Thoughts of surviving winter with chickens don’t have to send chills up your spine. There are only two things that are critical to a backyard flock in cold temperatures: access to water and a dry coop. Actively planning to ensure both is the key to cold weather survival with chickens. When best coop management practices for good ventilation and waste handling are already in effect, bracing for winter’s bite shouldn’t require much effort.
WATER IS ESSENTIAL
Water is the essential nutrient in a chicken’s daily diet; it is required for regulating body temperature, digestion, growth and egg production. Lack of access to water for even a few hours can result in a drop in egg production for weeks. Chickens eat more in the winter to regulate their temperature and they require water to digest food- if water is frozen, they will not eat and cannot warm themselves properly.
3 Solutions to frozen water:
1. Cookie Tin water heater: For less than $10 and 10 minutes, a water heater can be fashioned out of common household objects, which will keep water in plastic and metal waterers liquid in sub-zero temperatures. (limitation: electricity required)
2. Poultry Nipple waterers: There are many different nipple water systems that can be installed to ensure water supply, from a homemade system with a 5 gallon bucket and aquarium heater to a commercially available system with its own heating system such as The Chicken Fountain. (limitation: electricity required)
3. Haul it: Without electricity to the coop, traditional waterers require changing frequently throughout the day to prevent freezing. They should be emptied or removed at dusk and returned to the flock first thing in the morning. (not the most efficient system, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do)
MOISTURE IS THE ENEMY
While access to drinking water is essential, ironically, water is also the enemy of chickens in winter. Most breeds tolerate cold extremely well, but freezing temperatures inside the coop in addition to moisture is the recipe for frostbite. Chickens generate a great deal of moisture from respiration (breathing) as well as from pooping as droppings consist of 85% water. If the windows of the coop have condensation on them in the morning, there is not enough ventilation in the coop.
Frostbite is most likely to occur overnight in a cold, poorly ventilated coop where litter is damp and moisture from droppings and respiration cannot escape. Frostbite to combs, wattles, and toes is super painful and can interfere with fertility in roosters and egg production in hens. Roosters and breeds with single combs are at the greatest risk of frostbite. Much more about frostbite prevention and treatment here.
STRATEGIES FOR CONTROLLING MOISTURE:
If utilizing a hygrometer inside the chicken coop, the target relative humidity is 50-70%.
Use Droppings Boards
Droppings boards are essentially a shelf designed to collect chicken poop deposited overnight. The boards are scraped down every morning, and the poop is removed from the coop. The less poop inside the coop, the less moisture in the coop. Droppings also generate ammonia, which can be a respiratory hazard to the flock, particularly in a closed coop. When droppings boards are used, a major source of humidity & potential ammonia are eliminated.
Don’t Keep Water Inside the Coop
I strongly suggest keeping waterers out of the hen house. While controlling moisture from respiration and droppings is manageable with excellent ventilation and proper litter management, it is impossible to keep ahead of the moisture curve if waters spills in the litter. As long as the flock is given access to water within an hour of daybreak, there is no need for water inside the coop.
Use Sand for Litter
The use of sand as litter inside the chicken coop is an outstanding choice in the winter because it evaporates moisture more rapidly than other litter and stays drier as a result. Sand also retains warmth better than any other bedding and given its high thermal mass, it will keep coop temperatures more stable than other litter types such as pine shavings. Straw is not appropriate for use as litter for chicken coops. Learn why here. Zeolite sprinkled in the litter can help control residual moisture after cleaning and bind ammonia molecules to its surface. Much more about how zeolite works HERE.
Properly Execute the Deep litter method
Deep litter is a method of chicken waste management that calls for droppings and bedding material to compost inside the chicken coop. There is a popular misconception that deep litter is the lazy man’s way of managing litter and heating the coop, however, deep litter actually requires careful management, which includes stirring and monitoring moisture content. The deep litter method implemented improperly can be a serious health hazard to the flock. To properly manage deep litter: DON’T change the litter every few weeks, DON’T begin the process mid-winter, DON’T keep less than 4 inches of litter on the coop floor, DON’T use diatomaceous earth (DE) in the litter and DON’T rely on the chickens to do all of the turning. For much more information about how to employ the deep litter method correctly, click here.
INSULATE & ELIMINATE DRAFTS
Insulating is intended to retain radiant heat and reduce heat loss, making it more feasible to ventilate the coop well. Insulating a coop does NOT mean making it air-tight. If there are gaps in walls or around windows that are not being used for ventilation, they should be sealed to prevent drafts. Insulation must be hidden from the chickens- otherwise they will eat it. Feed bags are a cost-effective choice for covering insulation.
We insulate the roof of our 4’x6′ coop. The north and west-facing walls of the coop are protected from the wind by heavyweight plastic covering the run walls.
Bales of straw or hay should not be placed inside the chicken coop as insulation. Mold and fungus grow on them, and mites often live inside the straw, creating a respiratory health disaster zone inside the coop; of particular concern is Aspergillosis (brooder pneumonia).
Covering run walls with 4 or 6 ml contractor’s plastic sheeting or tarps can serve several purposes: it provides the flock with a warmer run by keeping rain, wind and snow out during the day and it can keep the coop warmer and draft-free at night, depending upon the location of the run relative to the coop. Furring strips should be nailed or screwed to the structure to ensure that the plastic remains in place.
VENTILATE WITHOUT DRAFTS
Ensuring adequate ventilation is the single most important cold weather chicken care task. Yes, even more important than heat. Why? Because moisture and any ammonia must have a route of escape from the coop even if it means losing some heat in the process. Fresh air inside the coop is critical to chickens’ health.
HOW TO VENTILATE A COOP:
The goal is to get as much air exchange throughout the coop as possible without drafts, particularly in the roost area. Ideally there will be windows and/or vents on all four sides of the coop. Ventilation holes towards the top of the coop, far above roost height and chicken height are best for achieving effective cold weather air exchange. If your coop does not have adequate ventilation, create more. Think: windows, not little holes. A reciprocating saw, some hinges, hardware cloth and washers/screws are all the supplies necessary to install additional ventilation in an existing coop.
We built our Little Deuce coop with vented eaves and a 9 foot ceiling. Yes, the warmest air will exit through the ventilation at the top of the coop, but warm air holds more moisture than cold air and the warmest air will take the moisture with it, which is the precisely what we want to accomplish.
We did not build our 4’x6′ coop– it came with three functioning windows on two opposing walls, but they did not provide enough ventilation for cooling in the summer, so…we cut more windows in the coop. The photo below shows the drop-down window we created above the pop door. Since the walls of the run are covered with heavy plastic in the winter, I can use the homemade coop vents in conjunction with the factory-installed windows to promote airflow in the coop.
The take-home message is: install as much ventilation as high up on the walls as possible while ensuring that the air over the roost remains still. You want the warmest, heaviest air moving up and out of the coop. If necessary, create a roost hood, which is like an awning over the roost to ensure that the pocket of air above the roosting chickens remains still. They’re expending energy to keep themselves warm and cold drafts will rob them of it.
This roost hood is made with styrofoam insulation boards, which the chickens may peck at- if they do, covering the sheets with duct tape will solve that problem.
THE HOT TOPIC: HEAT IN THE COOP
Wherever you live, your chickens will naturally acclimate to the changes in temperature from season to season. Regardless of where you come down on the issue of heating the chicken coop, please remember that a chicken’s physiology is not the same as a person’s. Our perception of how cold we would be in the coop at night is not the same as a chicken’s actual comfort level!
How a Chicken Regulates Body Temperature
A chicken is able to increase its body temperature by eating more in cold weather. Digestion creates internal heat, which radiates through the skin warming the air next to it, which is then trapped against its body by feathers. Chickens are tiny furnaces wrapped in down coats!
A chicken is also able to conserve body heat by restricting blood-flow to its comb, wattles and feet, the very parts of the body that give off excess heat in warm weather. Not only do they have mechanisms to keep themselves comfortable in the cold, they huddle together to keep each other comfortable and warm.
Installing 2″x4″ boards instead of round roosts provides them with the ability to cover and warm their feet.
I took the following photo inside the coop late at night after an all day snowstorm. The day’s high temperature was 18°F and the temperature outside at 11pm was 18°F. The temperature inside the coop was nearly 40°F! The combination of windbreaks, insulation, sand as litter and the chickens’ collective body heat all contribute to an extremely reasonable, comfortable and dry environment for the flock.
IF you decide to add heat to the chicken coop in the winter, please put safety first in choosing a heat source.
Another safer heat option to raise the temperatures inside the coop a few degrees is an oil filled radiator, BUT the inclination may be to heat the coop instead of just raising the temperatures a few degrees. That temptation should be resisted. The coop should not vary in temperature drastically from outside temps. These units would also need to be carefully monitored and vacuumed regularly due to the dust inherent to chicken coops.
- Never use a brooder heat lamp. There is simply no way to make heat lamps completely safe regardless of the number of chains/clamps/tethers or guards employed. Chickens have wings and feathers that are highly flammable- any scuffle inside the coop can send a chicken and/or feathers flying into a heat lamp, catching them on fire. There is no way to use a traditional heat lamp safely in the chicken coop.
- Use a safe form of heat such as a flat panel, radiant heater. Only supply enough heat to raise the coop temperature a few degrees- the coop should not feel warm to you. Chickens are not served well by walking out of a toasty hen house into a freezing cold run. The more time they spend inside the coop, the more droppings accumulate inside the coop, the more moisture there is inside the coop, the less exercise they get, etc.
- Automatically regulate the use of electric heat sources such as a flat panel heater or cookie tin water heater by utilizing a device like the Thermo Cube TC3, which will turn the power on at 35°F and off at 45°F. (there are other models that turn on at 0, off at 10, on at 20, off at 30)
Plan for power failure. If you do not have a generator to power a heat source to the coop during a blackout, do not heat the coop at all. Chickens have died and will die as a result of sudden drops in temperature from a power outage when the coop is heated.
The average chicken does NOT NEED a sweater. I’m not trying to be the Fun Police, I’m all about taking eggcellent care of pet chickens and enjoy a little silliness with them from time-to-time, but I have long felt that chicken sweaters are not only unnecessary, they can be hazardous, here’s why:
1. A sweater prevents a chicken from keeping itself warm naturally. (see “How a chicken regulates body temperature,” above)
2. A sweater will trap moisture next to the chicken’s skin, which further impedes its ability to stay warm and encourages lice & mites to set up camp on feathers and skin.
3. A sweater is a painful proposition for a molting hen whose sensitive pin feathers are better left untouched.
4. A sweater prevents a chicken from maintaining their own hygiene; dust-bathing and preening their feathers are important to keeping parasite populations down and feathers in good working order.
5. A chicken sweater provides hawks with a handy carrying-case for a free-range chicken. Let’s not make their jobs any easier.
6. A roosters spurs or nails can get caught in a sweater while mating, which is a strangling hazard to the hen and a dangerous situation for the rooster who cannot free himself.
The average, molting chicken in winter does not need a sweater. Take the cute photo and then pack it away with the Halloween costume that she also finds irritating. Battery hens that are primarily naked in cold weather may be an exception to the above, but even then, often the sweaters contribute more to making humans feel better about “doing something” for neglected birds than they actually contribute to the bird’s well being. In freezing temperatures, the average backyard chicken that is molting would be better served by an indoor dog crate in the basement or garage.
The bigger the run, (aka: enclosed outdoor area attached to the coop) the better. A spacious run gives chickens the personal space and exercise opportunities that do not exist inside the average coop. Chickens must be provided with elbow room to fend off boredom, obesity and avoid behavioral problems such as feather picking and egg-eating. The bare minimum space allocation in the run per bird is ten square feet.
If the run is not currently covered, cover it. Most chickens dislike walking in snow, but will venture out into a clear or shoveled area. Some chickens will brave the snow voluntarily, but don’t try to force, cajole, encourage or bribe them into going outside. Allow them the opportunity to wander out by leaving the door to a protected run open, but let them decide where they want to spend their time.
When temperatures are extreme and/or are accompanied by precipitation and/or wind, chickens should be confined to a completely winterized and covered run. Extreme cold in addition to wind/snow/rain puts chickens, even cold-hardy breeds, at risk for frostbitten feet, combs and wattles. My New England flock appreciates a spacious run protected from the elements when it’s dangerously cold outside.
MISCELLANEOUS WINTER PREP TIPS
Clean It: The chicken coop and run should be deep-cleaned in autumn. Remove everything that is not permanently affixed and clean it well. Unless the deep litter method or sand are being used as coop litter, all of the bedding and nest box material should be replaced.
Secure It: Autumn cleaning is a good time to re-assess the coop and run for breaches in security. Hardware cloth should be intact on windows and the run. Any hole bigger than 1/2 inch is a potential portal for predators and pests.
Chicken wire should be replaced with hardware cloth Many predators can tear through chicken wire with ease.
Winter Weaponry: Round up the shovels and prime the snow-blower before they are needed and keep them in a convenient location.
Feed: A chicken will eat more in the winter than any other time of year to fuel its internal furnace. Make feed available to chickens during all waking hours. Check and refill feeders frequently. Don’t stockpile feed because feed components lose their nutritional value as it sits. It can also get moldy or become rancid.
In inclement weather, chickens that cannot access areas they are accustomed to frequenting (either the run or pasture because they are snow-covered) will quickly get bored, which can lead to feather picking and cannibalism.
Add outdoor roosts, logs, stumps, flower pots full of potting soil and dust bathing areas. Give the birds a new playground that looks different from their fair-weather run. It’ll help them stay out of each others’ way and encourage exercise. Try not to rely upon snacks/treats/food for entertainment routinely. Cover the run with a roof so they can get out of the coop even in foul weather.
Provide entertainment occasionally in the form of pecking treats: Flock Block Substitute, scratch sprinkled on top of a pile of hay, sprouted grains, alfalfa cakes, a hanging head of cabbage, cucumber, squash or fresh mustard greens.
Our backyard pet chickens have fat reserves upon which to draw on cold nights; they are well fed, often over-fed. Treats and snacks should be provided in moderation, so as not to interfere with their daily nutritional requirements. Based upon my research, which was aided by Dr. Mike Petrick, DVM, MSc, a laying hen veterinarian, I do not believe that one should “fatten up” hens for winter or feed them suet or grease blocks as an energy source. Research demonstrates unequivocally that backyard chickens are dying from obesity-related complications, primarily Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome and heat stroke. Our pet chickens are sufficiently spoiled with treats year round and many are already fatter than they should be going into winter. Plying them with high fat or high energy treats such as suet blocks and cracked corn does them no favors.
*Save the suet blocks for the wild birds and save the pet chickens*
A little bit of scratch just prior to bedtime on the coldest nights is fine, more than that is unnecessary and hazardous to their health. Obesity is a far worse problem than boredom and too many treats over time is killing backyard chickens.
Frozen eggs: Collecting eggs frequently is the best way to avoid frozen eggs in very cold temperatures. Insulating the nest boxes can help with heat loss in between collections. Visit my blog article for a unique twist on keeping eggs from freezing here.
Dirty Eggs from a Muddy Feet: The main cause of dirty eggs in winter is mud; mud in the run gets tracked into the nest boxes on feet and feathers, making eggs dirty. Since washing eggs removes the bloom, the egg’s natural protective coating, it is better to wash eggs immediately prior to use if necessary, therefore, keeping eggs clean at the source should be a priority.
- Don’t build new coops in low-lying, wet land, which will become muddy at the least bit of precipitation. Install drainage if necessary.
- Cover the run with a roof to keep rain and snow out. (also fabulous for shade in the heat of summer
- Use sand for run flooring. Among the many, wonderful benefits of sand is that it drains beautifully, eliminating the opportunity for water to puddle.
- Sand on floor of the coop. Feet get cleaned enroute to the nest boxes (think chicken pedicure!).
- Plastic on run walls, keep snow and rain from blowing in from the sides of the run.
Important Note: This article does NOT pertain to the management of baby chicks. Chicks require special care, which includes a SAFE heat source since they are physically unable to regulate their body temperatures. For more about baby chick care, click here.
And finally, remember that spring is just around the corner!
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