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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Days are getting shorter; should you have lights in your chicken coops?

As we move into fall months, and days are getting noticeably shorter, many of our birds have begun to moult. Our turkeys actually started moulting in August. Our older ducks and chickens are definitely moulting now as well. We always hope that the moult will hold off until later in the fall, since the later it starts, generally the shorter the moulting process is.

Why does this matter? When the birds are moulting, the egg production slows to a trickle, and many birds completely stop laying for the duration of the moult. Since we are in business selling our organic duck and chicken eggs, any drop in production is naturally a concern for us.

So what, if anything, can we do about this? Most books and magazine articles I've read advocate lighting the interior of chicken coops when the days get shorter. The theory is that peak egg production is related to the number of hours of daylight; thus, hens should be laying at their highest rate during the early summer months when days are longest. So it seems logical to add light in the coops as days get shorter.

However, we have chosen not to do this. Why? Most people who know us are aware that we live off the grid and are in the process of installing our solar electric system. They say, "Well, as soon as you have electricity you're going to light your coops, right?"

Wrong. We have spent a lot of time over the years debating this question. In short, our conclusion is that the moult is a natural part of the annual "rhythm" of these birds' lives. We simply feel it's better for them to have a break from egg-laying and not try to artificially circumvent the important moulting process.

As I mentioned, we are in business selling eggs. So how do we address the issue of dropping production in the fall and winter months? Our strategy is to plan the hatching of new birds at a point that ensures that the young birds will be starting to lay around the time the older birds are slowing down. Yes, this involves a lot of organization and management. Yes, we are sometimes caught off-guard by odd weather patterns and other factors that can influence when the moult starts and ends. But overall this strategy has worked quite well for us.

I think since everyone's situation is different, you should ultimately do whatever works best for you and your birds. I would just encourage you to keep an open mind and consider alternatives to putting artificial lighting in your coops. Even if you can't hatch or buy new chicks each spring, the moult usually lasts only a month or two. Cows get a break from milking every winter; think about giving your hens a break, too.

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