When the temperatures dip below a certain level, staying warm is more than just an issue of comfort. It becomes a matter of survival. If you keep chickens year-round, keeping them safe during cold snaps is a real concern.
Some breeds of chickens are more naturally hardy in extreme temperatures, but there are still steps that can be taken to enhance your flock’s winter survival. Assuming you have the best breeds for your area, consider some of the following practices to help them stay warm in the coldest weather.
1. The right-sized home. During winter, too much space can be a detriment. The larger the area, the more difficult it will be for the birds to keep it warm with their own body heat. My local organic farmers’ organization recommends between four and eight square feet per bird. Some experts allow for more or less than that, and a good bit of the decision depends upon the size of your flock and how much access they have to the outdoors.
If your chicken coop is cavernous, consider creating a coop within a coop. Building a small structure—even a temporary one using pallets or scrap materials—around their roosting area can provide them with a cozier space.
2. The right shape and orientation coop. A steep shed roof provides a low ceiling on one side, which helps the birds stay warm, and a higher ceiling on the other to allow human access for tending the birds. If your roof is high throughout, consider a makeshift dropped ceiling for the winter months.
Facing doors southward and away from winds and inclement weather helps when the chicken access door is open. If the orientation of your doors is not quite optimum, you always can add on an extra roof or vestibule.
3. Natural lighting. A skylight or south-facing window, or even some strategically placed sheet plastic near a door or window, can create a greenhouse effect. This can help keep your chickens warm in the same manner that plants are kept warm in a hothouse.
4. Insulation. Adding commercial insulation to a newly constructed chicken coop is a great choice. Just as with human homes, the more heat that can be retained inside during winter, the better.
The insulating value of your coop can be increased with whatever you have on hand. It may be possible to stuff wood chips or other fibrous materials between walls—or between an outer wall and an inner layer of recycled materials—to help keep your birds warm.
Snow is an excellent insulating material, too, but if you have more cold weather than snowfall, try using hay, straw or even bags of leaves for banking around the outside of the chicken coop.
5. Ventilation. It may be tempting to shut them up tight, but remember that respiration can cause condensation and dampness. Allowing the inside of the coop to become excessively damp can be dangerous during cold weather. Additionally, birds have a more delicate respiratory system than do other animal families.
6. High fat foods. Eating fatty foods helps keep chickens warm. Suet, fatback and kitchen scraps are ideal.
7. Warm foods and liquids for consumption. A friend of mine prepares fresh hot oatmeal for her hens on cold winter mornings. Perhaps that’s not your style, but you may want to allow kitchen scraps to come to room temperature—or even set them near a heat source to warm them—before delivering them to the chickens. I replace my chickens’ waterer with hot tap water at least twice a day during the coldest winter days, because warming from the inside out is a great way to create and maintain body heat.
8. Portable hot water heaters. I keep water in a kettle on top of my wood stove during winter, which helps me humidify my house and heat the chickens. I pour hot water into some heavy-duty five-gallon plastic jugs I salvaged from a bulk foods store and haul them out to the chicken coop on a sled and place them inside. Water retains its temperature far better than does air, which means it will help keep the coop warmer, longer. You can use any heat-resistant container, such as plastic or metal buckets, as long as it has a secure lid to prevent spills and keep the chickens safe.
You can use heated bricks in lieu of warm water if you prefer.
9. Entertainment. Chickens that have something to do while cooped up inside during cold weather will not only be less likely to become aggressive toward one another, but they can generate heat by moving around. Provide a fruit or vegetable such as an apple or cabbage, or a hunk of fatback or suet, hanging from a string at beak height so that the birds can peck at it.
10. Heat lamps. I use heat lamps as a last resort, but many people rely on them as a go-to. Whichever your viewpoint, it is essential to make safety your first priority. Make sure both the bulbs and the fixtures are of the highest possible quality you can afford, are hung on heavy-duty suspension material, and are not too close to anything combustible. It is always best to follow manufacturer’s instructions regarding usage.
Deep cold temperatures can be a real challenge for humans and animals who live in a northern climate. But by getting creative with ways to heat their coops, we can keep chickens safe and comfortable through even the coldest of winters.
How do you keep you chickens warm during cold months? Share your tips in the section below: