Battening Down the Chickens

A faithful reader of this blog asked this question during last July's heatwave, "Dear Randy's Chicken Blog, What are you and your chickens doing to beat the heat? Your fan (who is now in front of a fan), Katie" Her question resulted in the blog post I called "Hipster Hens Hate Heat!".

And now it’s December and how the weather has changed!  Last night we hit 24 below zero and the predicted high for today is destined to wind up somewhere in the negative numbers. So the time has arrived for me to write a blog entitled "Hipster Hens Are Completely Disgruntled With Cold, Too!"  But since that title’s a little unwieldy, I’m going with “Battening Down the Chickens.”  That’s probably a more appropriate title anyway, since this post is really about preparing your coop for cold weather.

Veronica the Easter Egger turns herself into a cold-resistant
 feather ball by tucking her head under her wing.
For starters, here are the three absolute basic requirements to keep your chickens happy and healthy during the cold winter months: 

1-Close that coop!  A draft is a bigger problem than cold temps!  Chickens are bundled in insulation.  If you’ve ever experienced the amazing warmth of a down jacket on a cold winter day, you know how down can keep you warm.  Well, chickens are wrapped in a layer of small down feathers under their large exterior feathers.  The down feathers keep chickens pretty toasty, but become less efficient if they’re exposed to a winter gale blowing through the coop.  So in the winter you need to close all those open windows that let in the cool summer breeze.  And you need to stop up all those holes.

2-Keep them dry.  If down feathers get wet and matted, they just don’t work.  The secret of down’s insulative quality is the air pockets.  Fill those air pockets with water, and all that superb insulation becomes nothing more than soggy feathers.  Keeping your birds dry means providing deep layers of dry bedding that you change out on a regular basis.  Chicken poop is mostly water, and chickens, as we all know, are pooping machines.  You also need to make sure that your coop is well ventilated so all the moist air from evaporating chicken poop can escape.  Ventilation may seem in direct conflict with my first point about keeping the coop free of drafts, but you can do both.  Some sort of vent in the ceiling or near the top of the coop works well to allow moist air to escape without creating a draft on the birds.

3-Now that you’ve got them dry, add water.  Wait…..what?  Yeah….I’m talking about water to drink, which is more complicated than you may first think.  Water freezes. So if the temperature inside the coop is below freezing you either need to come up with a plan to change out the frozen water several times each day, or rig something up to keep the water warm.  I know there are a few flock keepers out there who expect their chickens to maintain hydration by eating snow and that horrifies me.  Those poor birds are already working hard to maintain their body temperatures, and eating snow obliges them to work that much harder.  Plus, cold chickens will eat a bare minimum of cold snow because it is cold and become dehydrated.  And dehydrated chickens will stop eating.  Then they’ll become malnourished, stressed and sick and that’s just not good.

Here are a couple other things that I do in the winter that I know some flock keepers will disagree with.  These practices may be a matter of personal preference, or perhaps it’s a matter of geography.  I trust that you’ll form your own opinion on what’s best for your situation after reading them over and will use your own judgement:

1-Let there be light.  Chickens are light sensitive and stop laying when the days get short.  Some people feel that chickens need this “rest” from laying.  I suggest that chickens stop laying in the winter because the original purpose of chicken eggs was to make baby chicks and chicks would probably not survive if they hatched in the winter.  A non-molting hen getting good nutrition can lay eggs in winter with no more issues or problems than would occur in summer.  Providing extra light will keep her laying and also provide more hours of wakefulness for her to eat, drink, and maintain herself against the cold.

2-Let there be heat.  Other chicken bloggers will tell you that heating a coop is not necessary or perhaps even bad.  I suggest that none of those bloggers live in Minnesota.  Here in the Northland, we’ve had long stretches of days like today—where the temperature drops to 20 below zero every night and the high doesn’t reach zero.  That’s cold.  Chickens evolved from tropical birds with bodies designed to throw off heat.  Combs are essentially blood-filled heat fins designed to radiate heat and large combed chickens kept in cold climates can easily suffer from frozen combs.  There are, of course, small-combed cold-tolerant breeds, but even with these chickens it’s a matter of how much cold they can tolerate.  I prefer to keep the coop temperature above freezing most of the time.  The hens appreciate it and I don’t have to worry about the eggs freezing.  But during those times when it’s 20 below outside, it’s maybe ten degrees in the coop—not very warm but still 30 degrees warmer than outside.

And that’s the basics.  Doing these few things will get your flock perhaps 90% prepared for winter.  The other 10% is the tweaking you need to do depending on your preferences, your flock, your location, and your specific situation.  Here’s the scoop on the specifics for my coop:

Closing up the coop: My coops are built inside my pole barn and the walls are four feet of plywood at the bottom topped by fencing to the ceiling—that allows for lots of good air movement in the summer.  In late fall I cover the entire wall—both plywood and fencing—with foam insulation.  I leave small gaps at the very top to allow for ventilation.
A picture from the November day when I was
 wrapping the coops in foam insulation
Keeping them dry: I use pine shavings for bedding and I thoroughly clean the coops once a month.  I also have poop trays under the roosts to collect droppings.  For a complete discussion of all things poop-related, take a look at my recent post on poop.

Keeping water from freezing:  I use heaters designed to go underneath double walled metal water fonts. They’re thermostatically controlled and turn on at 35 degrees, so they only run on the coldest days when the coop air temperature drops below freezing.  The other advantage of the heater is that it elevates the water font off the floor and keeps the chickens from scratching pine shavings and debris into the water tray—I leave the heater in place year-round just for that reason.

Providing light: The coop lights are on a timer—the hens get 14 hours of light every day, summer and winter.  Even then, some of the older hens stop laying in the winter, but some don’t—and the young hens lay right through until spring.

Providing heat:  Heat lamps are easily available and are a popular way to provide heat for chickens and other livestock.  I don’t recommend them.  There are just too many reports of heat lamps exploding or starting fires that destroy coops and entire flocks.  Full disclosure:  I do own a couple heat lamps.  The last time I used one was when I nervously set it up for supplemental heat for my baby chicks for a few days this spring during an unusually cold period.  The main source of heat for the chicks was a broody hen and in normal circumstances, not only is a broody hen a sufficient heat source all by herself, she’s a bazillion times better than a lamp.  And I’m not aware of any reports of a broody hen ever blowing up or starting fires.  You can check out this Chicken Chick blog post for her assessment of the dangers of heat lamps and her suggestion for a safe alternative for brooding chicks. 

For my adult birds, my preferred safe alternative to heat lamps are 400 watt two-foot square ceramic heat panels.  I use them with a thermostat.  Farm Innovators makes a thermostat that’s ideal for my situation. It turns on at 35 degrees and turns off at 45 degrees.  The panel plugs directly into the thermostat with a standard electrical plug and the thermostat plugs directly into a regular old outlet—nothing could be simpler! That’s really all I need—it keeps the coop above freezing on all but the coldest days.

One last cold-weather trick worth mentioning is one that all the old farmers know about:  Give your chickens a little scratch grain right before they roost.  The extra carbs help the chickens maintain their body warmth through the cold winter night.  On the really cold nights, I take it to the next level and toss the scratch into a pot with twice its volume of water and cook it like oatmeal.  The chickens love this warm treat and it warms them from the inside out!

Postscript:  For additional tips on helping your chickens get through the cold winter here are a couple excellent posts by other folks who also blog from the Northland:  Counting My Chickens writes from Iowa about “Caring for Your Chickens in Winter” and HenCam in Massachusetts discusses “Cold Weather Care.”

Another Postscript: Many of the items that I use to batten down the chickens and that I discussed in this post are available on Amazon:

Farm Innovators 35 degree thermostat
400 Watt Two-Foot-Square Ceramic Heat Panel

Water Font Heater

Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Great information, Randy. Thanks for sharing the link to my post.