In the first chapter of our definitive winter guide, we are going to look at how to prepare your coop so it’s ready for winter.
Mother Nature built the chicken to withstand some fairly extreme environments. The layers of downy feathers under the visible plumage can be puffed up to catch air against the body, providing extra warmth in cold climates. This gives them insulation against cold air.
However during the darkest days in winter these feathers aren’t enough to keep your chickens warm, which is why you provide them with a coop to roost in during nighttime.
The ideal coop should be warm, secure and draft proof; however it should also provide ventilation for your girls. Let’s take a look at each point in turn.
Blocking Drafts in the Coop
The twin enemies of chicken comfort and wellbeing in winter are drafts and moisture. Both of these impair a chickens’ ability to maintain that dry, warm cocoon of air.
Cold drafts can affect the most vulnerable parts of your chicken: combs, wattles and feet.
When chickens perch at night, they settle down over their feet keeping them warm. This leaves just the comb and wattles at the mercy of the elements.
Birds with large combs are more vulnerable to frostbite, especially in damp environments. Combine that with a nasty draft whipping through the coop and you can have a bad case of frostbite.
Drafts are most likely to occur when you have holes in your coop or badly fitting windows and doors.
First of all you need to check your coops for holes and gaps. If your coop is quite new you shouldn’t have any holes to worry about, but coops older than 5 years could have started rotting and holes will start appearing.
The easiest way to patch up the holes is to screw a piece of plywood (cut to measure) over the hole. In blocking these gaps you are stopping the cold drafts and you are also keeping out predators. Holes/gaps larger than ½ inch are big enough for weasels to squeeze into the coop and damage your flock.
Now is the time to be checking: it’s much more pleasant to do these tasks while the weather is still tolerable and your hands will co-operate with your brain!
Whilst it’s important not to have any large holes in the coop, it’s also just as important not to make your coop an air tight box– this can cause serious problems such as ammonia build up.
In order to combat this, you need to have adequate ventilation. Vents are best placed where the cold air will not flow directly onto the birds- up towards the roof is great.
Make sure you have a good flow of air through your coop. You need to vent out the warm, moisture laden air and replace it with cooler drier air. A good airflow will keep your humidity down and prevent mold in the bedding.
I prefer to place my vents in areas where the wind doesn’t directly blow on my girls; this helps to keep them warm but also prevents stale air from building up.
I have also fitted a hatch which can be used to open or close the vent. This is really helpful because I can leave the hatch open during the daytime to ‘vent’ the coop, and then in the evening (or if it’s raining) I can close the hatch and seal the girls in for the night.
If your coop doesn’t have any ventilation slots at the moment, you can easily cut a section out of your coop and replace it with galvanized mesh and then fit a hatch over the mesh to control the airflow like I did.
Insulating Your Chicken Coop
Once you’ve blocked up any draft holes and sorted out the ventilation of your coop it’s time to insulate it.
If your coop is too cold it will lead to a drastic drop in egg production (see Chapter 2: How To Keep Your Chickens Laying During Winter), so it’s important you insulate your coop if you live in a very cold climate.
If you have the budget I’d recommend fitting sheets of insulation to your coop. You can pick them up from your local hardware store for around $15 a sheet.
They don’t take long to pay for themselves as without them, chances are you will be buying eggs during the winter time!
If the coop could stand some insulation but you can’t afford the expensive stuff, use a few layers of cardboard. It provides a small amount of insulation and is especially easy to use in areas such as nest boxes. Be sure to cover it fairly well or the chickens will be feasting on it! It’s certainly not as harmful as them eating the regular insulation, but it’s not really desirable.
Winter Bedding for Your Chickens
During the wintertime I like to increase the amount of bedding I place in my coop. I still use straw during the winter; however I know some people prefer to use sand as it is easier to clean up.
Throwing down some extra straw/bedding will help to keep the temperature up and keep my girls warm.
The important thing to remember during winter is that if their bedding gets damp it will start to mold and cause respiratory issues. I tend to find I replace their bedding at least twice a week during the wintertime because it rains a lot here, so their bedding is always getting damp.
Some people decide this is too much work and opt for the deep litter method.
In case you haven’t heard of the ‘deep litter method’ before, I’ll give you a quick overview. Instead of removing the dirty bedding each week and replacing it with fresh bedding, instead you just place more bedding down over the existing bedding/poop. This means you only need to change their bedding once or twice a year.
Whilst this seems like a dream for backyard chicken owners it does come with several risks, mainly ammonia.
Chicken poop emits ammonia when it starts to decompose. So if you leave all the chicken muck inside the coop you are going to increase the levels of ammonia within the coop. This is why it’s so important your coop has good ventilation (as we discussed earlier).
If the ammonia levels are too high it can cause your chickens’ eyes to burn, and can leave them blind if they are exposed for long periods of time.
Here’s a quick test to check the ammonia levels inside the coop. Go into the coop and crouch down so your eyes are level with your chickens’ eyes. Then keep your head at this level for 5 minutes and see if your eyes start to water or sting. If they do then your coop ammonia levels are too high and you need to change the bedding.
If you decide you want to try the deep litter method, make sure you understand what is involved. It may look ‘easy’ but it does require careful attention or it will become a filth laden mess and source of disease.
Heating Your Coop
The last piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing your coop for the wintertime is heating.
Personally, I don’t heat my coop as I have a complete paranoia about fire. A young farmer nearby lost over 100 chickens a few years ago from a heat lamp fire.
However, I appreciate that quite a lot of backyard chicken keepers are more than comfortable with heaters, so I still want to discuss this topic.
Do not use brooder/heat lamps to heat up the coop. The number of fires that destroy coops and chickens over winter is depressing. A brooder lamp produces a great deal of heat and is really not designed to be used with adult chickens. It takes less than two minutes for a dislodged heat lamp to start bedding smoldering, and less than five minutes for a fire to start.
Another problem with heat lamps is that some give off toxic fumes. Several flock owners have lost their entire flock to toxic fumes from these lamps. The culprits are Teflon coated, but not all lamps are marked as containing a Teflon coating, so be extra careful.
A simple 40w light bulb will produce sufficient heat to raise the temperature by a few degrees. Ensure that it cannot be dislodged, fall, be flown into or pecked at, as this, too, can start a fire.
The safest way to heat your coop is either an oil filled radiator or a flat panel radiant heater. They do not need to be set at your comfort level; we already know that your flock is much more winter hardy than you! Set it low so the inside temperature does not exceed 40F.
If you are using a heater which requires electric, you need to think about electrical outages. We have them at least 2-3 times over the winter here. You need a back-up plan to keep the heat running, a generator for instance. Chickens can die if they are suddenly exposed to drastic temperature changes caused by the heater failing.
On a final note, please do not dress your chickens in sweaters! The sweater confines their feathers and seriously impedes their ability to ‘fluff out’ and remain warm. It may look cool and funky, but they are seriously detrimental to your birds’ winter well-being.
Chapter One Summary
When preparing your coop for winter the first thing you need to do is seal any holes in the coop which are causing cold drafts, whilst making sure you don’t make your coop an air tight box.
You can then create several vents inside the coop to control the flow of air.
Insulation is also important for your coop and if you don’t have the budget for expensive stuff just use a couple of layers of cardboard and nail it to your coop.
Now the coop is in perfect ‘winter-mode’ you need to double the amount of bedding you normally use; this will help provide the girls with more heat.
Also, during the winter make sure you pay close attention to the ammonia levels within the coop. If there is a strong smell and your eyes sting when you enter the coop, it’s time to change the bedding.
Finally, you should not use brooder/heat lamps to heat up the coop. If you do want to use a heater within your coop the safest way is to use an oil filled radiator.