Getting your chickens through the winter, especially if you live somewhere that gets below 20 degrees or so (as we do) can be a challenge. However, it’s not too hard once you know a few basics. If you’ve had problems in the past with your chickens getting frost-bitten combs, not laying eggs through the coldest months, reducing their feed intake (which leads to further cold stress), or succumbing to illness, read on for tips on how to help them make it through to spring happy and healthy. And as a bonus, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh eggs all winter long!
1. Heat Lamps
The first and most important thing we do for our hens as soon as we have a few bad frosts is to install a heat lamp in the coop. This obviously raises the temperature in the coop, but it also tricks the hens into thinking the days are longer than they really are, which makes them start laying again. I’ve heard many folks say they never get eggs from November until about April, but we’ve always had eggs in the cartons all winter long with the multiple flocks we’ve raised.
The trick is the heat lamp! You’ll want to make sure you turn the lamp on before it gets dark every afternoon, by about 4:30 or so in the winter, and leave it on until it’s daylight, which for us is around 8:00. I unplug our heat lamp during the day if the temperature is expected to rise above 38 degrees. If it’s colder than that, I’ll leave it plugged in day and night. Clearly, during the summer, leave it off at all times.
There are a few things to keep in mind when putting a heat lamp inside your coop:
- Be sure to keep the bulb inside a metal housing with a wire guard over the opening. These can be bought at any home improvement store.
- Hang the heat lamp from the ceiling; do not mount it on the wall. If a chicken bumped into it, they could knock it off, therefore starting a fire. You also want to have at least 1 foot of space around the lamp on all sides, to prevent any places near it from getting too hot. Make sure the lamp is at least 2 feet above the roosts.
- Wrap all cord connections with electrical tape. This prevents the cords from coming apart, and also keeps moisture out.
2. Heated Chicken Waterers
When it comes to providing water to your flock through frigid days and nights, you obviously need something that is heated. Our nights can go down to 15 degrees below Fahrenheit at times, and I have had regular water founts break in those temperatures. Heated fount bases are available, but I have not tried them due to the fact that I’ve heard the heating elements are not very reliable. They might be worth trying for you, but they cost $40-$50, which is not cheap for something that may fail and that you only use for a few months out of the year.
We have found an easier, more reliable, and less expensive option that serves us well every winter. We use a heated pet water bowl. You can find them for around $20 at most hardware stores or online. The entire bowl is surrounded by a heating element, and the cord is wire-wrapped for safety.
When installing your bowl, make sure that the cord is secured well above the bowl, and that you aren’t setting the bowl anywhere near the plug-in! The one bad thing about this bowl, compared to an actual poultry waterer, is that it’s open with no top, so the water does not stay clean indoors as long as it would if it had a closed top. And clearly, you don’t want to stick it out in the snow. So, we just unplug the bowl and dump the water out every couple of days, filling it with fresh water.
3. Window Control
A common misunderstanding about keeping chickens warm without a heating system is that the coop should be buttoned up tight every night to help them stay cozy. There are a couple of problems with this idea.
The first is that all types of poultry need plenty of air flow in order to get the fresh air they require to avoid breathing problems. The ammonia in their droppings produces fumes that lower the air quality in the coop, and closing the coop windows traps those fumes inside. Combined with the moisture produced from their breath, the closed-up coop, while cozy and warm, is also a hazard to their respiratory health.
The second reason the coop does not need to be closed up is that chickens actually produce a bit of body heat on their own without feathers, and they do have feathers, which makes them even warmer. And then there’s the hen-huddle, which is when they huddle together on the roost. Thus, all chickens stay comfortably warm at temps down into the teens.
As mentioned above, we use a heat lamp more to lengthen the daylight hours than to provide extra heat. But because we do use a heat lamp, I always keep the windows open (our coop has two), no matter how cold it gets. On the worst nights, when it’s well below zero, I’ll close one window and keep the other open about 3-4 inches. Air flow is just so important to keep your hens healthy that you don’t ever want to stop it. It’s even more important for them to have fresh air than it is to stay toasty warm.
Those are our top three best practices for winter chicken-keeping. Let me know what you do to keep your chickens happy and healthy through the winter in the comments section!