Friday, November 23, 2012

Ask Bee - Why You Shouldn't Light Your Coop in the Winter

Dear Bee,
My hens’ are not laying very much right now and I read somewhere that lighting the coop (so they have as many hours of light as they do during the summer) will make them lay more through the winter. How do you feel about lighting the coop?

Bee's Answer:

Winter lighting brings up another health subject....melatonin uptake.  Melatonin is only released by the pineal gland in the darkness and will not be stimulate to release if there is any light present...even low lighting.  Many light the coops to stimulate laying throughout the winter and I will give you my take on that as not being a such great idea if you want your chickens to be healthy and have laying longevity. 

A natural slow down for all creatures is needed in the winter months and the all natural approach to animal husbandry takes this into account. The nutrients needed as fuel to stay warm should not necessarily be funneled into forced laying. 

Melatonin is important in preventing reproductive cancers, for increased reproductive health and in good immune system function. 

If you just have production layers that will be replaced in 2 short years, then lighting is the way to go as you have these birds for one reason and do not expect them to last you past the 2 year mark anyway.  At 2 years they can all be culled and you can start a new flock.

But, if you are like me and keep a rolling flock of dual purpose breeds that make their own replacements and are going to be around until they just cannot lay enough to earn their feed, then lighting is probably not a good idea.  You'll want those birds to be as healthy and to lay as long as they possibly can in all the years that you have them.  If so, lighting the winter coop is probably not the best idea.  I've never lit a coop and have always had eggs enough for the family through the winter months... and birds that lay like gangbusters clear up into their senior years. 

If you want eggs through the winter, a good idea is to keep a high production type in the flocks that will go ahead and lay you some eggs for the family during winter slow down.... Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, New Hampshires and even Black Australorps and White Rocks can do the trick and without anything more than natural light from the winter sun.

Lighting and heat.  Don't do it, never did.  Flock lays supremely in peak season, slows down in the winter and I never needed so many eggs that I had to goose them up to make a little more.  I sell eggs when there are plenty, save them for my family and a few preferred customers when there are few.

Nature is always the best teacher.... if a bird doesn't lay as much in the winter it is because they just shouldn't be doing it then.  Some do, some don't, some will, some can't.

To defray costs when egg money isn't coming in as regularly, I buy whole grains to cut my layer rations.  Goes further, keeps the flock well in the winter but isn't designed for peak laying season nutritional needs.

Heat is provided by God and all His incredible handiwork.... warm, fluffy feathering.  I also use deep litter for the added benefit of floor warmth.  My big coop windows are covered with plastic but the pop door is always open.

Bee -

Leigh Says:

A wonderful question was brought up in our comments section about brooding chicks without light. Of course the best method of all is to allow a broody hen to care for them, but unfortunately that is not always possible.

For those of us who need to brood chicks without a hen, I personally have had wonderful luck using a ceramic heat element like this one :

It fits in the same brooder clamp light as the bulb, but sheds zero light but still keeps chicks toasty warm!

Don't miss our key chain giveaway! See it HERE!


  1. So glad you covered this topic! I am always telling people that lighting the coop is not a good idea, and now I can link them to this post :D Awesome job!


  2. This raises a question about brooding in the coop. Most of us use heat lamps to brood - and many of us brood outdoors in the hen house. We have adults and the new little ones being brooded.

    Do you have any good ideas on how to heat the brooding area without adding light to the whole hen house?

    It also seems that it would not be good for the new chicks to have that light on 24/7 for their health as well.

    Any ideas on a non light heat source that will stay warm enough for brooding outdoors in cold whather?


    1. Great question, LM! I have added an addendum to this post with a no-light heat source I have used quite successfully :o)

    2. I actually bought one of those to experiment with to see if I could get enough heat out of it. It was the 250 w size. When I used it in the house, I could only get the area under it at the right temp if it was about 5" from the floor and the heat area wasn't very large. This was in a house that was already at 70 degrees. The ceramic piece itself was EXTREMELY HOT as in - it would burn you - or a chick or animal - if you touched it directly.

      After my experimentation, I decided it was not going to throw enough heat in a cold hen house that could be in the 20's temperature wise and that I would have to put it too close to the animals for safety.

      All that being said... Could you tell us how you've used it (since you have used it and I've only experimented) and what your thoughts are about the issues I brought up.

      Thanks! LM

    3. LM - that's odd... we had no trouble with ours. We put ours in a brooder clamp light and had our chicks in a super-large plastic bin. They were in the house... at the time we did not have the luxury of brooding in a barn or large coop. I wonder if you got a defective unit?? We had ours a couple feet above the chicks - they went under the heat source as they chose. A good ceramic unit should provide nearly identical heat to a light bulb - but without the light. I know a number of other people who use these with great success also.

    4. Forgot to mention... I personally wouldn't choose to brood chicks in a barn where temperatures would be in the 20's. I would think in those conditions the chicks would need to be kept in a small area with very limited airflow to allow the heating unit to maintain a good temperature. That said, I don't think a light would be any better in those conditions, and lights get very hot to the touch also. A piece of hardware cloth could be fastened over the hood of the brooder clamp light to prevent direct contact with the heating element.

      I would love to hear from anyone who successfully broods chicks in a barn in cold temperatures. What do you brood your chicks in? How do you heat it and how do you maintain the temperatures? Let us know!!

    5. If you look at the OT thread over on BYC, there are numerous folks who show their set-ups brooding outdoors.

      Hopefully the temps won't be in the 20's the whole time, but the possibility always exists that it will go that low.

      Most I've read have partitioned off a small area to keep the heat in and sometimes are using several lamps at a time depending on the temperatures. One of the guys uses a hay wagon with the heat lamps on one end and plenty of room for them to get out from under the heat. He is very pleased with how it's working for him but, again, lots of light!

      On the ceramic heat element, when I was experimenting I set it up about 3ft. above the floor in the house with a thermometer under it. I had to get it so low to achieve temperature that it would definitely be too close to the chicks.

      What I failed to do was to partition off an area - like your plastic bin. just had it in the open with a thermometer under it and no enclosure to capture the heat. It may be that the walls of your plastic bin were keeping the heat in.

      My next experiment will be to put it over a more enclosed area and see how it does there. That may take care of the problem.

      Once I see that it will hold the heat, the next experiment will be to take it outside on a cold day into the hen house and see what temperature I could maintain there.

      I'm glad to hear it's working in your setup and I really think my issue was not having an enclosure. I'll test and see!


    6. Just a clarification - I started with the ceramic heat element 3 ft. above, then kept moving it down until I saw that I was getting the temperature I needed - which was very close to the floor.


  3. I didn't know that about needing darkness to stimulate the release of melatonin. Must appy to people too! I knew there was reason I hate having ambient lighting from street lights, etc when I stay at someone else's place.

  4. Bee, I have been looking for a way to heat an area for a featherless hen until her feathers grow back in, but was really concerned about the light part. I am so THRILLED about the heating element that you just posted! I cant wait to get it. Your blog is so informative. thank you so much for all the awesome info.

    Dee Waters (fishnet1971)

  5. Hi Bee, I am learning so much from you on BYC and now here on your blog. I'm a newbie and have a lot to learn! I started my first batch of FF last night and am using DLM in the coop. I will stop using DE in after reading about it here. Why do so many people use it in their DLM coops if it defeats the purpose? I only have 6 chickens (1 roo & 5 hens--3 of which are bantams). I'm hoping to add some LF in the spring.

    My question is do they need light to eat & drink? I have 2 windows in the coop (big one in the back; small one in the front)& a covered 10x10 outside run. My big window is under the covered run so the light coming through is sparse unless the sun shining directly in. When I go to the coop in the morning everyone is quiet not moving around too much. But when I turn on the lights it's like I've flipped their switch as well.

    Thank you so much for all the wisdom!! Dina aka CoopChick719

    1. Hey Dina -
      Yes, chickens generally need some light to stir up their appetites. Many folks prefer to feed and water their chickens out in the run instead of in the coop for this very reason. It also prevents rodents from being attracted to spilled feed inside the coop. Rodents in the coop is never a good thing.

      If you must feed in your coop and your coop tends to be dark, in my opinion it wouldn't hurt to light the feeding area just while they are eating.

    2. Thank you Leigh! We have a lot of wildlife near by so I didn't want to attract them to the run if there was a free meal in it. I figure any rodent would have to run the gaunlet through the run before getting inside the coop...I will just leave the light on for them while I get ready for work.

      Thanks again, Dina

  6. While I Definitly agree with you about going
    Natures route in most geographical locations- I am wondering what you think about keeping chickens in my current latitude. I'm in Fairbanks, ak- where it gets COLD and DARK in the winter. Now- it is already between -10 and -20, and we have 7 hours of daylight. In dec/jan- we only get 3 hours of daylight, and the temp can be -40 for weeks straight. I am still putting them out in the run for a few hours every day (it's covered and wind free) but they are miserable and huddle near the opening- barely drinking or eating. I finally caved and put a small waterer and feeder in their coop- because I am afraid they won't get water if I didn't.
    As for light- I was really against it and never used it up until now. BUT
    My birds were born mid may- and never started laying because of the lack of light. So now I am faced with either feeding these birds for another 6 months- with no eggs in return-
    Or adding artificial
    Light to their coop.

    1. Jennifer - your circumstances are certainly different from those of most of our readers. Yes - You SHOULD light your coop to give those girls more daylight and help their bodies adjust. They need roughly 8 - 10 hours of daylight (though admittedly here in the mountains of VA where I am, we are barely getting 7 hours - LOL!).
      Yes - light away! Just make sure the light is safe and not a fire hazard. Check it and the wiring regularly to make sure it's not getting too hot and that there are no exposed wires or connections.
      Stay warm!


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