By Robyn Scherer, M. Agr., Colorado
Is it time to start winterizing chicken coops? Snowflakes softly fall to the ground, and an icy breeze cuts through the early morning hours. Winter is coming, and with it, decreased egg production. Short, chilly days can be hard on chickens if they are not taken care of properly in the winter. There are several factors that should be considered when you’re ready to start winterizing chicken coops.
Winterizing Chicken Coops: The Coop
The chicken coop is one of the most important places for chickens in the winter, and if not winterized properly, could result in chilled or deceased birds. Care should be taken when coops are initially bought or built to make sure they can provide the necessary shelter for chickens when the cold weather hits. First and foremost, chickens need a draft-free environment in the winter. “This is important because drafts will lower the temperature and make it hard for birds to warm up,” said Danielle Nater, manager of Northern Colorado Feeder’s Supply in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Any holes or cracks should be patched before winter hits to prevent drafting. If a chicken owner lives in an especially cool climate, he or she may want to insulate the coop to help keep in as much heat as possible. Proper ventilation should still be used, however, because a stuffy coop can hurt chickens as well.
The best coops for winter are made of wood, with wooden nesting boxes. Metal or plastic does not hold onto heat as well, and can create a very cold environment for chickens.
The coop should also be checked for evidence of vermin, which can snack on chickens, especially during the cold winter months when food may be scarce. If vermin are found, they should be removed in whatever way the producer feels comfortable.
The best bedding for chickens in the winter are materials that will add insulation to the chicken coop. An extra layer of pine shavings on the floor and in the nesting boxes can also help chickens to stay warm. Care should be taken, however, in cleaning the coop and changing the shavings on a regular basis. “Bedding should be cleaned often because the chickens will be spending more time in the house and will accumulate more feces and urine on the floor. This can freeze, and be much harder to clean out over time,” Nater said.
Accumulated urine and feces will also cause the coop to smell, and can create respiratory issues for the birds. Chickens like clean areas, so coops should be cleaned regularly.
If possible, coops should also be fitted with electricity to keep water from freezing and to provide artificial light to the hens.
There are several options for water heaters: some go under the bucket and some go in the bucket.
Care should be taken with your heated chicken waterer to make sure the electrical wire is not showing, as chickens may peck at the shiny wire. If an in-tank heater is used, the water line should never go below the heating coil and if the heater is a sinking heater, it should be fitted with a cage to keep it from melting the bottom of the water bucket.
Water should be kept outside if possible, as chickens can get water all over the coop and create slippery surfaces.
If you’re wondering, why have my chickens stopped laying eggs this winter? The answer could be: not enough light. Artificial light is important to keep chickens laying during the winter. “Hours of daylight is the key factor to egg production, because hens need 14 to 16 hours of daylight to stimulate egg production,” Nater explained.
This light will simulate longer days, which will keep hens laying more consistently throughout the winter. Lights should be put on a timer so that extra light is added in the morning and evening.
“Put a timer on the lights so they are only on for a certain amount of time throughout the night. Also, they need to be infrared lights. If they are bright white lights and if it is on all the time, it will irritate the chickens,” Nater said.
If heat or lights are added, it is very important to keep all electrical cords and heaters out of the chickens’ reach so they do not shock themselves or start a fire.
At night it is especially important to keep chickens locked up in a coop, as it decreases the chance of blowing snow, drafts and predators entering the coop.
Winterizing Chicken Coops: The Yard
Before winter hits, the chicken yard should be cleared of any debris or trash. Accumulated feces should be swept up, and the entire yard should be cleaned. The fence to the yard should be checked for holes or gaps, and those should be repaired as needed.
A chicken that gets out from a yard in the summer will have a much easier time surviving the night than one in the winter. When snowfall does occur, an area of the yard should be cleared to give the chickens room to eat.
Winterizing Chicken Coops: Winterizing The Flock
The second half to winterizing chicken coops has to do with the flock itself. Decreased egg production is the biggest downfall for most poultry owners in the winter. In addition to using lights, poultry owners may also need to provide heat to increase egg production.
“If the chickens aren’t warm, they aren’t going to produce eggs. They will spend all their energy trying to stay warm instead of egg production,” said Nater from.
The heat source does not need to be on all the time. “Heaters should only be used when the temperatures drop below a certain level, such as freezing. They don’t need to be on very high or all night, just enough to keep the chickens comfortable,” Nater said. Heaters that can be used include heat lamps and a space heater, although both should be kept in an area that chickens cannot roost on them.
Frostbite can be a big concern in chickens. If they are outside for too long in freezing temperatures, their combs, wattles and feet can freeze. This is painful for the birds, and can decrease reproduction, especially in roosters.
Another side effect of decreased light is molting, which many new chicken owners perceive as the chickens being sick. This is a normal part of life that chickens go through, and cannot be prevented. If a heavy snow falls, an area should be cleared for chickens to have room to eat. It is best to feed both a regular ration and scratch. Scratch that is laid on snow can be lost by the chickens, and results in wasted money.
“They should get some extra scratch because corn is a fat source, and that will help them keep warm,” said Nater.
It is best to feed chickens later in the afternoon or early evening before it gets dark because they will tend to eat more. This will also allow the chickens to fill up their crops before they nest, and give them plenty of feed to digest through the night.
The process of digestion will help to keep chickens warm, so a full crop will also aid in keeping chickens warm.
Scraps can continue to be fed to chickens, as well as egg shells. The ground-up egg shells give the chickens more calcium, which in turn will cause their eggs to become harder with thicker shells. Oyster shell can also be supplemented to the chickens as a calcium supplement. It is important to pick up the eggs every day for several reasons. The first is the eggs can freeze and crack, which can make them unusable. The second is so the chickens don’t eat the eggs.
“If they aren’t getting enough calcium, they will eat their own eggs,” said Nater.
There are some breeds of chickens that are considered hardier than others, and these include American Game, Buckeyes, Chanteclers and Wyandottes, among others. Chickens are much more adaptable to the cold than many people think, and with a little care, should continue laying throughout the winter, even if the production is slightly decreased.
Recap: Steps for Winterizing Chicken Coops
1. Check the coop for cracks and repair any holes to prevent drafts.
2. Add extra shavings for insulation, and clean out regularly.
3. Provide heat and lighting when necessary.
4. Offer a nutritious diet higher in fat.
5. Clear out snow when necessary.
6. Lock chickens up at night.
Do you have any tips or suggestions for winterizing chicken coops? Leave a comment and share your thoughts with us!