Preparing your chickens for cold weather
Raising chickens is an excellent and easy way to become more self sufficient. Not only are they a great introductory livestock animal but they will ensure you that the fridge has a constant stock of meat, eggs or both. If you built your first DIY chicken coop and own chickens now or are considering purchasing them in the future and live in a cold weather zone during the winter months, this section may be of use to you. Preparing your chickens for cold weather should involve a well thought out plan.
The winter months are longer, colder and can be very dangerous if not life-threatening for the chickens. But worry not, chickens are very hardy in can withstand extremely cold temperatures as long as they have met four key requirements.
- Physical Care
If you do not meet these requirements the chance is high that the birds egg production may decrease or stop entirely. Taking the steps to meet these requirements will keep your word happy, healthy and producing eggs.
Hopefully when winter comes your birds are mature past the point of chicks, otherwise it may be wise to keep them indoors at night until their feathers come in, in full. Chickens as mentioned earlier are extremely tolerant to the cold. They have a layer of warm down under their feathers. They flock together at night when they roast as well. More chickens per coop generate more body heat per bird and also increase their tolerance to the cold.
Before anything else insure your birds that they have an adequate shelter. One of the most primitive of needs, shelter is one big key to survival. This holds true for not only humans but all animals and that includes chickens. No matter how many birds do you have, be at 2 or 200, they will need a proper shelter to survive the elements. Exposure to winter without preparing your chickens for it will resolve an illness and even death. Give them what they need; warmth, good health and good spirits.
It’s not vital that you completely clean out your coop in the fall. Lay some extra bedding on the floor of the coop for winter months. Straw, hay or pine shavings work well. This provides two or three additional inches of insulation to the bottom of your coop. The manure and decomposing bedding generates heat to raise the temperature of the coop naturally. The additional bedding also keeps the birds sensitive feet off the floor as well. If you feel the need to clean your coop of its old bedding that’s fine too. Users do this as well. Bedding after all is very inexpensive.
You want your coop to be windproof in the winter. The problem there is that you still need some circulation of air. Too much any chill your birds. Too little and the humidity rises and parasites, pests, mites and disease find their way into your coop. I learned the Key to solving this problem after testing air quality in my Montreal home and solving my issues, it is having an offset vent installed to ensure air circulation without any direct cold wind blowing in. Leaving the coop door ajar during daylight hours would probably suffice. The rule of thumb is to maintain a humidity level between 40% and 60%.
Heating your coop
Many experts advise not heating the coop, but on extremely cold nights, single digits, a heat lamp may be warranted. If your coop is small enough then a 100 watt light bulb may generate enough heat. Also check your breed of bird. If your own birds are sensitive to the cold it may be wise to supply a secondary heat source for them. A radiant heater, heat lamp or heating panel fit well.
With a heat source comes the risk of fire. The dry shavings, feathers and straw are literally piles of tinder just waiting to go up in flames. Make sure all of the wires are out of the birds reach. Pay attention to any damage or wear. Keep your heat source away from all nesting boxes, perches, walls, ceiling or floor. Tape up all outlet connections if they are exposed to the elements and plug the extension cord into a GFI outlet for added security. It also wouldn’t hurt to spend a little more money at your local hardware store to purchase cold weather extension cords. They are usually coated blue. These cords will not freeze and crack under extremely cold conditions like some of the basic outdoor cords.
Chickens do not hibernate, so they need additional calories during the winter months. Staying warm takes quite a bit of energy. Those winter calories are needed not only to maintain health but also their ability to lay eggs. Keep them well fed not only during the winter but also prior to. Thier calorie intake increases by 10% or more when the cold weather hits. Freezing and hungry chickens won’t be giving you many eggs. Don’t be surprised to find them eating the same eggs if they become calorie deficient.
To keep them content and laying ensure they have some added extras to their diets. A little extra corn, forage cakes (get them here) and other pecking foods like birdseed keep them active. Scratching around in the dirt is what your chickens like to do, so give them extras that provide that ability. They only become healthier and happier for it. Helping the birds bulk up for the winter months is recommended. Warm oatmeal, corn and meal worms do just that.
Chickens like all other animals need a constant supply of clean water, and the winter months are no different. This means that you have to walk out every morning you expect your birds water to freeze, in order to break the ice. This grows old and quick. Investing in a water heater is your best option. Even during the coldest of temperatures the water will not freeze over. They sell a variety of heated water dishes. With any electrical component in your coop make sure the wires are away from the birds and the plugs free of the elements. This is the one I use. Its metal and I think for many reasons its a better fit over the plastic variations.
Look for signs of water in your coop. Make sure the roof and any nesting box covers are weather tight. Check for holes, cracks and openings. anything that can let in a draft needs to be sealed shut for the winter months. Make sure the coop doors, hatches and hinges are all operating properly. Ensure all electrical components are working properly and are free of damage or extensive wear. If the bedding shows any signs of mice they need to be dealt with. If the bedding is too messy it may need to be removed completely. If so this is your only chance to clean your coop from top to bottom. A vinegar / water solution is recommended when cleaning as it is not harmful to the birds in any way.
Don’t worry, chickens are very adaptable birds and great to have around. It doesn’t take much to keep them happy. They can handle the winter chill as long as you take the steps necessary to aid them. Do that and they will continue the favor of giving fresh eggs and meat. Just take the steps necessary, preparing your chickens for cold weather.
Author’s note: where I live the winds are incredible. I still want my birds to venture out of the coop in the winter. I purchased 4 mil plastic wrap and wrap 80% of my run. I stapled the sheeting from corner to corner, ripping some 2×4’s down to bind the sheets to the run posts.