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Three Things Chickens Don’t Need For Winter (and three that they do!)

What are these three things chickens don’t need? When raising chickens naturally, in winter, there are things chickens don’t need. I know its hard to believe that chickens can and do make it through the winter months, even in very cold climates, without our interfering. How can a chicken possibly survive the cold and reach the warmer spring months healthy and happy? Because¬†this happens over and over. Chickens all over the world weather the winter without these three things chickens don’t need for winter.¬†

Here are the three things chickens don’t need for winter; heated coops, extra light in the coop, and warm winter clothing. Ok the third item is a bit of a joke. However, based on the popularity of several meme’s floating around social media, you would think that chickens are being mistreated if they aren’t wearing the latest sweater vest. More on that later.

things chickens don't need for winter

What are the Things Chickens Don’t Need for Winter

Heat in the coop is a particularly touchy subject with some chicken keepers. When you live in an area that commonly experiences below zero, sometimes well below zero, temperatures for months at a time, you second guess your chicken’s ability to stay warm. And you might add a heat lamp or other heating device to the coop, because it makes you feel better. I can’t judge you on this. There have been a few times that I have also left a light on to add some heat, because I just felt better doing so.

If you absolutely must add a heat lamp to the coop, make a safer choice. This lamp from Premiere is rated safer and more heavy duty for barn use. I knew the truth was, that they would be fine. But, we somehow occasionally fall into the trap of thinking chickens are like humans, or the family dog. Please be aware of the dangers of adding a hot light bulb to a coop full of birds, straw, and shavings. 

Truth is, chickens are very well equipped to keep themselves warm. The downy under feathers fluff, trapping warm air against the body. The outer feathers keep the cold air from penetrating. If the chickens are on a perch, they will cover their feet with the belly feathers. What about the comb and wattles? Won’t they be exposed and possibly have frostbite? Not if the coop is well built, has ventilation at the top and is draft free. The coop should not be air tight. In fact that would definitely lead to frost bite. The coop needs ventilation to carry the warm moist air up and out of the coop. Otherwise the moist air will lie on the surface of the combs, leading to frost bite. Frost bite looks like black blemishes on the chicken’s comb.

But it gets dark so early!

Adding lights to the coop should be done only for your convenience. If you need to visit the coop after dark to tend to upkeep, check on the flock, or any number of chicken care duties, a light makes the task so much easier. If you are leaving a light on because you want to simulate longer daylight hours and hopefully get more eggs, that is taking away the natural break a chicken needs in the winter. Will it harm the chicken? Not directly. Will you receive more eggs than the person who does not add light to the coop? Yes. Is it worth it? That question will have to be answered by you. Here’s my thinking and I am not offering judgement here. This is a management style topic. If you choose to leave a light on in the coop for higher egg production, go for it.

things chickens don't need

What Do Artificial Lights Do to the Chickens?

I like to live as closely to the natural rhythms as possible. Chickens lay less in the fall and winter for a reason. First, starting in late summer, as the days begin to shorten, your chickens lose feathers in the annual molt. The chicken yard looks like a pillow fight occurred and the chickens look like plucked accident victims. As the days grow short, if the chickens have eaten enough bugs or other protein source, the feathers will be almost fully regrown. These new feathers are ready to keep them warm during the cold weather, approaching. Adding artificial light holds the chickens back from getting a natural break. 

things chickens don't need

There’s More Happening than Meets the Eye

Inside your chicken, other things are still going on. Your hens are recovering from rebuilding the feathers. Even though they may look smooth and glossy on the outside, the annual molt can take a toll on the inside. This is why egg production is still off. Left to their own time table, and with good nutrition, your hens will gradually regain the protein and calcium reserves that they need to produce eggs. Unless they are ill, egg production will naturally pick up again. You will notice this soon after the Winter solstice. The amount of daylight is a determining factor, don’t misunderstand. I prefer to let the natural light shine through the Plexiglas covered windows in the coop. The hens will notice the gradual increase in daylight. And egg production will increase again.

Clothing for Chickens?

Clothing for chickens is not to be confused with the fabric hen saddles used to protect the hens backs from a large rough rooster. It’s funny to see photos of chickens wearing the latest knitwear fashion, but in real life, wearing a sweater does more harm than good, when keeping a chicken warm. What actually happens is that the sweater will prevent the feathers from fluffing. The fluffing keeps the chicken warm by trapping the body heat near the body. I know people mean well but don’t put clothing on your chicken to keep them warm. 

chickens in sweaters

What are the Things Chickens Do Need for Winter?

While there are three things chickens don’t need for winter, we should remember the essentials that they do need.

Shelter, nutritious food, and fresh water are the keys to chickens thriving during the winter months. Spend some time cleaning  the coop. Give the chickens a good thick layer of pine shavings and straw. You can line the nests with clean straw too. Clean out the cobwebs. Check the air flow. Is the ventilation carrying the air up to the roof vents? Tend to the structure, mending holes, cracks and other weak areas of the coop. 

Check out this fun video!

 

 

Water is a necessary nutrient all year long. Making sure that your flock has a source of fresh water through out the day is hard when temperatures drop well below freezing. There are a number of products designed to keep the water above freezing. Submersible water heaters, heated bases for metal waterers and electric heated bowls will all be helpful if you have electric power in the coop. In our coops without power, we pile dirt and straw up around the water bowl sides to insulate the bowl or water tub. The water will still freeze over night but it does take longer to freeze. 

Nutrition is very important during times that your flock cannot forage for greens and insects. Feed a quality layer ration to make sure that the hens are getting the nutrients they need to sustain egg development. Supplement with healthy food from the kitchen or leftovers. And don’t forget a healthy dose of meal worms or grubs to add some protein. 

things chickens don't need

Have you decided to use any of the things chickens don’t need for winter? 

things chickens don't need



The Winter Chicken Coop

The Winter Chicken Coop – To Heat or Not and More Winter Concerns winter chicken coopOne question I hear a lot as cold winter sets in is, How do I prepare the winter chicken coop? As a longtime chicken owner, I understand the desire to give the feathered family all the best in accommodations. I mean, these birds give us healthy nutritious eggs and lots of enjoyment! I want to give my chickens the best of everything too. But, we also have to consider that the chicken is technically a farm animal, commonly placed under the heading of livestock and designed to withstand a certain amount of winter weather. I live in the mid-Atlantic area though where winters are not that extreme so lets break this down a little so you can make an informed decision on whether or not you need to add heat to your coop. Keep reading for more about the winter chicken coop.

Do We Heat Our Winter Chicken Coop?

Let me start with the temperate climate that I live in. We rarely have extended periods of time with temperatures in the single digits. Contrast this with my friends in northern Michigan, Canada, Maine, Upstate New York where weather may stay in the single digits during the day and dip below zero at night. In my area a fully enclosed well ventilated coop will not need extra heat during the majority of winters. Even during cold weather, when I open the coop in the morning, the water is not frozen solid and the coop is warm. The chickens have huddled close together on the roost and shared body heat. Last year, we had the exception to the rule and I did end up running a heat lamp in the coop for a couple of nights. The weather had been extreme for our area for an extended period of time. These type of extremes can stress the chickens and possibly lead to illness. So, I broke down and heated the coop with a heat lamp. This was plenty of heat for our coop and kept the birds comfortable and healthy. I was nervous about the fire risk and checked the bulb and cord frequently for signs of wear or hazard. I have seen extra safety measures taken using a metal chicken wire basket placed under the heat lamp to catch it if the lamp accidentally drops from where it is hanging. I take fire risks very seriously because every year you hear of tragedies resulting from heat lamps malfunctioning or being used incorrectly. Please take all possible precautions if using a heat lamp to warm the winter chicken coop. Read more on how to avoid a chicken coop fire

Always Use Caution 

If you live in an area with extreme weather, I recommend that you go cautiously into adding heat to the coop. Consider both the fire hazard, discussed above and the effects of added light during winter. Chickens feathers are made for insulating and trapping warmth. If a chicken has successfully passed through the molting season and regrown feathers, they will be able to keep warm if the coop is enclosed, has good ventilation and is not drafty. Of course there comes the point when a prolonged cold snap begins to take its toll and your birds may become stressed. I mention a different type of heat system for coops at the end of this post.

winter chicken coop

In addition to heat, the heat bulb  also provides extra light during the night. All that extra light can cause a chicken to produce eggs when it should be resting and recovering from molt. Letting the natural molting/no egg laying season run it’s course is what is best. This lack of egg production during molting season is nature’s way of giving the chicken time to build up again after feather production. It’s natural and should be expected. Some years our chickens molt quickly and will be laying eggs again during the winter months. Other years it seems that they take the winter off!

And lastly, if you do intend to heat your chicken coop, make sure you have a back up plan in place if your heat system breaks, or a power outage occurs. Chickens kept in a heated coop may not survive a power outage that takes out the heat source during a cold night. The sudden change in temperature can be deadly. I have talked to chicken owners who do heat the coop, but only to raise the temperature a few degrees. This way, if a power outage occurs the change is not drastic.

I am seriously considering buying the Sweeter Heater for our coop. It hangs on the coop wall and provides moderate heat using safer, low wattage power. The manufacturer recommends the Sweater Heater be side mounted for grown hens in a coop. I would only need to use it during extreme cold snaps here. You may need to use it more frequently where you live if your temperature frequently drops below zero.

Ventilation and Drafts- What is the Difference?

winter chicken coop

Ventilation is important even during cold months. Ventilation is air that freely moves in and out of the coop, gently. Drafts on the other hand, are air currents that blow directly on the chickens on the roost or when they are standing in the coop. Do not seal your coop up tight. The lack of ventilation will cause moisture to accumulate, causing condensation and this can lead to frostbite (Frostbite at first, looks like black spots on combs and wattles). Drafts on the other hand, will cause chickens to be stressed and cold. The difference between a draft and ventilation is the rate of air flow. If you see the chicken’s feathers lifting while they are on the roost, they are in a draft. Find where it is coming from and seal it off. Good ventilation will also keep the ammonia odor from collecting in the coop. Ammonia build up can cause respiratory problems in chickens. Ammonia builds up and gets worse in the presence of moisture and lack of ventilation. Air quality in the winter chicken coop is very important to your flock’s health, as they often will spend more time in the coop in colder months.

Keeping the Water From Freezing!

Water must be provided even during freezing weather. Luckily, once chickens go to roost, they don’t get up for a drink during the night. Make sure you provide plenty of water and keep the water bowl filled with fresh water during the day. During extreme cold weather here, I need to bring jugs of warm water from the house to refill the water bowls. I don’t use a water fount during the winter because the water freezes in the fount and it stays in there! I prefer to use the Fortex rubber feeding pans. They don’t break when frozen and the ice will break out easier.

If you have an electric outlet or electricity in your coop, there are heated chicken waterers available. If the power fails, the water in the fount will freeze solid and you will have a hard time getting the ice block out of the fount. The rubber feed pans have the advantage of being flexible so that the ice block can pop right out and you can refill the bowl. A lot of commercial products are available. The trick is knowing whether they will work for your situation or not.

How have you handled the winter chicken coop issues with your chickens? Do you heat your coop?

Until Next Time, Stay Warm!

Janet