Keeping Chickens Warm in Winter

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Chicken in the snow

Is this your first year with chickens? Are you concerned about how they will handle the cold? I’ve been keeping chickens almost 10 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that I worry too much. Yes, caring for chickens in winter requires special attention, but mature laying hens are surprisingly cold hardy when a few basic needs are met.

First consider those heavy down coats they wear all the time. Layers of feathers keep the interior body temperature of a chicken about 106°F (41°C), and most breeds have no trouble keeping themselves and their coop-mates warm. When chickens huddle together on cold nights to share warmth, they are well insulated indeed.

“Welsummer
Welsummers, Buff Orpingtons, and other breeds with heavy bodies and dense feathers tolerate cold well

Winterising the Chicken Coop

The chickens’ body heat and respiration will raise the temperature inside a closed coop by 10 degrees or more, depending on the size of the enclosure. The first step in winterising the chicken coop is to close windows and seal off cracks to keep cold air from blowing on the roost. There should still be some ventilation to relieve excess humidity, so leave a few high vent holes open.

If space permits, you can generate a little bioheat with bales of hay placed under the roost or along the outer walls of the coop. To help small coops retain heat, cover them with blankets or tarps during the coldest months. In a huge coop, you might lower the ceiling or erect temporary walls to shrink the space occupied by your chickens.

“Chicken
Chickens may stay in the coop on mild winter days rather than risk cold, wet feet from walking in snow

Finally, provide a warm, dry floor with biodegradable bedding. My chickens like to keep the middle of the coop open for dust bathing, so I stock the edges with dry leaves I collect in autumn. I stockpile more leaves to spread over melting snow just outside the coop’s door to protect the chickens’ feet from slushy ice. Breeds with feathered feet pick up ice as they walk on snow, which is hugely uncomfortable and can lead to frostbite.

To Heat or Not to Heat?

In climates where winter temperatures rarely drop below 15°F (-9°C), there is no need to heat a winterised chicken coop. On occasional cold nights, fill plastic jugs with hot water and use them to generate a few degrees of overnight warmth. Spoiling chickens with too much heat leaves them unprepared for extreme cold with no power.

“Electric
An electric water defroster keeps water thawed and radiates a small amount of heat

In climates like mine where overnight freezes happen daily and temperatures sometimes fall to 10°F (-12°C) or lower, I have found that an electric water defrosting device, which warms a large bucket of water enough to keep it from freezing, also radiates enough warmth so that the chickens crowd around it on cold, coop-bound days. The water defroster shown (above) has been doing the job for eight years, so it was worth the money I paid for it. In a smaller coop, a pet-size water defroster or heated bucket could do the job quite nicely.

In yet colder climates, chickens benefit from enough heat to keep their living space at or slightly above freezing. In truly frigid areas, keeping chickens warm in winter may mean moving them into an attached garage, which is fun provided you don’t do like my friend and accidentally leave the door to the house ajar. When she came home from work, the entire flock was happily roosting on her bed.

New low-wattage radiant heaters are available for coops, but keep in mind that any such appliance, including flame-resistant ceramic bulbs, will be continuously coated with dust generated by captive chickens. Also, please search the internet for images of “chicken coop fire” before considering any type of heat lamp.

“Barred
A barred rock hen puffs up her feathers to stay warm

Instead, consider these do-it-yourself options for keeping chickens warm in winter:

- A small electric lamp with its shade removed can be situated inside a small metal garbage can with lid (you will need to cut a hole for the cord). Heat from an incandescent light bulb will warm the can by several degrees, enough to make a difference.

-In similar fashion, you can mount a light bulb inside the hole of a concrete block situated on a flame-proof surface, such as a concrete steppingstone, or build an enclosure for a light bulb with several bricks. Cover the light with a broad clay saucer or piece of roofing metal, topped with a container of water. Turn on the light when temperatures are below freezing to keep the water from freezing and provide a little warmth in the coop.

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Comments

 
"Thank you for boosting my confidence that our chickens can help keep themselves warm. My concern has been high because we had a couple of hens just recently go through a savage molt! I love the idea of a lightbulb inside of a metal garbage can to offer a boost of heat on the coldest nights with out as much fear of fire hazard."
Tracy on Thursday 24 December 2020
"Thank you for this article that includes very useful tips. What could I use to keep a coup of say 5000 to 10000 chicks warm? Thanks for your help. "
Kathleen on Saturday 2 January 2021
"Kathleen, you will need to keep chicks warm for more than a month, which most people do indoors with closely monitored heat lamps. Please look for advice from local chicken keepers, and consider starting small. "
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 3 January 2021

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