About the time we finally put away the shorts and flip-flops and get out the sweaters, we should also give some thought to helping our chickens through the cold, dark months ahead. Fortunately, the warm days of fall are the best time to work around the coop.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before the freezing weather catches you and your birds unprepared.
Heat or no heat? Most of the heritage breeds tolerate cold quite well. They are wearing their little down jackets, of course, so adding extra heat to the coop is really optional. We have seen things on the Internet that say your coop has to be above 35 degrees, but don’t tell that to our chickens. They seem to be lively even when it falls below zero.
If you do choose to heat, please keep in mind that unprotected heat lamps and even light bulbs can start a fire if they break or fall into the bedding. It has happened to several of our customers. We recommend using a Sweeter Heater because it is safe. If you choose to use a heat lamp, ceramic heater or other heat source, be sure it is securely caged so no amount of abuse could allow it to contact feathers or bedding. Also be sure whatever you are using is rated for outdoor use.
Whether you heat or not, your chickens still need protection from the wind, snow and rain. Batten down the hatches, and use plastic, plywood, plexi-glass or whatever you please to protect the coop, but remember to leave some ventilation open; high humidity causes frostbite and encourages mold. For the same reason, you should place your flock’s water in a sheltered location outside of the roost area, not in an enclosed roost house.
For those who have a large enough hen house to use the deep litter bedding method, natural composting action may produce enough heat to keep your birds warm, but be sure to turn the bedding frequently so you don’t produce deadly ammonia.
To light or not to light? Some chicken breeds will lay through the winter with no problem, especially when they are young. But most older hens and most heritage breeds need at least 14 hours of light per day to keep producing. You may choose to let them rest for the winter (we do) but if you want eggs year-round, you can add a small amount of light to make up for what nature isn’t providing. The rule of thumb is that the light should be enough to read a newspaper, not that our chickens read a newspaper, but maybe yours do. Put the light on a timer and set it to come on at about 3 or 4 a.m. and then turn off after the sun is up, say around 8 a.m. If you add light in the evening, you risk catching your birds off their roosts when the light suddenly snaps off. Chickens don’t see well in the dark, and they may end up sleeping on the cold floor if there’s not enough natural light for them to find their roosts. As with heat lamps, be sure to mount the light in a secure way.
Water is key. Eggs are 2/3 water so you must provide access to clean, unfrozen water. That’s a problem in Wisconsin. They also need water to encourage them to eat. If you are at home during the day, you can take them fresh water several times a day. If not, you will need some kind of heater. A heated dog dish will work. So will a birdbath heater. The easiest and most reliable (and most expensive) method is a heater base with a metal waterer. We have used that arrangement for many years and have found it foolproof even at -20. We are told that nipple waterers can be kept from freezing, but we haven’t heard from anyone locally who has used one through the winter. If you’ve had good luck with one, please let us know about it.
Feed your chickens well. Your chickens need plenty of high quality feed to keep warm, so be sure they have a good base diet of layer feed and then you can supplement with scratch grain and table scraps. Many people like to give their birds some warm oatmeal to get them going on a cold morning. A late afternoon snack of scratch grain will stay in their crops and help keep them warm overnight. But don’t feed or water after your birds have gone to bed unless you really intend to feed the rodents.
Snow’s no fun. Chickens demand their freedom, even in winter, but most chickens don’t like walking in snow in their bare feet. We do have chicken booties at CLUCK, but they’re for first-aid purposes, not weather protection. The best option we’ve found is to put up a little roof, tarp or lean-to where your chickens can get outside without floundering in the drifts.
Do you have some favorite winterizing ideas we haven’t mentioned. Let us know and we’ll add to our blog.