OREGON — Chickens shouldn’t wear sweaters.
This should probably go without saying…but go ahead and Google it.
The cold of the holiday season may be near, but those embarrassingly cute sweaters can actually be bad for chickens. Chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers and keeping the heat generated by digestion close to the body, and “clothing” can hamper this. If you really want your backyard chickens to be ready for the elements, follow these strategies for winterizing your yard birds.
First, start with the right chickens. Like most animals that live outdoors year ‘round, chickens gradually acclimate to changing seasons, but there are characteristics that make some more cold-tolerant than others. Heavier, non-tropical breeds will generally take the cold better, and those with smaller combs that are tighter to the head will have less susceptibility to frostbite.
How well chickens tolerate winter weather also has a lot to do with their living quarters. If you are building your own coop, there are a few structural considerations to keep in mind. It’s a good idea to insulate the coop, keeping the structure cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. If you are looking to retrofit an existing coop with insulation, make sure your insulation material is covered up well enough that your chickens can’t get at it. Chickens will peck away exposed foam insulation in no time.
Be sure that you don’t close up the coop too tight, though, since ventilation is probably more important to your chickens than warmth. Air exchange is essential, even in winter, to allow moisture and ammonia to leave the coop with the warm air, while fresh, dry air mixes in from the outside.
For natural ventilation, vents should be located near the top of the coop because outside air should come in above roosting level so as not to create a cold draft on your birds. Warm, moist air will naturally rise to exit. Vents, just like any other opening, need to be covered by hardware cloth to protect your flock from wild animals, and can be fitted with covers temporarily if cold temperatures get too extreme.
Also, make sure that overhead surfaces can handle substantial snow loads. This applies not only to the roof of your coop, but any kind of covering over the top of a chicken run or shade structure. Tarps, hardware cloth, even plastic wildlife netting can quickly buckle under an accumulation of wet, heavy snow. Many chickens are not big fans of snow anyway, and may avoid going out in it, so have some kind of wind break or snow fence to deflect the worst of the white stuff when it is falling and drifting.
Given that chickens are likely to spend more time indoors during the winter, it takes a little more work to keep their indoor environment healthy and comfortable. More manure in the coop means extra ammonia and extra dampness, so clean out a little more often, and perhaps go a little heavier on the pine shavings or other dry, absorbent, non-molding litter material. If you can smell ammonia, that means your chickens are probably being affected by the air quality. Also, frozen ground and snow cover are going to reduce your chickens’ opportunities to dust bathe, so provide a shallow container with a mixture of one part soil, one part sand, and one part wood ash.
Feed and water are going to be a little more challenging in the winter, too. Feed should be constantly available to chickens, especially since this is their main fuel for keeping warm, and they are going to eat more than they do during the milder seasons. Additionally, eating may be one of their few sources of entertainment during those cooped-up winter days, so feeding crumbles or mash instead of pellets, or snacking on leafy greens, may keep chickens occupied a little longer and prevent them from spending their free time picking on their coop-mates.
Interestingly, increased feed intake can prompt your birds to drink more as well, so a constant supply of fresh, clean water is essential. The trick is making sure that water is not frozen solid. So unless your waterers are inside a coop that doesn’t go below freezing, or you plan to carry fresh water out to your birds multiple times per day, this is likely going to require electrifying your coop. If you want to keep your chickens’ water liquid in winter, then an electrically-heated pet bowl, poultry fountain, or submersible heating element with a thermostat is likely to be your best solution.
Electricity in the coop also allows you to provide supplemental lighting, which chickens need to earn their keep during the winter. Chickens are highly sensitive to photoperiod, and they will lay eggs most consistently when they receive 14-15 hours of light per day. The natural winter day length is shorter than this, and chickens may lay irregularly – or not at all – without some additional light. The light only needs to be bright enough for the birds to see, so one low-wattage LED or incandescent bulb will likely provide adequate light for even a large backyard coop.
Speaking of bulbs, what about red heat lamps to help keep your chickens warm? This is really two questions in one: 1) Should I provide supplemental heat? 2) If so, can I use heat lamps to do so? Unless the temperature inside of your coop is dipping well below freezing and you are worried about frostbite (or unless optimal egg production is part of your livelihood), the best strategy is to provide your chickens with plenty of feed and water and allow them to acclimate to the cold. If you begin heating your coop and your chickens never get fully cold-hardy, and suddenly you have a multi-day power outage during a cold snap, your chickens’ lives may be at risk. So if you do provide heat, only warm the coop a few degrees above ambient temperatures, and have a generator available in case of emergency.
Although heat lamps have been used to keep livestock warm in winter for generations, they are also widely known for causing coop and barn fires. So even though they might work in a pinch, there are safer ways to provide supplemental heat than heat lamps.
Electric radiant panel heaters and even oil-filled radiators can be used to safely provide a bit of supplemental heat in the dusty, flammable environs of a chicken coop, but if they don’t have an internal thermostat, pair them with a thermostatically-controlled outlet to avoid providing too much heat. Your coop should not be as cozy as your house.
Keep livestock healthy
Keeping livestock healthy and productive in the winter is a lot of work. Even with all the above considerations in place, you may still have to trudge out to your chicken coop several times a day in order to collect eggs before they freeze.
So plan now to make improvements to your coop, your feeding and watering routine, and your supplemental heating and lighting. It will help to make your winter chicken chores a lot more tolerable, and hopefully safeguard you against unfortunate surprises. And when you’re getting ready for your next ugly holiday sweater party, leave your chickens at home.
Originally published at Illinois AgriNews.