Fermenting your chicken feed greatly increases nutrition, and decreases the amount they eat. The same goes for sprouting.

5. Stop feeding free-choice. This is actually a topic with a bit of debate surrounding it… (Have you noticed everything causes a debate these days?) While I like the thought of allowing my flock to self-regulate, it can be a problem if you have lots of rodents. Rats and mice think free-choice chicken feeding is the best thing ever, and if you struggle with rodent problems in your coop, it’s likely your all-you-can-eat grain buffet is to blame. This problem can be avoided by only feeding as much as your chickens can eat in one day.

how to cut your chicken feed bill

6. Free range as much as possible. I realize this isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, allow your chickens to roam around your yard. Not only will this greatly supplement their diet, it can also help to control bug populations, and keeps them from becoming bored. Plus, there is something so soothing about watching chickens scratch around your front porch.

7. Bring the yard to the flock, if the flock can’t roam the yard. When my hens must stay confined to their pen in the summer months (usually because they are destroying my almost-ripe tomatoes), I like to pick large handfuls of weeds or grass and toss them over the chicken-run fence. The girls definitely enjoy rummaging around in the green matter. I also like to take a bucket to the garden with me when I weed, and I collect all the weeds in the bucket and transport them to the flock as well. (Although I don’t have near as many weeds as I used to, thanks to my deep-mulching adventures!)

8. Ask for leftover vegetable and fruit scraps at the grocery store. Not all stores will allow this, but ask if you can have the wilted lettuce, squishy tomatoes, and bruised apples. Some folks also collect stale bread items from bakeries, but I personally avoid this. Many of the bread items sold in stores like donuts, breads, rolls, or muffins are made with heavily processed ingredients and additives. They might be okay for the occasional treat, but they aren’t something I’d recommend feeding on a regular basis– just as humans shouldn’t eat them as the bulk of their diet.

9. Grow your own feedstuffs. Grains, cover crops, greens, sunflowers, and various veggies are good places to start.

10. Grow duckweed. I haven’t tried growing my own duckweed yet, but I’m totally intrigued! Duckweed is a high protein plant that can be fed to a variety of animals, including chickens. If you’re a duckweed grower, please leave a comment and share your wisdom!

11. Raise soldier grubs. As tough as I like to think I am, I must confess I’m still not quite ready to tackle the whole concept of raising grubs/larvae for my birds. Do I think it’s incredibly smart? YES. Do I think it’s a fabulous way to create low-cost, high-protein feed? YES. Do I want to get up-close-and personal with maggots? Eh, not quite yet. If you’re braver than me, my chicken-keeping idol, Harvey Ussery, has a chapter in his book (affiliate link) devoted entirely to cultivating soldier grubs.

12. Offer leftover milk and whey. If you own dairy goats, cows, or sheep, you are familiar with the feeling of drowning in milk. When you’re floating in milk and have made all the homemade yogurt and mozzarella cheese you can handle, consider sharing your excess with your chickens. Leftover milk and whey are full of protein and most flocks will enjoy the treat. For an extra boost of probiotic nutrition, clabber your raw milk by allowing it to sit out at room temperature for several days until it begins to thicken. (Don’t attempt this with pasteurized milk– you will not have the same results.)

13. Save kitchen scraps for your flock. I keep a small bucket on my kitchen counter at all times and continually toss in bits of leftover bread, celery ends, carrot peelings, watermelon rinds, and more. It’s a feeding frenzy when I show up at the coop. My chickens have even been known to chase me down in the yard when they see me carrying any sort of white bucket. It’s insanely satisfying to watch your birds turn kitchen waste into orange-yolked eggs.

14. Sell eggs. Yeah, I know this isn’t exactly a way to save money on feed, but selling excess eggs is a wonderful way to offset feed costs, and make your chickens pay for themselves. Plus, there is always someone wanting farm-fresh eggs!

15.  Cull non-productive members of the flock. I know many of you keep chickens as pets, and that’s great. But if you are truly trying to cut costs, it may be time to turn non-producing hens into nourishing chicken soup. I know this thought might cause some of you to recoil in horror, but keep in mind this is exactly what great-grandma would have done.

More Chicken Resources

  • Natural Homestead— my latest eBook that’ll help you mix your own chicken feeds, create herbal supplements, fight garden pests naturally, and lots more.
  • I adore Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock. I reference it constantly, and he has ideas you won’t find anywhere else. (affiliate link)

What are YOUR best tips for feeding chickens frugally? Leave a comment!

15 ways to save money on your chicken feed bill

 

Do My Chickens Need a Heat Lamp?

should I use a heat lamp in my chicken coop?

Do your chickens wear sweaters?

Mine don’t, although I have to admit the pictures I’ve seen of sweatered hens are pretty cute. Alas, knitting is one area where my craftiness fails me, so I don’t see myself creating outerwear for my flock anytime soon.

But it brings us to an important topic– how exactly does one keep a chicken warm in the winter?

When I first got my chickens, I assumed they needed supplemental heat anytime the thermometer dipped below freezing. I mean, I was cold, so they obviously were too, right?

There’s actually a bit of debate surrounding the whole topic of chickens and heat lamps (not a surprise, because there seems to be debate surrounding everything these days…), so let’s look at this a bit closer.

Why do People Use Heat Lamps for Chickens?

Most people follow the same thought pattern I did: If I’m cold, my chickens must be cold too. Being the kind-hearted homesteaders we are, we want to make our animals as comfortable as possible. This usually means installing a heat lamp or two to provide extra warmth on those chilly days.

I did this for a while, mostly because I assumed it was the “right” thing to do–especially considering we homestead in Wyoming where it’s freeeezing cold during the winter months. 

But as I did more research and made more observations, I started to question as to whether this was actually correct…

are heat lamps safe for chickens?

Why Heat Lamps can be a Problem

First off, thinking an animal must be cold, just because we are cold, is a faulty assumption.

Chickens have feathers. Cows and goats have layers of winter hair. We don’t. Most all animals are designed to withstand weather conditions without any help from us humans. It can be hard for us to accept, but it’s true.

The biggest problem surrounding heat lamps?

They are extreme fire hazards. Like big time.

Anytime you stick a 250-watt heat source in an area with a lot of dry, combustible material (i.e. feathers, dust, wood shavings, etc), you have a potential hazard. And chicken coop fires do happen, with devastating results.

But here’s the interesting part:

(Are you ready for this?)

Most of the time, chickens don’t really need heat lamps anyway.

Shocking, I know.

Most chicken-care experts will agree– your average dual-purpose chicken breed will do just fine without any supplemental heating, as long as they have a way to stay dry and out of the wind.

(If you’re brooding chicks, things are a little bit different, since chicks need supplemental heat until they mature– unless you have a mama hen, of course)

OK– I confess. For a while, I was a bit skeptical of this advice… That is, until I started paying more attention to what was happening in my own coop…

My Heat Lamps Observations

I’ve been gradually weaning myself off heat lamp dependency, but still felt inclined to turn the lamps on during the coldest nights (especially this winter, as we’ve had several cold snaps of 30 to 40 degrees below zero.)

However, what I observed during the last cold snap has officially changed my mind:

On a particularly cold day (I’m talking 40 below zero here…), I turned on the heat lamps over the roosting areas (the lamps are bolted into the wall and very secure, although still not entirely without fire risk). After it got dark, I popped into check the chickens once more before we headed to bed. Much to my surprise, they were all crowded in the other section of the coop– as far away from the heat lamps as possible. They also seemed rather annoyed, as they were bedded down on the floor, instead of on their cozy roosts.

The next day, I left the heat lamps off, and once again returned to the coop at dark. All the chickens were happily sitting on their roosts, just like normal. It suspiciously seemed they were avoiding the heat lamps–even on a subzero day.

chickens-in-snow

Also, during our most severe cold snap this year, one chicken went missing. I looked aaaaaalllllll over for her with no luck, and finally assumed she must have ended up being fox food. There was no trace of her, and with the extreme temperatures at night, I figured she was toast anyway. It was way too cold for a chicken to survive outside, right?

Wrong.

Several days after the worse of the cold snap lifted, I found her happily strutting around the barn yard– no frostbite, as happy as she could be.

She had survived several days/nights of -40 degree temperatures without a heat lamp, chicken coop, or any help from me. (I suspect she must have been hiding out in our open equipment shed, but it’s hard to say for sure…)

I’m not saying this is an ideal scenario, but still………

What We’re Doing Instead of Using Heat Lamps

So, I’m officially convinced heat lamps aren’t as vital as I thought they were… However, there are still a few things I’m doing to ensure my flock stays comfortable and safe during the winter months:

  • Ventilate it! Ventilation is HUGE. If you want to focus on one thing in regards to chicken-keeping, let it be ventilation. According to expert flockster Harvey Ussery, as long as the chickens are sheltered from direct wind and rain, “a coop cannot have too much ventilation.” Let that sink in for a minute– wow! A damp, moist coop can breed pathogens, cause respiratory issues, and make your birds more susceptible to frostbite. While drafts are bad (a draft equals a direct wind blowing on the birds), there should be plenty of air exchange happening in the coop at all times. For us, this means I leave our coop doors open in all but the most extreme temps. I might shut the doors at night when it reaches 30 to 40 below zero, but otherwise, they stay open. An air-tight coop is NOT a good thing.
  • Provide lots of fresh water – Keeping your chicken’s water liquid in the winter can be tough, but it’s vitally important. Either commit to hauling buckets of fresh water to your birds several times per day, or invest in a heated water bucket (that’s what we do).
  • Keep food in front of them – The process of digestion creates heat and keeps chickens warm. Make sure your flock has plenty of food to munch on. You can create special treats for winter if you like, (like this homemade flock block), but they aren’t entirely necessary. Just your regular ration is more than sufficient.
  • Looking for more winter chicken tips? This post has the full scoop.

To sum it all up? Watch your birds and create a plan that works for your climate and set-up. Remember chickens aren’t human, and have different ways of dealing with temperature shifts than we do. If knitting chicken sweaters is your thing, that’s totally cool by me– just know it’s not a necessity. 😉

should I use a heat lamp in my chicken coop during winter?

Other Chicken-y Posts

 

 

 

Raising Pigs: Pros and Cons

raising pigs - pros and cons

By Heather Jackson, contributing writer

I blame Craigslist.

A year ago we added a new adventure to our lives when we responded to an ad on Craigslist and went to pick up three cute, squealing, pink pigs from a nearby farm to add to our homestead.  While we have thoroughly enjoyed having pigs on our little farm and having the pork in the freezer, owning pigs isn’t for everyone.  Here are some pros and cons to consider before you make the leap into raising pigs.

Homestead pigs

Raising Pigs: The Pros and Cons

Pro:  With pigs on our homestead, we have zero food waste.  Like, ever.  The pigs eat all food scraps we throw their way.  We scrape our dishes into the “pig bucket” that sits on our kitchen counter.  We also pour in leftover milk, stale cereal, and whey from cheese making.  Basically, if it’s edible (not moldy) they will love it.  This keeps the cost of feeding them very low for animals so large!

Con:  Pigs eat a lot, which means that pigs poop a lot.  While they are much cleaner than we are often lead to believe, their pens can really stink on a hot day!  They generally designate a corner of their pen as the restroom, which seems rather civilized, but is still quite smelly when you are downwind.  If you have close neighbors, they might have well-founded objections to your pigs.

Pro:  Pigs are smart!  Some are even sweet and friendly and interacting with a friendly pig can be a delightful experience.

Con:  Pigs are smart!  They can figure out ways to escape their pen and once they do, they are difficult to catch!  They will need a strong enclosure, likely electrified, in order to keep them where you want them. (Jill: TRUTH. You should see what our pigs did to our front yard this summer…) 

 

vertical pig pic

Pro:  Pigs are fun to watch.  They are busy little creatures and they get so excited about rooting around the pasture that I really enjoy watching them.  They would also get very excited when I would come to the pen with the hose to give them a “bath” on hot days.  They run through the sprinkler like children.

Con:  It can be hard to say goodbye.  Although, some the fun of the pigs has worn off by processing time, it can still be rather difficult to part with your pigs when it is time to send them to the freezer.  I personally had to really work to keep a mental detachment as I raised them, so that I could give them up when it was time.

Pro:  If you raise 2 pigs and sell one to a friend, it will usually pay for all the feed and processing fees for the pig you keep.  Therefore, you eat for free!  If you have room to raise even more pigs, you could easily have a little side business to add extra income to your homestead.  Just make sure you are abiding by local laws.

Con:  If you sell one pig, people will find out and then beg you to raise one for them too.  This request is made without regard for whether you have the space, time, or energy for more pigs or not.

Pro:  Delicious pork you can feel good about eating.  The meat you raise yourself lived a good life on pasture.  It only had one bad day and you know it was treated humanely.  You know what kind of feed it consumed and that it was free from disease.  On top of that, it tastes absolutely delicious and MUCH better than the pork you can get at the grocery store.  I feel good about feeding it to my family.

Con:  You will eventually run out of pork and want to start the whole process over again!  (Wait, maybe that isn’t a con…)

And finally, a warning…

Meet Loudy Pants (so named by our 5 year old daughter.)

Loudy Pants the Pig

She was one of three pigs we bought to raise and process for meat.  When the day came for the pigs to be hauled off to the processor, we just couldn’t get Loudy Pants onto the trailer.  4 adults worked for an hour and a half trying to coax, drag, or push her onto the trailer.  It just wasn’t happening and we were in danger of missing our appointment for the other two pigs, so we left without her.  We made an appointment to take her another day.  In the following month, she began to steal our hearts.    She looked forward to playing with the water hose.  She would come running to greet us when we headed to the pasture.  She wanted to be petted and loved on.

In short, we now have a 500 pound pet pig in the pasture!

We have made plans to breed her and raise her piglets.  If that isn’t something you are interested in doing, I highly recommend NOT making friends with the pigs, and NOT becoming attached.

Aside from the pet pig “problem,” our family thoroughly enjoyed our pork project and we are so excited to see what happens next in the world of homestead pigs!

raising pigs - pros and cons

 

Heather Jackson, Green Eggs & Goats

Heather is into cooking, cow milking, gardening, goat chasing and egg gathering.  She loves cast iron cookware and all things Mason jar.  She despises laundry.  She is also a novice martial arts practitioner and a homeschooling mom of three and host mom to a Danish exchange student.  She and her family live on three beautiful acres in Remlap, Alabama.
You can find more of her farming mis-adventures and delicious recipes at her Green Eggs & Goats website.