Keeping Chickens In The Colder Months…

Free Ranging and Training Chickens...

“Hi Duncan and Wendy. I have a question that I’m hoping you can answer. It’s getting very cold at night and I want to make sure my little flock of hens stay warm enough. What is the best way to do so? BTW, this is my first winter keeping chickens so any information would be helpful. Thanks in advance,” ~ Susan West

Hi Susan, thanks for the question.

In my part of the world we’ve been anxiously awaiting autumn.

For the last 3 months we’ve looked forward to a brisk day, but to no avail. We were starting to wonder if we’d be wearing short sleeves clear through to next spring.

But finally, autumn has arrived and I can’t tell you how much we’ve enjoyed this last week. It’s been wonderful to bake in the morning to take the chill off in the house. This is truly my favorite season.

It seems that a lot of you have experienced some cooler weather as well because I have 17 recent questions about heating the coop in my inbox. So here’s the rundown on keeping your flock warm in a cold climate in the winter.

First and foremost, your coop needs to be completely enclosed. No matter what you do to produce heat inside the coop, if there are big gaps between boards, you will never be able to maintain temperature.

Depending on the material your walls and roof are constructed from, you might want to consider insulation. After installation, be sure to cover the insulation to completely deny access to the chickens because they will likely peck at it and obviously that would be detrimental to their health.

Another option for insulation would be to stack straw bales around the exterior of the coop.

This is a pretty easy way to help keep heat inside the coop and when the weather warms up, you can just take them down. Leave a few inches of space between the bales and the wall so that when the straw gets wet, it’s not leaning on the walls of the coop.

This option is better suited to a climate that is very cold but not terribly wet. If you are likely to freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw throughout the winter months, insulating the walls inside the coop would be a better option.

You’re goal here is to keep the temperature in the coop above freezing. Well above freezing if possible and if it is practical. Your chickens have to work hard in the winter just to maintain their health, I’m not suggesting you go broke keeping them warm and toasty but understand that winter is hard on them. In the long run, good insulation will really cut down on the cost of electricity needed to keep the coop warm.

In many climates, an additional source of heat will be necessary. In some places you’ll need to provide heat not only in the night but during the day as well. Here’s a good rule of thumb; if the water is likely to freeze, provide heat.

There are infrared heat lamps available in many animal supply stores as well as on the internet. Typically these come with a reflective cover to help radiate the heat. You can get models that have a wire cage covering the front so that if the lamp falls, the bulb will not get broken nor come in contact with any surface that might be flammable.

A lamp like this is a great because it is designed to provide heat without getting too hot that it becomes dangerous. It also seems to allow the chickens to fall asleep and rest peacefully without being a disturbance.

Reader, Dorothy Pendry wrote in not too long ago to tell me that when their infrared light comes on in the morning, the flock interprets that as time to wake up. So in light of that information, I’d suggest it be something that they fall asleep with rather than turning it on while they have already been sleeping.

Although using an artificial incandescent light to extend daylight hours will produce heat, it is not something you’d leave on all night long. Too much incandescent light tends to promote aggression and feather pecking. (See last weeks issue of this newsletter for a discussion on artificial light.)

If the coop is insulated well enough, the incandescent light may be enough to warm up the coop for the night.

If not, you’ll need to set the heat lamp to come on when the incandescent light goes off.

If your temperatures are extreme, you might need both the incandescent light as well as a heat lamp. In this situation, ideally the coop will hold in the heat well enough that when the incandescent light goes off, you will only need to use the heat lamp for the duration of the night.

It is all very personal to your particular situation.

The above also assumes that you extend daylight hours into the evening rather than starting the day earlier in the morning.

And in case you’re wondering, to the best of my understanding, the infrared light alone will not produce the same effects on increasing egg production that an incandescent light does.

These last few points are very important.

Always check, double check and triple check that any light/lamp you hang inside the coop is both out of the chicken’s reach as well as fastened very securely.

Please also make sure that the chicken’s water never freezes.

It is much harder on a chicken to go without water for any length of time than for them to go without food. If insulation and additional heat does not keep the water from freezing, you must purchase a watering station that is designed not to freeze. There are also heat mats available to place underneath the waterer to keep it from freezing.

You can expect a rapid decrease in egg production as well as a possible stress induced molt if your flock has to go without water. If it’s cold enough to freeze the water, you definitely don’t want your flock to be dropping feathers in a molt.

Lastly, combs and wattles are subject to frost bite, the rose combed breeds especially. The best way to prevent this is to coat both their combs and wattles with petroleum jelly. Reapply as is necessary to prevent frost bite.

Susan, I hope this has answered your questions about keeping your flock warm in the winter. You’re doing a good job taking care of your girls, keep up the good work.

By the way, for those on you in the Southern Hemisphere, thanks for hanging in there as we’ve addressed cold weather questions these last few weeks. We’ll get back to something a little more timely for you all next week.

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