Should I be keeping the lights on in my chicken coop? This is a question that many chicken keepers find themselves asking each year as fall rolls around.
To keep our chickens laying all winter long, we do something that many other homesteaders don’t. I’m talking about keeping lights on in a chicken coop over winter. A chicken needs a certain number of daylight hours to lay, and during the winter, they don’t get that.
It’s a common question among chicken new chicken keepers: whether or not to add artificial light to your chicken coop.
Perhaps you are concerned for the health and safety of your hens. Perhaps you need your chickens to lay all winter long. Adding light to the chicken coop is a personal decision that you can make for your flock if you have the right information.
So, should you keep the lights on in a chicken coop overnight, during winter?
Yes, you can keep the light on for your chickens, provided it has a timer, so your chickens get their 6 – 8 hours of sleep. Don’t leave the light on continuously.
Now, I know what people say about raising animals naturally, and giving the girls a laying break and all, but I am going to lay out the reasons why we do this.
A chicken needs a certain number of daylight hours to lay consistently. Do you supplement in the winter months? Here’s why we are keeping the lights on in the chicken coop over the winter.
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What You Need to Know About Freeloading Hens
“Freeloaders” is a common nickname for chickens who simply are not laying eggs. Jokes and memes abound in regards to hens that won’t lay and every chicken keeper knows the dismay of traipsing to the chicken coop only to find there are no eggs.
You may have a few freeloaders in your flock, or you may notice that during the cold winter months, all of your chickens are suddenly free-loading and not laying any eggs for you to enjoy. What should you do in this situation?
There are plenty of reasons your chickens may stop laying eggs, but in the winter, the most likely reason for a stop in egg production is the lack of daylight. This is not a cause for concern unless you are depending on year round egg production to feed your family or for income.
You may decide that a brief pause in egg production is just fine because you will not have to gather eggs in the colder months and you will not have to worry about dealing with frozen eggs in the coldest parts of winter. Or perhaps you will prefer to have eggs year-round, and are willing to put in the extra work to get them.
The chickens are part of our family, but everyone here has to pull their weight.
They continue to eat feed all winter long, as well as use straw for bedding, drink water that requires heating, and they still need us to take care of them.
I personally can’t fathom the idea of feeding them all winter, AND having to go buy eggs. Since they can’t forage for bugs and other food with ice and snow on the ground, they eat more. At the rate of $15 a bag of feed per week, that just doesn’t add up economically for us.
The Problem With Daylight and Egg Production
The number of hours of daylight is related to chicken egg production. Chickens need approximately sixteen hours of daylight and eight hours of darkness to maintain steady egg production.
As winter approaches, sunlight hours drop to around nine or ten hours per day, and your hens production will slowly decline or stop altogether until the days begin to lengthen again. This usually happens closer to the spring equinox.
During this period of time, you will need to feed your chickens more because there is less natural food available, such as bugs, worms, and vegetable matter.
Although certain breeds are less susceptible to this winter phenomenon, most chickens use the time to rest their bodies in preparation of rearing chicks in the spring.
Considering the Various Factors
Now that you understand the role that daylight plays for chickens and their egg production, you just need to decide whether keeping a light on is right for you.
Egg Production Now vs. Later
One factor to consider in choosing whether or not to light the coop is this: if you would like your hens to lay eggs for more years, do not add artificial light to your coop. They will pause egg production for the winter, but will lay for a longer number of years.
If you want higher egg production for a shorter number of years, then go ahead and add extra light to your chicken coop.
Why does this happen? When a female chick is hatched, its body already houses all of the eggs they will ever lay and they are contained in their ovaries.
Chickens that have a rest period every winter will lay eggs for more years than a chicken that is laying eggs all winter long. Chickens can lay eggs for their entire lives, although the frequency of egg laying declines as they age and the egg size may increase.
The rest period is healthy and is just fine for your hens to experience. It does not mean they are sick or in poor health. This period of time when they are not laying can even be helpful because it prevents chickens from going broody.
This way, they will not be setting on and hatching eggs during cold and unfavorable conditions that could be dangerous to baby chicks.
Essentially, it’s a trade off. You can get eggs now or you can get them later. It’s up to you.
There is no need to force your hens to lay all winter long, unless you need egg production (such as if it is your primary source of food or if you sell eggs commercially). It is also an option if you do not like to spend money on chicken feed when your chickens are not laying.
There are other alternatives to using a light for egg production, too. Some savvy homesteaders will plan their chicken flock so that they can enjoy the eggs all summer long, and butcher the extra hens in the fall when egg production declines or stops.
This way, they can enjoy hearty egg production during natural times without feeding their ‘freeloading’ hens all winter long. They keep just enough of a flock to produce eggs again in the spring and order extra chickens from their local hatchery or farm to replenish their flock.
You can even freeze eggs now, during the productive season, to eat later on, when your girls stop laying over the winter months. You do have options!
Something else to consider is whether you want your coop light to serve as a source of supplemental heat, too. In extreme climates, a coop light can be used to add just a small amount of heat.
Chickens are hardy and don’t need coop heaters. It has to be super cold to require any supplemental heat. That said, adding a bit more heat won’t hurt – and it might reduce your feed bill, too, as your chickens won’t be burning as many calories trying to stay warm.
The downside to this benefit is that most animals do catch on fast to a routine – so if you have your light on a timer, predators will figure out pretty quickly what the jig is!
However, putting a light on in your coop at night may temporarily deter predators who have been harassing your chickens, so it’s something to be considered.
Chicken Breeds that Lay All Winter
Some breeds of chicken have been bred to continue laying in spite of the decreased daylight. Chicken keepers have reported that breeds such as Golden Comets, Red Sex-Links, and even White Leghorns can and do lay steadily all winter long.
These are good options for chicken keepers who do not want to light their coop artificially.
For the most part, pullets will lay well through the first winter, regardless of the breed, and even without any supplemental light.
Other good breeds to consider include Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, and more.
Health Issues Related to Lighting the Coop
Some folks believe that artificially lighting the coop can cause health problems such as egg binding and vent prolapse as well as picking and packing between hens. These are serious issues that can be very harmful to your flock.
Although this is enough to keep some farmers from artificially lighting their coops, others believe that since these health issues have not been scientifically proven to be linked to artificially lighting the coop, then they are nothing to worry about.
How to Add a Light to the Coop
Whether you choose to light your coop or not is a personal preference for you and your flock that only you can decide. However, it is possible to successfully induce your hens to lay eggs all winter long by providing artificial light.
The simplest way to add light to your chicken coop is by adding a single bulb. Portable light sockets, such as the silver reflective type that are generally used with heat lamp bulbs, can be used for a typical light bulb as well.
Choose one with a cover to protect the bulb from accidental breakage which could cause a fire or otherwise harm your chickens. The safety of your chickens is a priority, so be sure to choose a system that will be safe from fire or electric surges.
Try Red Light
Some experts believe that using a red light in the coop is the best way to keep hens calm. Hens don’t perceive red light as daylight – so this method won’t unfortunately work as a boost for egg production.
However, it can help you navigate the coop when you have to head out to do chores in the wee winter morning hours.
Why red light for hens? Experts believe it makes it harder for chickens to differentiate combs and wattles, preventing aggressive behaviors like cannibalism and hen pecking.
Being able to see while you’re doing your chores is another benefit of having a light in the coop that many people don’t talk about.
If you have a day job that you need to get to at an early hour or otherwise just like getting the chores done as soon as possible, a light can be helpful.
Consider Solar Lighting
Small solar set-ups can be used to provide low level light in your coop. These set-ups can be fairly inexpensive and safe to purchase. The smallest systems can be found on amazon.com with merely a lightbulb, small battery, and a small solar panel.
Other systems, such as the ones found at biolite.com, are brighter and more reliable but much more expensive. If you do not have electricity at or near your coop, using some sort of solar set-up may be the easiest way to add extra light to your chicken coop in the winter.
Remember to Consider Darkness
When adding artificial light to your chicken coop, remember that chickens do need some level of darkness to maintain good sleep and good health.
Use a timer to add light for several hours in the evening so that your chickens will receive enough light to keep laying eggs but still have enough darkness to be healthy. Use the least amount of extra light necessary to save on your electric bill and to be as natural as possible.
Keep it Simple
According to Nutrena, a 9 watt bulb on a timer is all that is needed to give your chickens enough light to continue laying all winter. Keep light bulbs clean, as dirty lightbulbs will have decreased light output as well as cause a fire hazard.
Chickens may attempt to roost on a freestanding light, so the safest thing to do is use a light that hangs from the ceiling and is away from your roosting area. This should keep the chickens from roosting on it or knocking it over.
We use a timer, and don’t have to “remember” to shut off the lights. We are also only adding about 4 hours of artificial light to their day, and 2 hours of that is in the mornings.
The risk of fire is there, but it’s also there when you turn on a light in your home. Do you not use lights in your bedroom due to that risk? It’s minimal, and since our light isn’t where the chickens can “peck” at it or bump it, I am not worried. You can get the timer we use here.
Mount the light high on the ceiling so the chickens can’t get to it. If you can, wrap chicken wire around it so they can’t peck it – or better yet, use a guard that will reduce the risk of fire if the light happens to fall.
Don’t use a shatter proof bulb in the coop. These release toxins that can harm the health of your chickens. Remember, if the bulb falls and shatters, you have fire to worry about as well as the risk of your chickens stepping on all the broken shards of glass, too.
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Mistakes to Avoid When Lighting the Chicken Coop
Here are some things to avoid if you decide to light the chicken coop.
Get the Timing Right
When we lit our chicken coop, we made the mistake of turning the lights on too early in the evening. The chickens became accustomed to going into the coop only when it was lit.
When there was a power outage or when we forgot to plug in the light in the evening, the chickens refused to go to their perches and would meander outside by the coop door until we physically put them into the coop. You may want to turn the lights on just after the chickens have entered the coop so they do not learn bad habits.
Don’t Keep it On All Night
Another mistake we made was allowing the light to stay on all night long. This created a poor sleeping situation for the chickens and wasted electricity. We attempted to unplug the light at bedtime each evening, but that meant we forgot to unplug it often.
We also often forgot to plug it in the following evening. Adding light to our coop made our chickens more high maintenance than we liked.
Don’t Be Afraid of Exploring Your Options
Because we do not have electricity at our chicken coop, we experimented with several different options. First, we tried an inexpensive solar powered light bulb. We discovered that the inexpensive solar set-up did not charge up well in poor daylight.
We also discovered that the battery did not last long enough to emit enough light for long enough to keep the chickens laying all winter. Instead, we ended up running an extension cord from inside the garage all the way up to the inside of the chicken coop.
This was a tripping hazard as well as a problem when mowing or when it was raining outside.
Do Chicken Coops Need to Be Dark?
When you build your coop, make sure there is some way for natural light to come in.
While adding a supplemental, artificial light to the coop is a good way to boost daylight during those long, cold winter nights, something as simple as building a coop with plenty of windows is a great idea for the rest of the year, too.
Chickens are like you in that they can’t see that well in the dark. If your chickens can’t see, they might stay on their roosts much longer – meaning less time eating, playing, and of course, laying eggs.
Find ways to allow more natural light into your coop and you’ll thank yourself!
And remember, chickens won’t sleep with a light on. Continuous exposure to a light source will confuse a chicken and cause it undue stress.
Just like you can’t deal with the pressure when you’ve been up all night, neither can chickens. Make sure your chickens get the restful sleep they need by giving them some darkness, too!
Remember – darkness is just as important as light.
Another option that seemed to work well was keeping a small coop of small chickens in the backyard within the scope of the backdoor’s floodlights.
Because we kept the floodlights on all night long for safety purposes, the chickens also received the benefits of having extra light without putting light in their small coop.
Although they did stop laying for a few weeks during the darkest part of the winter, the chickens continued to lay for most of the year round and much longer than the chickens that were in the coop with no lights on at all.
Eventually, we decided that having the chickens lay eggs all year round was less important than the safety and convenience of not lighting the coop.
So while the chickens may be freeloaders for just a couple months, they more than reward us with manure and with breakfast the rest of the year round.
While I am not a huge fan of lighting the chicken coop during the winter, you may find it worthwhile depending on your personal beliefs and situation.
I raise our animals as naturally as possible, and I DO care about my girls. It’s just that we have decided that after 2-3 years, they are no longer needed for laying and becoming dinner themselves.
They live a happy, productive life before they are butchered, and I am okay with having to cull our flock each fall.
Whether or not to light your chicken coop is a very personal decision based on your food needs and your flocks needs. It depends on your climate, the number of hours of light and darkness, and the health of your chickens and even the breed and age of your hens.
It also depends on how easy it is for you to add electricity to your chicken coop and the safety risks involved. You can always experiment and try adding artificial light to your coop for a season or two without causing any serious problems for your flock.
So, if you want to keep a light on in your coop to keep your chickens laying all winter, by all means, go ahead.
Just remember to keep it on a timer (they are at hardware stores all over, in the Christmas lights section mainly) and don’t add more than 5-6 hours of artificial light. And enjoy your eggs all year long!
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.