Lighting Myths and a New Understanding

6 January 2012, at 12:00am

Poultry-specific LED light bulbs will revolutionise the future of energy efficiency for producers and improve performance, according to John Matcham, Head of Agriculture Glo Agrilamp. He dispels a number of widely held misconceptions about light and its effects on poultry.

November saw the advent of the PIC Conference in London Ontario and for the first time a new experience for the poultry lighting industry that was a surprise to us all, writes Mr Matcham. Presentations of data from the University of Arkansas, the University of Guelph and from a number of Universities in Europe clearly demonstrated how not only the development of Poultry Specific LED light bulbs will revolutionise the future of energy efficiency for producers but also the effective ways in which production performance can be improved. The real surprise was that for the first time both sides of the Atlantic agreed on how the performance is affected by light. In fact the differences in the data presented were insignificant.

BUY: Poultry Lighting - the theory and practice

So at last we all agree that LED is better than anything else on the market to deliver light to our flocks and not cause us any harm. It can even make things better.

I was lucky enough to be one of those invited to present to the conference and this in itself was a learning experience as I discovered more of your concerns when committing your hard earned cash to a new and emerging technology, continues Mr Matcham. It’s a technology you expect to last longer, deliver better light, be I.P. rated, energy efficient and tough enough to withstand the rigours of your not so careful farm hands. All of the things every previous form of light failed to do in one way or another. So as we gather together again for the largest poultry show in the world it’s time to dispel the rumours and myths and shine a little light on the future.

Some years ago, Mr Matcham says he was approached by a major egg producer in Europe to see if it was possible to produce a light bulb that would replace incandescent and fluorescent types of lamp. The first question was why do we need a new LED lamp and what must it do. The answer in short is; everything an incandescent light bulb can do including dimming but without the bad stuff like mercury and flickering.

Glo Agrilamp spent some six months studying carefully all of the current data at the time on poultry responses to light and saw clearly that there was more to this that met the human eye. Not only did poultry see more effectively than we do seeing in four colours unlike us Trichromatic (three colour) humans, but they also had a much more precise vision as a result, and we had some myths to deal with along the way too.


Red Light is Calming to Birds and Reduces Cannibalism: a Myth?

Is it a myth? First we needed to understand where this myth if it is a myth came from. According to Mr Matcham, once they had tested some red lights, Glo Agrilamp began to understand that incandescent light bulbs used by producers had changed over time to make them cheaper, producers had unwittingly tried to recapture the ability of the early red light bulbs with all kinds of tricks including red plant pots for shades, paint and even red plastic filters.

Twenty years ago or more, a red light bulb actually gave off more or less only red light as it had a filter coating that removed blue and green light. More recent red light bulbs do not have this filter and use paint or powder coating to produce what we humans perceive as red light. In fact, if you test one of these paint or powder phonies against a clear white light bulb, they give of more or less the same light spectrum.

By increasing red light (real red light), we increase pecking on anything that is illuminated in red. This includes a warm bird that presents red in colour to another bird as it cools itself down and the equipment around it. The fact that the entire environment is now saturated in red, the resulting increased pecking activity just means that they peck everything in sight, just diluting the effect of pecking on other birds or cannibalism. It does not reduce the risk or effects of cannibalism; in fact, it can increase it and when the blue and green spectrum is returned to give white light, you could have an even bigger problem.

Red does have some advantages though; red does speed up maturity in layers by about two to three days average; however, the risk of using it can be high, as far as Mr Matcham is aware, there are no studies as to the effects when you turn it off, which of course, eventually you have to do to continue production.

Like the old fashioned red light bulb with its filter, a single Red LED does produce what I call real red light even better than the filtered red light bulb of old, he says.

So be careful when using just red light from an LED or an LED light source that mixes red, green and blue to achieve white or other colours, we simply do not know enough to say what exactly will happen. We know that the finest adjustment between what horticulturists call 'red' and 'far red' will control the height or width of growth in a plant and research is ongoing. Research on the effects of red as a single colour is only just beginning in poultry production.

Green Light Improves Feed Intake: Another Myth?

Recent studies show that while green light increases pecking actions searching for food, they do not actually find it, says Mr Matcham. Poultry see in the green spectrum only marginally better than humans, so where they have a distinct advantage over us in the red and blue spectrums, what you can see in green light is more or less what they can see.

So if you are using green LED only in a broiler barn, get down on your knees and see what you can see “clearly”. You need to be able to define a feedstuff from the litter; this is done by separating the colours of both through vision. It is not at all easy and will not be any easier for your birds. If used in an aviary system, you may also be reducing the area comfortably available to you birds.

What Colour LED to Use?

While there is ongoing research into the effects of light spectrum (colour) manipulation for the control of not only poultry production but also pig and plants, we have not yet seen any conclusive evidence that would encourage us to manufacture a light bulb that could change colour to obtain a specific performance from poultry, says Mr Matcham.

In fact, the billions of possibilities that could be created will take years to discover and identify each response generated. The application and removal of each possible combination will undoubtedly create different responses. In plants, we already know that we are looking at least 40,000 different plant species requirements.

For now, a monochromatic white light seems to provide the poultry farmer of today with the most reliable and user friendly solution.

Dimming Has no Real Advantage: Another Myth?

I have heard this many times, normally from a producer who does OK with their production and is happy to be where they are and that fine if it is what you want, says Mr Matcham. Most of us, however, want maximum return on our flocks if we can get it and reducing stress on birds is a good way to get better performance from your flocks.

In natural behaviour terms, the sun comes up gently in the morning and gently goes over the horizon at the end of the day. The spectrum of light is really not that important; it is the effect it has on all bird species behaviour that counts as the light increases or diminishes, according to Mr Matcham.

If the sun suddenly appeared tomorrow morning high in the sky without a sunrise and without warning, you and I would undoubtedly panic, Governments would call NASA and the Russians to find out if North Korea had launched a missile attack on South Korea and so on. The one thing in common the world over would be increased heart rates and a change in our natural rhythms – “panic”. Equally, if it fell out of the sky, similar phone calls would be made with a deal more difficulty while someone attempted to find a light switch. If you have ever experienced a solar eclipse the most amazing thing is the silence, and the sight of birds falling from the sky directly to ground, not even attempting to find a tree to roost in – clearly abnormal behaviour and a defence response driven by a form of panic.

Dimming in the morning provides the time in which to re-establish territory and neighbourly behaviour routines, reducing aggression and stress, giving a controlled and effective access to feed and water without conflict. Dimming in the evening provides a warning to prepare for roosting and also time to take on feed and water reserves for the night, comfortable with the surroundings a reduced stress level is beneficial to flock performance.

LED provides us with real quality dimming and physical flock control in modern aviary systems. In an aviary system, it is important to guide birds to the perches at night, just like finding a branch in a tree where the setting sun will be brighter than the available light still on the ground, we can pull birds up to the system by using more than one dimmer very effectively. For broilers, good light distribution is also very important to allow a flock to settle evenly across the barn, this will help to keep bird temperatures stable and allow birds to rest without stress.

Any LED Will Do – Probably the Latest Myth

Not just any LED will do and they are not all alike so here is what to look for, advises Mr Matcham.

Firstly, you need to know something very important: five years ago the LEDs that were on the market were different from those of today. Oddly enough, most of them were basically suitable for use in a poultry house but they were very expensive, not bright enough and the vast majority unreliable they flickered when dimmed.

Today, most work reasonably well and dim acceptably too. However, they have been pushed by governments and major lighting manufacturers to comply with regulations like Energy Star and LM79 to achieve light levels measured under strict rules to suit a human market. So the light coming from them is now very good at rendering the colour red something we humans need lots of, and we are beginning to see issues with pecking from these bulbs.

While Glo currently manufactures some of the most energy-efficient LED light bulbs available today, they do not always pass the tests for Energy Star as they are the wrong type of LED for humans.

Mr Matcham says that some organisations and state funding services fail to see the opportunity to work with farmers to reduce energy consumption dramatically by burying their heads in the sand and saying “me no understand”. Others, however, including the key energy companies themselves, have grasped the idea and are working with the company to test and pass on this saving to the farmers in 2012.

Today, you can purchase a cheap light bulb in the local supermarket that may well be LED or even CFL, but they were never meant for use in poultry, daily as they develop to meet human needs the light coming out of them gets further and further away from what we need for poultry, and while farmers tentatively try to cheaply dip their toes into the technology pool for an energy solution, they could be putting it into a pool of piranhas, according to Mr Matcham.

Obvious physical differences to look for in a lamp that has not been built to withstand the rigours of a poultry house are:

  • Avoid glass lenses, except on the biggest 30-watt ceiling-mounted fitting some three metres from the floor
    It is not just that supermarkets do not like glass; more importantly, it is the way a glass lens has to be fitted. You simply cannot fix a glass lens with anything mechanical so it has to be glued in place. Ammonia, cleaning fluids, bactericide, pesticide, medications etc eats the glue and eventually, the lenses fall out. Glo Agrilamp created a lens that is popped into place so even if the special bonding used to combat all of the nasty chemicals fails at some point in the future, the lamp remains in one piece and keeps its IP rating.
    Polycarbonate lenses are not good either. They are cheap to make but change colour and go yellow with age.
    Glo Agrilamp developed a special material that was almost indestructible: hit one with a hammer and it will not break, never turns yellow and does not absorb too much light but gives an even distribution. This does slightly reduce the light output compared to a glass lens but it is safe for food production and your birds.

  • If an LED light bulb has any holes or airways that allow air into the lamp, it will also allow in moisture dust and anything else including insects and so on, it will corrode inside and reduce its life dramatically. It was meant for use in a nice clean home in suburbia, so let it be; it should not suffer the hardship of a poultry house.
    A Glo Poultry lamp has no holes or airways which also means it needs more cooling to protect its components, which makes it a little more expensive than a supermarket bargain. But it will last a very long time.

  • Cooling for LEDs and CFLs is very important.
    When questioned in Europe, a major manufacturer stated that you should not put a CFL inside a glass jar or plastic waterproof airtight housing as operating temperatures for this type of lamp should not exceed 30°C (86°F). Inside a glass or plastic housing, the temperature will soon exceed this and rise as high as 80°C (176°F).
    Electronic components that are temperature-sensitive will fail at this point, causing lamps to flicker and eventually die, according to Mr Matcham. Of course, to take this technology into a poultry house – where for reasons only understood by a poorly educated insurance man who says “You have to put it inside a housing” and cause its demise because his handbook says so, even if it was written for a stone age dwelling in a cave somewhere – Glo Agrilamp developed the AG65 and the AG adaptors, which, of course, are UL/ULC approved and IP rated. So now you “don’t have to”.

  • Anything that has screws holding it together has to have those screws bonded in place and protected from chemical effects. If not, they provide another passage for humidity and corrosion, and where the birds come into contact with them, persistent pecking (because it’s fun) will eventually undo something.

Chickens Do Not See Blue Light – the Oldest Myth of All

“Oh yes they do,” says Mr Matcham. Over the past five years, he says he has seen how his customers react when they see a flock of birds under white monochromatic LED light for the first time. The most common thing he hears is “It’s amazing how calm they are”.

From all of the tests performed around the world in a long list of eminent universities, the one thing the scientists have always agreed on is that poultry species all see in blue better than humans. In fact, a lot better.

So why do they sit still under blue light? Remember where we started off with the red light bulb not really being red light? You never had a blue light bulb that produced real blue light – just an incandescent bulb that produced a very low level of light and reduced the red and green output. A simple simulation of dusk. The difference was that if you dimmed a white incandescent light bulb down low, you just got more red light than anything else.

But the twist in the tail is this: now that we can create real blue light, just like we see at dusk, we can get birds to rest quickly with a real blue light bulb.

But beware: an unprotected (filtered) blue LED light bulb has a class two hazard warning for humans and with over-exposure, the human eye can be permanently damaged. But of course, Glo Agrilamp has built a safe one, just for you, concludes Mr Matcham.

The Future

Fifteen years ago, we changed our lighting habits from incandescent to fluorescent and not for a second did we question what the responses would be from our birds. The incentive of energy saving of 60-70 per cent was just too great a carrot.

The catalogue of disasters that this delivered included flickering and little or no dimming lamps, poor light quality and short lamp life - the opposite to what had been promised.

Today's farmer deserves to have the confidence in the future and without a doubt that future is now in the hands of new manufacturers with a much greater insight into light responses from flora and fauna alike.

Manufacturers are now developing technology that can successfully manipulate light in the four spectrums required by poultry. This rapid evolution of technology in the hands of only a few should be encouraged by the industry.

Further Reading

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.

January 2012