Should I put a heat lamp in my coop? Cover the windows with plastic sheeting? How do I keep my chickens warm this winter?
With winter approaching, these are important questions and concerns. If you live in the South and have mature chickens, 17 weeks old or older, you won’t need a lot of preparation. Colder, more northern regions will require more, as will younger chickens.
Shelter from Wind and Rain
Chickens are warm-blooded animals, with a normal body temperature of 102-103° (F). Chickens of most breeds, once mature, are well-feathered and well-insulated against cold weather.
Although they can handle the cold, they do need a place to be able to get in out of the rain.
For us humans, being soaking wet makes it much harder to stay warm, and the same is true for your chickens. They also need to be able to find shelter from the wind.
If you have a three-sided uninsulated coop, with one mesh face open to the south, that’s probably going to give them enough winter protection, at least in central Texas. In much colder regions, further north, you may need an insulated coop.
One thing that’s very important for your chickens’ health is good ventilation, even when it’s cold.
Chickens produce a lot of moisture. Their manure has a high water content, their breath has moisture in it, and water can often spill from their waterers onto the bedding, making it damp.
Water conducts heat well, and damp cold air will make it harder for your chickens to stay warm.
The best way to manage humidity in the coop is to have good air exchange and keep bedding from getting too damp.
Fresh air should come into the coop and circulate slowly through the coop. This will help to move out excess humidity. Wind should not blow through the coop, particularly at the level where the birds are roosting for the night.
If you have large water spills on the bedding, you can remove some bedding and add some fresh, dry bedding to replace it.
A coop that is well cared for shouldn’t smell like a freshly opened bottle of ammonia. If it does then there’s too much nitrogen build-up in the coop from manure. That indicates a need for better ventilation and fresh bedding.
There are a couple of different ways to deal with bedding. One is to use relatively shallow bedding and clean it out and replace it regularly. That’ll keep it fresh.
Perhaps an even better and more traditional approach is to use deep bedding, which I’ll give a brief introduction to here.
Deep bedding requires a thick layer of carbonaceous material on the floor — at least 8 inches thick. Bedding can be dried leaves, woodshavings (an excellent bedding) or other materials.
The idea behind deep bedding is that it will absorb the droppings from the chickens, and it will essentially form a compost heap on the floor of your chicken coop.
Microbial activity will compost the manure and the bedding material. The composting process will “tie up” the nitrogen in such a way that it is no longer being released in large quantities into the air. Then later, when you use the bedding from your coop in your garden, the nitrogen will be released in a balanced way to benefit your plants.
This keeps odor down and keeps the coop floor fairly hygenic. In fact, a properly tended deep bedded chicken coop should have a somewhat pleasant earthy smell.
It will also generate a little heat and insulate the coop floor, which will help keep your chickens warm during winter.
Deep bedding can stay in the coop a long time — 6 months to a year — before it needs to be cleaned out.
Fresh, Unfrozen Water
Another important issue in the winter is water. Your chickens still need plenty of good fresh water in the winter, even though they’re not going to drink as much as they do in the summer.
In central Texas, where we live, there’ll be times when the water freezes, but the weather doesn’t stay below freezing for days and weeks on end like it does in some of the more northern states, so it is not a huge problem.
For my home flock, we typically just deal with frozen waterers as needed by bringing warm water from the house to thaw out the frozen waterers and refill them.
Another approach is to have two sets of waterers. Keep one set in the coop and another set someplace warm, such as inside a horse barn or even inside your utility room. When the waterer in the coop freezes, swap it out with the waterer that’s been kept warm.
Heated Chicken Waterers and Heated Bases
If you live further north and have colder weather, then you may need to look at other approaches.
It’s fairly easy to find heated chicken waterers (heated poultry founts) online. I’ve not used one personally, but based on feedback I’ve heard from other people, I can’t recommend them.
Some people have reported good results with heated pet bowls. Those being simpler with fewer things to go wrong may give you better results than heated founts. (If you come across a well-designed, well-made poultry fount, let us know.)
A better route than the heated founts is to use heated waterer bases. These consist of a galvanized pan with an heating element inside of it. The pan is flipped upside down, and on top of it, you place your galvanized poultry fount. I’ve read of people using them with plastic waterers, but I don’t recommend it (nor do the manufacturers).
There are also quite a few tutorials floating around on how to make your own heated waterer base using a cinder block or a metal cookie tin and a lightbulb for heat, or how to build a heated waterer using heat tape. Some of these ideas look safer to use than others.
Personally, I prefer to deal with frozen waterers by hand and not have a heat source in my chicken coop that could be a potential fire hazard.
Should I Heat My Coop?
As mentioned previously, if your chickens have adequate shelter, if they can get out of the wind and rain, and if humidity levels are kept low with proper ventilation, you probably won’t need to heat your coop.
In Texas and other parts of the South, you will probably not need to insulate your coop either.
In northern states, you will likely need to insulate your coop. Remember that it’s not necessary to keep the coop warm. Chickens can handle very cold temperatures, even below 0° (F). Their bodies put off heat, and an insulated, draft-free coop will stay warm enough for them in the coldest weather in most parts of the country.
Again, ventilation is very important, so even in cold, northern states you need some outside air exchange to keep humidity down.
If you have younger chickens, you’ll need to provide supplemental heat.
Another thing you can run into in cold weather is that the eggs can freeze. The simplest solution I know of is just to check the nest box several times a day and gather all the eggs each time.
It’s very important that your chickens get proper nutrition in the winter. Continue to feed them a good quality feed ration. In addition, you may want to feed them a little bit of cracked corn or chicken scratch.
Don’t overdo it with corn and scratch, though, since that could imbalance their diet. Just a handful or two for a flock of 8-10 hens should be plenty.
Your chickens are going to stay warm by upping their metabolism — by staying active. Corn, though low in protein, provides plenty of energy in the form of carbohydrates, to help them stay warm.
This brings us to another point: don’t keep your chickens just all cooped up, let them out. Let them out even when it’s cold, but provide shelter that they can get into if it gets too cold, windy or rainy. They’ll come in when they want to — and when they need to. Most breeds will take care of themselves well.
Lighting and Temperature
As the days get shorter in fall and winter your chickens won’t lay as many eggs. This is a natural, seasonal rhythm for hens.
I don’t mind that — I’m ready for a break from eggs for part of the year. But other people want or need egg production to stay at reasonable levels through the winter.
To do that, you’ll need additional lighting to stimulate laying, and you’ll also need to keep your chickens warmer than you would otherwise, since laying declines at temperatures below 55 (F).
If you use any type of supplemental heat or lighting in the coop, please be extremely safety conscious. Electricity and water don’t mix well. Heat and combustibles don’t mix. Straw, woodshavings, wood . . . a lot of things in the coop are combustible.
In the winter, you may have a little more predator pressure. If predators like raccoons, possums and foxes cannot easily find animals to prey on, they may make more effort than normal to get to your chickens. Make sure you’ve got a good, strong, secure coop.
Another problem people run into with their chickens in winter is boredom. I think the way to solve boredom is to let your chickens out so that they have plenty to do, and give them plenty of space.
I’ve read of people hanging a cabbage in their coop to give their chickens something to peck on. If you’re not able to let your chickens out into a yard, then that probably helps, but it’s probably unnecessary if your chickens are able to roam.
Watching Your Chickens
Most of all, keep an eye on your chickens. Pay attention to how they’re doing. Learn from them. That’s one of the best ways you can tell if they’re getting what they need.
There are a lot of variables, so what works for one person may not work exactly the same for you. There are differences in your coop, your wind profile, your microclimate and possibly your breeds. Even differences in how your chickens have been raised can affect how cold tolerant they are.
Keeping a watchful eye on them will help you know what to do.