chicken in chicken coop in the winter

Do I Need to Heat My Coop in the Winter?

With the fall season in full swing, many of us are getting ready for the cold winter months. I am often asked about heating coops in the winter. Long story, short – I personally do not heat my coop in the winter and I generally do not recommend heating coops in the winter. Let’s talk about why!

How Do Poultry Adjust to Cold Temperatures?

One of the most important physiological processes that happens in the fall is the molt. One of the primary functions of the molt is that birds drop old, worn-out feathers and replace them with new, sturdy feathers. The whole purpose of this process is so birds can prepare for the cold winter months. New sturdy feathers help keep poultry warm by trapping air against their bodies. During the winter, poultry will fluff up their feathers. This fluffing causes the feathers to overlap and traps air between the feather and the body of the bird. This trapped air is then warmed by the natural body heat coming from the bird. This process is very similar to how a blanket works. Since a chicken’s body temperature is higher than a human’s body temperature (105oF compared to 98.6oF), that trapped air helps keep your chickens warm when the temperatures outside are dropping.

Why Not Help My Birds Stay Warmer with Some Extra Heat?

This is actually a great question and it is a very valid concern for poultry keepers that consider their birds like pets. The biggest negative to heating your chicken coop is the safety concerns associated with common types of heating sources. The most common source of supplemental heat in backyard chicken coops is the heat lamp. Heat lamps are inexpensive and readily available. However, they can also be pretty dangerous if they are not used appropriately. Every year, we hear of property damage or loss of life from fires started by heat lamps used in the winter. Since adult poultry have an amazing ability to acclimate to changing temperatures and are covered with nature’s best insulator – FEATHERS! – it is often best not to heat your coop at all during the winter.

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What About Safer Heat Sources?  Should I Use Those?

There are safer heat sources (heat lamps with reinforced guards, heat-plate brooders, radiant heaters, etc.) and I will often see recommendations for these types of heat sources for your adult birds in the winter. Unless your coop or barn was designed to accommodate these types of heaters, I still generally recommend no supplemental heat. Most of our chicken coops are not wired for electricity. So, if we do use supplemental heating sources, we use extension cords to power those sources. Extension cords have come a long way in their safety features, but there are still risks. Chicken coops are home to very curious poultry, usually some dust, and almost always, wood shavings or some other type of dry bedding. This provides plenty of opportunity for safety and fire concerns and the risks generally do not outweigh the small temperature benefit you get from a supplemental heat source.

Remove Drafts to Keep Chickens Comfortable!

Because fluffing feathers is essential to trapping warmed air, it is very important to prevent drafts and breezes inside your coop during cold winter nights. A draft or a breeze will just blow away all of that warmed air and will prevent your birds from properly warming themselves. As winter approaches, make sure to walk around your coop and seal any holes or gaps that may allow breezes to enter. Modify any ventilation windows so they can be opened during the day and closed during the night. 

Keep Your Coop Dry 

We all know that proper ventilation in a chicken coop is important in the summer. However, I would argue that it is equally as important in the winter. Chickens produce a large volume of moisture just by living. Manure can be 60-80% moisture. Additionally, when a chicken breathes, they release quite a bit of water vapor with each breath. Without proper ventilation during the day, all of that moisture becomes trapped inside the coop and can have a negative effect on the health of your birds. Cold and damp is ALWAYS harder on an animal than cold and dry. Built-up litter can also help generate a small amount of extra heat in your coop. Just be sure to turn your litter over often so that it can remain dry and heats evenly.

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Heat from Digestion

Chickens, just like humans, use energy to generate and maintain a consistent body temperature. The act of digesting feed generates heat and is often the reason why you can expect your chickens to consume more feed in the winter months. A chicken can produce a surprising amount of heat through metabolism and activity alone. Providing a well-balanced, complete feed to your chickens at all times allows each bird to consume as much or as little feed as they need to maintain proper body temperature and stay comfortable based on the conditions for that particular day.

Do Whole Grains Equal Extra Comfort?

Many times, you will hear recommendations for feeding scratch grains and cracked corn to your birds when it is cold. Scratch grains and corn will provide extra calories but not many other nutrients. If your birds eat too much scratch or cracked corn, they may not eat enough of the nutritionally-balanced complete feed. Even though the temperature has dropped, it is still a good idea to consider scratch grains and cracked corn as a treat and to limit consumption to no more than 10-15% of the total feed intake. Providing access to your complete feed at all times is a better balance of nutrients for your birds. 

While we may be tempted to worry about our flocks during the winter months, remember that chickens are incredibly adaptable creatures covered in one of nature’s best insulators. They will thrive and do well in cold weather if given a safe and dry place to live, a nutritionally-balanced feed, and the opportunity to adapt to the dropping temperatures. If your birds are active, eating well, and look healthy, then they are likely content and have adjusted well to the change in season.  

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Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.