With winter upon us, starting December 21, I have been asked a lot of questions about how to take care of chickens during the winter months. Many people think this is a difficult task, however, a little preparation and up-keep in the coop can go a long way to ensuring that the hens are comfortable and safe. Your chickens are built to withstand fairly extreme environments. Their layers of downy feathers under their plumage can be puffed up to catch air against their bodies providing warmth in cold climates and give them insulation.
Believe it or not, your chickens usually don’t need a heater; they huddle for warmth. An important element, ventilation, is key! Drafts, however, are not. Drafts usually occur when there are holes in your coop or when windows and doors are not fitting correctly. Making sure your coop is sound can also protect your flock from predators. What is most important is that you make sure you have good airflow through your coop. You need to vent out the warm, moist air and replace it with cooler, dried air. This will prevent a buildup of humidity and ammonia as well as prevent mold in the bedding. A good rule of thumb is to place vents where the wind doesn’t blow directly on the chickens, so they can stay warm but still have fresh air. If your coop doesn’t have vent holes, you can easily cut a section out of your coop and replace it with galvanized mesh, and then, fit a hatch over the mesh to control the airflow. See “Chicken Coop Ventilation” how-to here. Thank you BackYard Chickens for the great information.
If you do decide that you need to heat your coop, a simple 40-watt light bulb or a less stark red heat lamp bulb will produce sufficient heat to raise the temperature by a few degrees. Make sure it cannot be dislodged, fall, be flown into, or pecked at as this can cause a fire to start. And, as crazy as it sounds, do not dress your chickens in sweaters. Sweaters confine the chicken’s feathers and impedes their ability to “fluff out” and remain warm. Chicken “clothes” may look cute but are seriously detrimental to your bird’s winter well-being. Heat temperature of the coop should only be enough to keep the coop just above freezing (32 degrees F). If the coop is too warm, this will limit the chicken’s ability to tolerate colder temperatures. This can be especially dangerous if the artificial heat fails because the chicken will not have learned to use its own means of warmth.
I want to get back to the issue of ammonia that I spoke of above. What is the dangers of ammonia in your coop? Ammonia is a gas present in the air of every chicken coop. It results from the chemical decomposition of uric acid in droppings combined with the bedding. High levels of ammonia run the dangers of irritation to the membranes of the respiratory tract, the conjunctiva, and the corneas of the eyes. Damage to the respiratory system increases the chance of respiratory infection, especially E. coli. Long-term exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause scarring and retraction of the eyelids, along with lesions of the cornea, which can cause partial or complete blindness. Here is a way too check the ammonia level. Go into your coop and crouch down so your eyes are level with your chicken’s eyes. Keep your head level for about five minutes. If your eyes start to burn, then the ammonia levels are to high, and you will need to change the bedding.
Insulation of the coop is also important. Fit sheets of insulation into your coop, and cover it so the chickens can’t get to it and peck. Commercial insulation can be used, but it can be harmful to the chickens if it is exposed. Sheets of cardboard do a good job and are much cheaper, but again, they need to be securely attached so the chickens can’t tear them off the walls. Another great way to keep your flock warm is to use the “deep litter method”. With this method, you let the bedding material buildup, which will make composting material that gives off its own heat. If you choose this method, make sure you understand what is involved. It may look easy, but it does require careful attention, or it will be come a filth-laden mess and source of disease. If your more ambitious, make them a nice sun room. If you’re worried about space for the chickens, you can build a cold frame or greenhouse style addition to your coop, covering it in clear plastic.
There are several things to keep in mind in the winter months. One is an issue that every chicken owner faces during the winter – reduced egg production. Some breeds fair reasonably well, while some may not lay at all unless you supplement light. There are two reasons for this to happen. First of all, chickens need 14 hours of light to lay eggs regularly. The decrease in egg production is related to daylight length and hormones. The other reason is that chickens will also use more energy to keep warm, and therefore, have less energy to put toward egg production. To provide more light, you can use the 40-watt bulb, which is mentioned above, on a timer, so that it is not on in the daytime when it’s not needed. Always make sure any lights are mounted properly and securely. Do realize, however, that having your chickens produce regularly year around does not give the chickens time to rest. In some cases, it will shorten the chickens egg laying life. Also, chickens do not like snow or cold weather. If the temperature is anything below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, they really don’t like to go out. Above that, they don’t seem to mind. If they don’t want to be outside in the bad weather, they’ll go into the coop, so you can pretty much let them do what they want. And, since they will most likely spend more time in the coop during winter than in the summer months, chickens tend to get bored. So, why not give them a little extra treat during the cold winter? Hang a head of cabbage for a chicken play toy. They like to peck at it and watch it bob around. Also, keep fresh, unfrozen water for your flock in the winter. You can use heated waterers or you can do something as simple as just keeping two waterers, and change them out as one starts to freeze. Finally, petroleum jelly on combs and wattles protect from frostbite. However, in the case, they get frostbite, it’s usually only the tips that are affected. It looks bad, but the chicken’s health is not in danger.
Last but not least, roosts are most important. Chickens will roost and fluff themselves out. Roosts also keep them off the cold ground. In the evening, you can go out and check on them. No one should be on the ground. If there are, then there is not enough roosting room. Chickens perch at night, settling down over their feet. While this keeps their feet warm, it leaves their wattles and combs at the mercy of the elements, which is why I suggested the use of petroleum jelly.
Enjoy your chickens!! But do realize that they will need a little more attention in the winter. Let me know below in the comments – what do you do for your chickens in the winter? I’d love to hear your stories and ideas.