Chickens are hardy little creatures, and will adapt to most climates. One of the challenges here in Oklahoma is building animal shelters for both extreme heat and extreme cold. We opted to build a coop that allows lots of breezes and ventilation in the long, hot summer. The coop has soffit and roofs vents for heat to escape, along with windows that open to the north and south to pull the prevailing winds through the coop. The coop is sited next to a grove of trees that keep it shaded throughout most of the day. So it works great in the summer, but come wintertime, a little work must be done to keep my hens warm and happy.
The most important thing in the winter is to make sure the coop is draft-free. Chickens can retain a lot of body heat simply by lifting their feathers, but drafts reduce the effectiveness of this heat-saving ability. To eliminate drafts, we covered the windows, soffit vents, and the north side roof vent with plastic. The south-side roof vent allows for ventilation so moisture and ammonia can escape without letting in the frigid north winds. Plastic is an inexpensive and very effective way to stop wind from moving through the coop.
Chicken coops should not be insulated because it provides a place for vermin, and more importantly, mites, to live in your coop. A mite-infested coop will affect your flock’s health and production. However, our metal coop needed some insulation from the cold north winds. So we decided to stack organic straw bales on the north and west outside walls. It has made a huge difference in the ambient temperature of the coop. In the recent 10 degree weather, the inside of the coop was comfortably cool. In the Spring, the straw will be used to help with muddy spots in the yard, then put in the compost pile this summer to become eventually soil.
Another way we prepare the coop for winter is to use the deep litter method from late Fall through Spring. As microbes in the manure break down the litter, it generates heat. The litter needs to be turned occasionally, and fresh litter added when needed to keep down the odor. You can throw some scratch into the litter and let the chickens turn it for you and save some time!
The final step in winterizing our coop was installing caged heat lamps. The use of heat lamps is the subject of some debate, and there are both pros and cons to using them. Installed improperly, heat lamps can be a fire hazard. Clamp mounts, which are fine for a chick brooder, should not be used with full grown birds who are large and strong enough to knock a clamped light down. Instead, fixtures should be permanently mounted so they stay put. With full grown birds, it’s also a good idea to get a caged fixture so bird don’t injure themselves on a hot bulb. The second issue with heat lamps is that some sources say chickens may not sleep well with light from lamps. Other articles state that chickens don’t perceive the red light as daylight and it doesn’t affect them. Since I can’t ask the chickens, I have the lamps, but only turn them on if its below 20 degrees outside.
Those who live in climates that are consistently colder may not need to use heat lamps, as the birds acclimate to the usual weather. It is the sudden, dramatic cold snaps that we have in Oklahoma that are the problem. When it’s 65 degrees one day and 10 degrees the next, it’s hard on the chickens. During last year’s cold snap, some of our chickens ended up with frozen combs or chilblains on their feet. So this year we turn on the heat lamps when needed. A sleep-deprived hen will most definitely recover more quickly than a hen with frostbite injuries.
The lamps we use were purchased from QC Supply. They are hung in the coop using eye hooks, so the hens can’t knock them down. The bulb sits up in the fixture, not down in the cage, so the chickens can’t get burned by the bulb. We have the cords attached to a single power strip so we can turn them all off or on at once. They were a little pricey, at about $40 each, but I feel like a safer fixture was worth the money. I also like the look of them better than the cheap-o fixtures.
The best thing about winterizing our coop it that I don’t have to worry about my chickens. Last year we ended up moving them into the shop, and using the bathroom as a coop. That was quite the mess to clean up, and I’ll be happy to never do it again!