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Chapter One: Preparing Your Coop For Winter

Chapter One Preparing Your Coop For Winter

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!

Coop Ventilation

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.

Chicken Coop Vent

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.

Insulation 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.

Straw Winter Bedding for Chickens
Thick layer of straw for my girls

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.

Make Repairs

Before the blustery winds of winter arrive, it’s important to check your coop for damage from the elements, your chickens, or even predators.

If there are leaks, they must be repaired or your chickens may find themselves in the middle of a blizzard, for example.

Most importantly, if there are any access areas for predators, it is imperative to close them up tight. Winter is a desperate time for many chicken predators due to food shortages.

So if a predator can…they will enter your coop and either steal your eggs or kill your flock.

Always ensure that all fencing is still operational, and ready to withstand the winter months and ensure that all sides of your coop are sturdy, have no water damage, and can stand up to extreme temperatures.

If you keep your chickens comfortable during winter and ensure their home is up to their strict standards, they will continue to lay flavorful eggs all winter long.

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.

Chapter 2

38 thoughts on “Chapter One: Preparing Your Coop For Winter

  1. Hello, I was wondering how you created the cover of your “hatch”? Is it a separate cover or does it slide or? And I was wondering, what do the chickens do during a very cold spell? Like snow? Do they come out and walk around or hang in the coop mostly?
    Love the post, as a new chicken owner, was wondering about winterizing. We don’t have awful freezing winters but we do have cold rains.

    1. Hi Mary,
      The hatch on my coop is hinged so it just opens outward.
      Yes, you will find that even during the really cold spells your hens will still walk around and come out of the coop.
      Good luck with your first winter!

    2. My girls don’t like the snow, if I sweep off the ramp and put straw down outside, they will come out, but otherwise they just stay in the coop on snowy days.

    1. Hi Loti,
      I wouldn’t recommend it 😉
      An oil filled radiator or a flat panel radiant heater is the best way to go,

  2. We have a small 8 to 10 chickens, size coop. I live where it can be -10 farinheit quite often. how about using a 60 Watt Ceramic Heat Emitter No harm no light Heater Lamp Bulb that are used for reptiles? i would plug it into a thermo cube that would turn it on and off when temperatures reach 35 and off at 45 degrees? have you heard any stories whether this is safe or not? thank you!

    1. Hi Becky,
      Unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything about using this. I presume it’s just a warm plate like we discussed in the article?
      The main risk is fire, so anything you can do to eliminate this risk is worth doing 🙂

  3. What great information! I only have 2 chickens…Bantam Cochins. They have a little coop (w great ventilation!)…But they don’t roost, and instead like to sleep in their nest boxes.
    They don’t poop in the coop either. Neither are broody, but they just don’t do their business until they get outside. (Weird!)
    My question…I am concerned that they won’t be warm enough. I am absolutely going to add more bedding down for them. And I’m also going to insulate their coop. But still, they don’t snuggle (or like each other so well really)…Each will only have herself to be warm.
    I really love them so! We got them as pets…So they must be okay for the winter!
    Thank you, Thank you!

    1. Thank you for getting in touch Kelley!
      If they don’t roost together have you considered getting a flat panel radiant heater to keep them warm?

  4. I only have 3 chickens in an 8 X 12 shed, not insulated, and I’ve sealed the drafts as much as I could. I added ventilation near the top on two ends.We get cold spells where the temp stays down near -15 to -20 for a week at a time – can only 3 chickens hope to survive without a heat source? And if I should heat them, can I do it during cold snaps, and then stop when the temps are out of the subzero range?

    1. Hi Dawn,
      Wow, that’s getting seriously cold! During these extremely cold snaps I would use a flat panel heater- like we discussed in the article.
      Yes, then when it warms up above subzero you can remove the heat source 🙂

  5. I notice that when talking about drafts etc being covered up, nothing is mentioned about the actual entrance to the coup. How do you keep the “doorway” covered? While still allowing the chickens easy enter/exit ability? I took old T-shirts and made “drapes” to help cut the direct breeze from entering. Is this enough?

    1. Hi Dave,
      Yes this is a great idea. The main thing is to make sure when they actually roost in their, that the coop door is shut so it’s warm for them.

  6. Thanks for the info! We insulated our coop a few weeks ago using foam board insulation. It’s keeping the coop very comfortable but our girls have started pecking it apart! Any advice for getting them to stop?

    1. Hi Kira,
      The easiest way is to cover the insulation with something they can’t peck- like a thin sheet of plywood…

    2. I used their feed bags to cover the Styrofoam insulation panels to prevent them from pecking/eating it. Worked like a charm and gave the coup some decor!:).

  7. Hi Claire! I just bought 11 Marans December 7. All but one were 2weeks old. I have them in a horse trough with a heat lamp in the basement. They are getting big and I am considering putting them in the coop with guinea hens and 3 buff Orpington at the end of January. I live in Tennessee with mild temperatures. I usually buy my chicks in February and put them in a crate in the coop months later which helps them get acclimated. Are my doing this right?
    Another thing the run gets very muddy. I put a bag of leaves in it and within 2 days they move them out of the run. Same with pine shavings. Any recommendations?

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Have you tried using straw in the run- this is my favorite 🙂
      Sounds to me like you are- as long as your chicks aren’t getting bullied by the older hens, that’s the main thing!

  8. Hello! Love your infos. We live in à could winter area (-20 to -35) we are building an insulated coop and were wondering if the floor need to be insulated as well. If so what do you recommend. We are awaiting our 6 girls in 2 1/2 weeks and we want to make sure our coop reach their needs
    Thanks you

    1. Hi Lucie,
      It doesn’t have to be insulated providing the roof and walls are well covered 🙂

  9. I’m new to this and want to make sure my girls are warm. We have a thin piece of plywood for two walls. I was going to add a sheet of insulation with an r rating of 10 and another thicker piece of plywood. Would that be enough. I could also add some straw to the floor.

    1. Hi Marjie,
      The best way to tell if it’s warm is to keep a thermometer in there overnight and also observer their behaviour in the coop.
      The key thing though is to make sure there are no drafts!

  10. how about just bringing them inside I have a 16×20 room in the barn that stays a constant 40 degrees all winter long but there would be no way for the chickens to go outside. what do you think?

  11. what is cold to a chicken? i live in Dallas TX. our normal winter nights are about 36, with the days in the 40s. some nights will get to 20s, but rarely.
    is this cold for a chicken? i am seeing people with very cold weather in the -10s.
    thank you

  12. I’m using a heated panel and a small heater in the inside run. The coop has a panel also. I keep these on low settings most of the time. Just keep a close eye on the temperatures.

  13. If I installed insulation boards on the inside of my coop will the chickens try to eat it? Should I be covering it with something? That I probably don’t have the carpentry skill for I am purchasing a ready to assemble coop from Tractor Supply

    1. All the of the interior is silicone adhesive prior to insulation. Used Foiled backed high density R7 foam board for insulation and The high density foil ed both sides was finished with FRP it is a fiberglass anti microbial tuff as nail product

  14. We’ve built a 4’x6’ coop for 6 (was 7 but we lost a polish chick from a sickly batch out of Hoover Hatchery), out of plywood, metal siding (leftover from building our house), and have insulated the floor and walls with an exterior-wall rated insulation. It’s a slanted roof and we are contemplating on leaving the ceiling off and putting vents in the “attic” above the roosting bars or closing off the ceiling and adding vents to the walls instead. We don’t know what to do since our weather is so extreme.
    We live in Montana where summers can get over 100F (40C) and winters can get below -40F (-40C). My house in particular is on a hill surrounded by alfalfa fields and the wind gusts can and have frequently exceeded 60mph (100km/hr).
    I’ve heard you want at minimum 1sqft of vents for every 10sqft of floor space, and up to 1sqft of vents for every chicken. I don’t know how that would work because I feel like we’d have an entire wall open to the elements. In the summer that’s fine, but when it’s snowing, blowing, drifting, and windchill is -60??
    Are we just naive? Should we not have chickens? We don’t plan to eat them, so killing them before winter and getting a new batch in the spring is not on the table.
    Does anyone else have similar weather, and how do you handle transitioning through the seasons?

    1. My advice is this, the floor insulation is good, wall insulation not necessary and may bight you in the summer. The key is wind blockage and proper ventilation. So, if you can install a type of single or double hung window that you can open and close with the seasons even better in addition to a vent. Chickens are VERY hardy, the issue starts popping up when there is no wind blockage and you have a constant cold draft they can’t knock off in the bitter negative temp times. As far as summer, ventilation and air flow is the key with proper water/fluids.
      You are not naive, you are trying to provide the best home for your new chickens. Everyone should be self sufficient to an extent, and chickens is one of the best ways of doing so. I encourage you to move forward!

  15. We just started backyard chicken raising for eggs. We have 4 ISA Brown hens that are 6-7 weeks old I think. We have insulated and covered the insulation and put in a fan for circulation that works on a thermostat. We have radiant heat on the ceiling and inside and outside lights. We tiled the floor with a solid sheet of linoleum. It’s a really pretty coop. Got it online and added everything above. We also have 2 Khaki Campbell’s 5-6 weeks old.

  16. I have a coop similar to the one in the picture with a large run built around it. I live in Colorado, but not in the high country. Should I cover the open mesh parts of the coop with plywood in the winter to make it warmer?

    1. It doesnt have to be “warmer” but a wind block always helps. Last year we had -30 cold snap, I did put plywood only on the wind side giving them a nice wind block. Chickens are resilient but blocking the wind in cold snaps to prevent frost bite.

  17. I have a 10×12 insulated coop but I worry about our cold temperatures as it can get down to -50 celsius(-58 fahrenheit) for days and -40 for weeks is not unusual either, our nice winter days are -20 to -30. I have not see the heating panels you have mentioned available here and was wondering would one be enough, as I only have a dozen chickens.

    1. Something enough to break the chill and something they can use to begin the insulation process to keep their body above temp. You may have to resort to heat lamp, be safe.

  18. My 2 chickens and 2 ducks live in a 8ft by 4ft by4ft coop. I have left the small 14×14 door open with their ramp the whole time I have had them which is 6 months . I bought them as 8 week old chicks. They are doing great other than no eggs from any of them? Could it be because I don’t lock them up at night? They have a 30ft by 12 foot fenced run around their coop

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