Cathie Anderson

UC Davis graduate aims to address world hunger with chicken coop light

Edward Silva left his family’s farm in the Turlock-Hilmar area long ago, but the UC Davis graduate, 25, is still driven by a passion for small-scale agriculture.

In August, Silva will meet in Canberra, Australia, with dozens of other young people from around the globe to brainstorm ways to curtail food insecurity as the world’s population soars. Silva, however, isn’t just talking about it.

Together with partners Lorena Galvan, Bryan Pon and Aaron Haldiman, he has developed and brought to market an award-winning solar-powered lighting system that helps tiny poultry farmers increase their egg production. They call it Henlight.

It’s no secret in the agricultural world that hens lay fewer eggs in fall and winter, often 30 to 50 percent less, as the amount of daylight dwindles. While large commercial farm operations have designed lighting options to help solve this dilemma, small farmers don’t have a cost-effective, off-the-shelf product.

From animal welfare specialists, Silva and his team learned that 16 hours of light is about optimal for laying hens. They thrive if they can get additional daylight in fall and winter, Silva said, because farmers are also ensuring they receive the same amount of food and water.

“Although they’re bred to be commercial animals, they still think like wild animals,” Silva said. “Shorter days mean less feed for their offspring to survive; therefore, they lay fewer eggs.”

Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell, co-owners of River Dog Farm, are pastured poultry farmers over in the Capay Valley. Their laying hens spend the night in coops but have access to pasture year-round during the day. Severe heat, severe cold and a reduction in daylight all cut into egg production and, by extension, River Dog’s profit margins.

Mueller said he decided to give the $450 Henlight system a try because it was an idea that he had thought of but never had time to bring to fruition. Operating on solar power, Henlight has an intelligent timer that adjusts to provide just the right amount of light in the early morning hours before sunrise. It also provides a light spectrum that simulates daylight.

“The increase in production paid for the device in a year,” Mueller said, “and I’m assuming that it will last for at least five years. If you think about a hen that’s going to last two years, you’re getting more eggs out of that hen in those two years. Your overhead for that hen is going to be the same, but you’re going to be getting more eggs out of her … and you’re not reducing the life cycle of the hen.”

The concept won the international Thought for Food Challenge in 2013, landing Silva a trip to Berlin and $10,000 in prize money that he and his partners used, along with funds of their own, to seed their start-up. Silva and his partners have sold 70 Henlights since starting their business last September. Mueller and the other farmers using the device reported a 20 percent increase in production over the last fall and winter seasons.

“Worldwide, poultry eggs are expected to be the No. 1 consumed animal protein in the next 10 years, and in places like Southeast Asia, there will be a sevenfold growth over the next 30 years,” Silva said. “How do we make sure small-scale farmers have the technology to meet these needs?”

The pastured poultry world has a lot of unanswered needs, Mueller said, but he thinks his hog production and vegetable farm also are underserved in terms of affordable technologies.

“Small farmers encounter problems like this all the time,” he said, “but nobody really builds things for us, so we’re always trying to fabricate our own stuff.”

Silva said he saw his dad do much the same thing as a child, so when faced with the question of how to solve the issue of food insecurity, he wrote an essay suggesting that young technologists develop more technology for small farmers. That’s why Bayer CropScience selected him as one of 100 delegates to the Youth Ag-Summit in Canberra later this summer.