Recently, I’ve been writing about safely heating backyard chicken coops and addressing the question: Do chickens need heat in winter? In New England, we get buried under heaps of snow and experience temperatures in the negatives. During these times, my mind becomes pre-occupied with staying warm.
But these posts often stir up a debate: To heat or not to heat a chicken coop? Here are some facts to consider when deciding for yourself.
Why You Don’t Have To Heat A Coop
Chickens are amazing animals, and can survive some pretty harsh environments. If birds have a place to perch without a breeze, they can keep warm in cold environments. When a chicken perches for the night it puffs its feathers and looks quite comical. This puffing creates an air gap between the skin and feathers, which serves as an insulating barrier. To protect their feet and legs, birds usually fluff enough to encompass their legs and to guard against frostbite. They tuck their head under a wing. Also, if you have a well-insulated coop and a fair number of birds, then they will keep the coop warm with body heat all on their own.
Why You Should Heat
Just like us, a chicken’s body prioritizes its functions. High on the list are functions like circulating blood, breathing and other life-critical purposes. Guess what is last on that list … making eggs. When a bird’s needs are met, production is rampant, but when faced with conditions like extreme cold, you’ll have an answer to the why have my chickens stopped laying. Bottom line: Cold weather can cause a drastic reduction in egg production.
The poultry industry got some real flack a few years ago when the public heard about the industry’s method of force-molting chickens through reduced light duration and removing all nutrients. Basically, you stop the water and hold the feed and the bird’s body goes into chaos. This chaos starts with an immediate halt in egg production, the beginning of feather molting and a long path to regeneration (as short as a month, if properly managed).
When the temperatures drop, water freezes, not excluding your water dispenser. If your water freezes (some people prevent this by using a heated chicken waterer,) your flock goes without water. If your birds go without water, they will also go off their feed since they need moisture to eat. If they stop eating and drinking, they stop laying. If this happens in the beginning of winter, odds are your birds won’t lay again until spring.
When eggs are laid, the shell and protective bloom keep bacteria and other organisms out. This keeps eggs safe to eat, but if they freeze, they crack. A cracked egg will become contaminated, so these eggs are inedible. It’s a shame to waste eggs, so keep your coop above freezing.
Even during the day in New England, we’ve seen long stretches where the temps have been bitter cold for days on end. This brings up another issue known as frostbite. Frostbite is a result of overexposure to cold temperatures, and it commonly claims toes, wattles, and combs. Frostbite is a painful thing to endure, and it’s a pain that lingers.
Do you have an old hen in the flock? When a chicken’s body puts more effort into keeping warm, it tends to exasperate existing issues and hasten the death of weak birds. Sick birds will take longer to recoup when they have to fight the cold, so keeping the coop warm will help weak birds survive a harsh winter.
What I Do
The answer to the question “do chickens need heat in winter?” is a complicated one, but here’s what I do. I try to keep my coops above freezing, but my birds can free range at will. On cold days they refuse to range, preferring to stay inside, which should tell you something. Unless you’re brooding chicks, you don’t need to keep a coop toasty warm, but I do suggest keeping your coop around 40° F. So if you want your birds to produce through the winter (in cold climates specifically), keep your coop’s temperature within your chicken’s comfort zone for best results and happy hens.
Now is the time to be thinking about winter preparations, making sure your coops are secure, parasite free and any structural damages repaired.