As I talk with chicken keeping friends, I’m surprised that some don’t know that most chickens will cease to lay eggs when day lengths fall below 14 hours in the fall. As we move further into fall and shorter days, chickens will naturally reduce egg production.
They lay eggs based on day length; long days and increasing day length mean spring to a chicken – time when they should be producing many eggs and raising chicks. The declining day length and harsher environment in fall and winter aren’t optimal for raising chicks; so chickens will naturally stop egg production, molt, renew their egg laying resources, and grow new feathers.
A chicken is born with the capacity to lay a specified number of eggs in its life, so commercial egg production facilities keep chickens laying eggs throughout the winter by utilizing artificial light. If artificial light is supplied such that chickens receive 14 – 16 hours of light every day, molting will typically be delayed and most chickens will continue producing eggs throughout the winter.
Backyard chicken owners can use artificial light in the winter too, or allow their chickens to follow natural patterns. If artificial light is to be used, the natural light should be enhanced when day lengths fall below 14 hours. If one day of lighting below 14 hours occurs, the chickens may begin to molt and cease production. For this reason, it’s a good idea to use a timer for the lighting. It’s also best to enhance lighting in the morning, so the chickens don’t get caught in the dark and off the roost at night. A 60 watt incandescent bulb placed 7 feet above the coop floor will provide enough light for about 200 square feet ( a 10′ x 20′ coop).
The decision on whether to supply artificial light should be based on the age of the chickens, when they last molted, and the priorities of the chicken keeper. It generally not harmful to the birds if production is continued through a winter, but eventually the birds need to molt (see Molting Chickens) and renew their resources. If day lengths are allowed to fall below 14 hours and the birds do begin molting, then it’ll take from 10 to 24 weeks for the birds to come back into full production (see Fast or Slow Molting Chickens).