chickens in the snow

Winterizing Your Chicken Coop

Welcome winter! I am one of the rare folks that welcomes the beginning of every season, including winter.  Poultry owners definitely face challenges in the winter, but with the right preparation and knowledge, we can keep our flocks comfortable and thriving through the season.

To Heat or Not to Heat? 

The first thing I want to address is probably the most common question that we get during the transition to winter. Should I heat my coop? I do NOT heat my coop in the winter. In Ohio, we have pretty cold winters and some extremely cold nights. However, with the right preparation, my birds stay nice and cozy in their coop and nice and healthy through the season. If you choose to heat the coop it’s important to ensure that safety is the number one concern. 

Different Types of Heat Sources 

With baby chick season in full swing, many of you may wonder what options are available as heat
sources for your chicks. If you are concerned about the safety of standard heat lamps, there are steps
you can take to mitigate the risk. There are also great alternative options on the market today.

Standard Heat Lamps

Heat lamps are inexpensive and readily available. If you choose this method to heat your brooder, extra
steps should be taken to keep them securely attached. Follow all safety instructions. Most heat lamps
will come with a simple bulb guard and a clamp attachment. ALWAYS use the guard. You can also hang
the heat lamp from a chain attached to a secure structure like a rafter or a sturdy stand that is above
your brooder. Using a chain and a S-hook can help keep the bulb secure and prevent slipping that can
occur with a rope or the clamp attachment. If you use the clamp attachment, make sure that is
reinforced and securely fastened to your brooder. You want to take all steps necessary to prevent a hot
bulb from falling into your brooder with your chicks and their bedding.

Safer Heat Lamp

If you are concerned about the safety of standard heat lamps, look for lamps with additional safety
features. There are options with reinforced protective guards that help prevent bulb shatter, keep the
bulb secure inside the lamp, and protect the cord if it becomes accessible to the chicks. These options
are generally more expensive but are considered safer. Follow all safety instructions.

Heating Plate Brooders

These heat sources are designed to simulate the action of a broody hen. The heaters have warm plates
that chicks get underneath to keep warm. The height of the plates are adjusted as the chicks grow.
Many of these types of heaters use less electricity and do not get as hot as heat lamps so they are
generally considered a greener and safer option. Follow all safety instructions.

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The Feathered Furnace 

First, we should consider that chickens are remarkably adaptable creatures. They can handle very large changes in temperature through the year as long as they are given a chance to acclimate to the changing temperatures.  As the cold weather settles in for a few months, you may begin to worry about your chickens and how they will handle the change in season. Chickens can naturally acclimate to cold weather. The internal body temperature of a chicken is much higher than humans, 105-107oF vs. 98.6oF. In addition, chickens are equipped with one of nature’s best insulators – the feather. Remember those healthy new feathers your chickens made during their molt? Well, those new healthy feathers are going to help keep them warm over the winter.

Feathers, just like fur, insulate and help maintain proper body temperature by trapping air against the body.  This air is then warmed by the higher body temperature of the bird.  The more air a chicken can trap, the better insulated the bird will be. That is why many birds will fluff their feathers during periods of cold weather. This action creates more space for air to be trapped against the skin and, thus, more insulation against cold temperatures. On winter nights, you will also notice your birds roosting tightly together in their coop thus sharing additional warmth from their fluffed feathers.    

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 all of that warmed air away 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 (or rodents!) to enter your coop. Modify any ventilation windows so they can be opened during the day (more on this later!) and closed during the night.  You want to make sure that you can close ventilation windows at night to keep breezes and drafts away from the birds as they roost.  

Keep Your Coop Dry 

We all know that proper ventilation in a coop is very 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 actually release quite a bit of water vapor with each breath. Without proper ventilation, 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.  It’s very important to make sure you have good ventilation, even on the coldest of winter days, in order to get some of that damp air out of your coop and get good fresh air into your coop. You don’t need fancy ventilation systems or fans. I simply make sure to keep one small window open or my access door open during the day, even on the coldest of winter days, so I can get good air exchange in my coop. I also make sure that I mix and turn over my bedding each morning when I let my birds out to free range. Keeping the coop dry really goes a long way in keeping your birds warm and healthy during the cold winter months.   

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Feeding in the Winter

Chickens, just like humans, use energy to generate and maintain a consistent internal body temperature. The act of digesting feed generates heat and is often the reason why you can expect your chickens to consume more chicken feed in the winter months. A chicken can produce a surprising amount of heat through metabolism and activity alone.  

Most of us expect our hens to lay fewer eggs in the winter months, but that does not mean we should change feeding programs or stop providing a complete layer feed.  Providing a well-balanced complete chicken feed to your chickens at all times will allow each bird to consume as much or as little feed as she needs to maintain the proper body temperature and stay comfortable based on the conditions for that particular day. A nutritionally-sound and well-balanced complete feed is always the best option to choose when feeding your hens. Complete feeds contain all of the vitamins and minerals a hen needs to stay healthy and strong during the cold winter months.

Do Whole Grains Equal Extra Comfort?

We all think of winter as the perfect opportunity to enjoy our favorite comfort foods and you may feel tempted to provide the same for your chickens. Many times you will hear recommendations for feeding scratch grains and cracked corn to your hens to provide extra calories during the winter months. Scratch grains and corn will provide extra calories but not many other nutrients. If your hens 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 treats and to limit consumption to no more than 10% of the total feed intake. Providing access to your complete feed at all times is a better balance of nutrients for your hens.  

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If you and your birds love whole grains in the winter, consider Henhouse Reserve. This product is actually a nutritionally-balanced complete feed made with whole grains. You will get the balanced nutrition that is so important for your flock along with the whole or cracked grains.  

Managing Water in the Winter 

Water is essential for digestion and to maintain proper body temperature. A chicken may produce 0.14 grams of water for each calorie that she digests. If that hen consumes 300 calories per day, she will produce 42 grams of water. This explains why chicken manure is often 60-80% moisture! If one chicken can produce 42 grams of water, a small flock of 10 hens can produce 420 grams, or just shy of one pound, of water each day during digestion alone.  

Managing water in the winter can be a challenge, but it is necessary in order to maintain a healthy and active flock during the cold winter months. Make sure a fresh source of water is available to your hens during the hours they are awake and active. If you do not have electricity in your coop, it is okay to empty or bring your waterer inside during the night so the water does not freeze. Just make sure you put fresh water back in the coop in the morning for your hens. On very cold days, you may need to replace your water multiple times to keep it from freezing. You can also try filling old water bottles with hot water and adding those into your waterers.  This can help keep your water from freezing as quickly. The opposite also works really well – frozen water bottles in your waterer will keep your water cool in the summer!   

 Enjoy the Season

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 hens are active, eating well, and look healthy, then they are likely content and have adjusted well to the change in season. Enjoy! 

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.