Basic Care for your flock: Lighting and Litter

Over the last few months, we have been exploring the FLAWS, which are the things that contribute to poor performance and, possibly, mortality in your backyard birds. The easiest way to help your flock succeed is to cover your FLAWS (Feed, Light, Air, Water, Security). This month, let’s take a look at Lighting and Litter. Here are some considerations for each of these components.

LIGHTING: As the change of seasons brings a reduction in daylight hours, many backyard chickens slow their egg-laying because their endocrine systems are stimulated by light. One way to help your laying chickens is to provide supplemental lighting through the darker winter months. Adding supplemental lighting will not force layers to keep laying, but, rather, it can provide them with the necessary light to keep laying if they have the other resources they need (food, water, and overall good health). The optimum amount of daylight for a hen to lay an egg is 13-14 hours, so if she does not get that much daylight, egg-laying decreases. Adding light will not cause a hen to “run out” of eggs – a hen is born with hundreds of thousands of them, which would take decades to deplete, so there is no harm in her running out because of the addition of artificial light. There is also no risk of artificial light shortening a hen’s lifespan or causing other ill effects. Again, she is born with what she needs for her lifetime, and artificial light will not change that.

Chickens are very hearty and usually prefer a temperature around 40 degrees F. If you live in an area where temps drop lower, you could consider artificial lighting for a minor amount of supplementary heat. In addition, the lighting can be helpful to you if you are doing your chicken chores early in the morning or late in the evening when there is less daylight.

If you are going to use supplemental light, make sure you do it safely. Keep the bulb up high to avoid inquisitive pecks that could lead to broken glass or a coop fire. Also, make sure the bulb is not near any exposed wood or sawdust. And always keep an eye on your wiring – make sure everything is in tip-top shape, and if it’s not, replace it right away.

Supplemental lighting should be added gradually. If you have never used it, don’t suddenly add lighting for several hours all at once. Add a little at a time (say 30 to 60 minutes a week) to help your flock get used to it until you have them up to about 14 hours per day (depending on your location). And make sure you use a timer, so the lighting is consistent. Finally, supplemental lighting should not be introduced until the hens are at least 16 weeks of age, although some would say waiting ‘til 20 weeks is better.

LITTER: Litter or bedding is the material that you put down on the floor of the coop to provide a soft surface for the hens to walk on and to catch freshly laid eggs. Consider a layer of at least 2” of shavings for absorbing droppings and odor. Shavings made of pine, aspen, or hardwood are preferred over such substances as cedar shavings, sand, paper products, cat litter, or wood chips. Materials like hay, straw, and newspapers (unless the newspaper is shredded) are not recommended. Once you decide on your material of choice, be sure you keep it clean and dry, which will require frequent changing. Wet litter is a breeding ground for mold and fungus, which can cause sickness in your flock.

See you next month when we break down the next of the FLAWS: Air and Ambulation.

Information provided by Dr. Corissa Robinson, Best Veterinary Solutions, Inc.