By Lisa Steele, Brand Ambassador —
Chickens are extremely cold-hardy and generally do well in any type of climate, but in the far northern regions, they will appreciate a bit of TLC when the mercury plunges. Healthy chickens coming off the fall molting season with brand new feathers should do just fine almost anywhere in the country, but making them more comfortable in the winter is still a good idea.
While heating the chicken coop might seem like the obvious, or practical, solution, I actually don’t recommend it for several reasons — unintentionally burning down your coop being first and foremost. But there are other pitfalls of heating a coop, including the very real chance that if you lose power and therefore your heat source, the chickens who haven’t been allowed to gradually get used to the colder temperatures can freeze to death.
You also want to encourage your chickens to get outside year round, not sit huddled in a heated coop. So for all these reasons, I instead prefer to “winterize” my chicken coop and run.
Winterizing a Chicken Coop
Your chicken coop needs good ventilation and air flow year round, but in the colder months, closing any windows and covering them with wool blankets, shutters or some other type of covering at night can help to keep the chickens’ body heat inside the coop. Vents up high over the their heads while they’re roosting can be left open year round to allow ammonia fumes to escape and fresh air to come in.
The roosting bars in your coop should be wide enough that your chickens can sleep flat-footed on them (a 2x4 with the wide side facing up works well), so their bodies completely cover their feet. There’s less chance of frost bitten toes that way.
A thick layer of soft bedding on the floor of the coop will help to insulate it from the cold ground. Straw is my preference but pine shavings are another option, or even dried leaves or pine needles. Using the Deep Litter Method — which is an old-timers' method of basically composting the litter right inside the coop all winter to generate natural heat — is really beneficial and low maintenance. When done correctly, it shouldn’t smell or be messy at all, but instead leave you with beautifully composted litter for the garden come spring.
Hanging a piece of cloth over the little chicken door in your coop will help keep drafts out during the day. Tie it back for a couple of days to get your chickens used to being there, then you should be able to let it hang down and your chickens should go in and out of the coop with no problem.
Winterizing a Chicken Run
Because you don’t want your chickens spending all day inside their coop, it’s important to winterize your chicken run to encourage them to spend as much time outside as possible.
I feed and water my chickens outside year round. Feed attracts flies and rodents that I don’t want taking up residence inside my chicken coop. Chickens need fresh unfrozen water all day. That can be a challenge in the cold months, but running an extension cord to plug in an electric dog water bowl works well if you don’t have electricity in your run. An alternative is setting black tubs of water in the sun and popping in a few ping pong balls. The balls will bob just enough with the slightest breeze to hopefully keep the water from freezing solid too quickly.
Wrapping one corner of the run in clear plastic tarps will act as a wind block but still allow the sunshine through. Putting down some straw on the ground in that corner will further entice your chickens to venture out into the run. Most chickens detest walking on snow, so making paths with straw will be appreciated as well.
Outdoor perches, benches or even stumps or logs in the run also allow your chickens to get up off the cold, muddy or snowy ground for a bit. And some sort of shelter (I use an old doghouse) will provide a place for your chickens to get out of the rain or snow without having to head back to the coop.
It’s important to give your chickens a place to take their dust baths year round, so filling a tub or kiddie pool with loose dirt, sand or wood ash, or a combination of all, will keep your chickens clean through the winter and also give them something to do.
And tossing some treats like sunflower seeds outside for your chickens will have them heading out for some much-needed exercise and fresh air, on all but the most blustery days.
Lisa Steele is a 5th generation chicken keeper, author, DIYer and master gardener. Follow her blog at www.fresheggsdaily.com