Providing Light and Reducing Blue Comb in Poultry

Summer 2012

By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

On the first Friday of every month, MOFGA hosts its “Common Ground” radio show on WERU (89.9 Blue Hill, 99.9 Bangor, I was on that show in April discussing backyard chickens. The information below follows up on a couple of interesting questions that callers asked.

Lighting for Pullets

One caller asked about the effects of light on raising chicks in the spring. In commercial flocks, growing pullets (birds that haven’t started laying yet) receive a program of decreased lighting each day; after the pullet reaches egg production age, lighting is increased.

Light seriously affects growth and production in poultry and should be managed carefully. As a rule of thumb, it is best not to subject pullets to increasing light, and never subject layers to decreasing light.

This is difficult, because chicks usually arrive in the spring, or a hen may sit on eggs in the spring, when daylength is increasing. To control light exposure, you would have to keep these birds in a closed area, giving no outside access. This will cost you more for electricity and is certainly not allowed for organic flocks, which must have access to outdoors.

Then, spring chicks will be ready to lay once they’re about 20 to 22 weeks (5 months) old, depending on the breed. Heritage breeds start laying later, hybrid birds earlier. So laying begins between September and November – just when natural daylight is decreasing. For hens to lay reliably, they will need more light. Providing an additional 15 minutes of supplemental light weekly until birds have a total of 15 hours of light will satisfy their requirements.

Putting the light on in the morning enables birds to find their roost in the evening, as the sun is setting and the light is gradually diminishing. If you use supplemental light in the evening, the light goes out suddenly, and hens may find themselves on the floor of the house next to their least favorite flock mate instead of cozied up on the roost next to their buddy.

Professor Michael Darre, poultry specialist from the University of Connecticut, recommends this lighting program for pullets.

Nearest date when hens are 22 weeks of age Daily hours of light
Jan. 1 15 hrs., 15 min.
Feb. 1 15 hrs., 45 min.
March 1 16 hrs., 30 min.
April 1 17 hrs., 30 min.
May 1 18 hrs., 15 min.
June 1 19 hrs.
July 1 19 hrs.
Aug. 1 18 hrs., 30 min.
Sept. 1 17 hrs., 45 min.
Oct. 1 17 hrs.
Nov. 1 16 hrs.
Dec. 1 15 hrs., 15 min.

This schedule should stimulate birds to produce eggs at the right time. It can be used for growing certified organic pullets in winter, when they would not be going out anyway.

For more information on lighting, see “Maine Poultry Facts, Lighting For Small-Scale Flocks,” by Robert Hawes,

Blue Comb in Chickens

Blue comb is a disease primarily of young laying hens. It is also called pullet disease, avian monocytosis, new wheat disease, X-disease, summer disease, mud fever of turkeys, and contagious indigestion. Most commonly seen in the warm months, June to August, its mortality ranges from zero to 50 percent and morbidity to 20 percent.

Blue comb can be a symptom in several diseases and usually results from severe blood circulation problems associated with some serious infectious diseases, such as avian influenza, Newcastle disease, Staphylococcus, etc. It is also seen in advanced stages of disease resulting in heart problems, such as ascites syndrome in broilers, and chronic diseases with severe respiratory distress.

Other symptoms vary depending on the stage and cause of the disease. They can include depression; loss of appetite; cyanosis of the head (bluish-red comb) and skin because of poor circulation; fever; sunken eyes; dehydration, with a shriveling of the skin of shanks, comb and wattles; the crop may be enlarged and sour; and poults have a fetid diarrhea. A sudden drop in egg production with slow return to normal is usual. Blue comb lasts one to two weeks.

Practicing healthy management helps reduce stress on young birds, helping to prevent onset of all disease. Follow these guidelines:

• Provide a well-balanced laying diet

• Eliminate sudden changes in diet

• Give birds a place to stay cool in hot, humid weather

• Provide fresh water

• Handle birds gently

• To reduce pecking order issues, don’t change bird groups

• Reduce changes in the environment

Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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