Keeping your birds warm in winter is critical. If you live in colder climates you will probably need to take some steps in the winter months to ensure that your hens stay warm. Chickens and other fowl are fairly cold hardy, but they still get chilly when the temperatures dip below freezing.
Heating the coop can be an expensive and sometimes dangerous option, as it increases the risk of fire on your farm. While an effective heating mechanism can be set up in a coop, there are plenty of affordable and easy ways to make sure that your chickens stay warm and comfortable in the winter months.
Ensuring your hens have plenty of access to fresh water is vital. If you have electricity in your coop you can buy a heated water bowl for your chickens, but if that’s not an option you can still combat ice with a few cool tricks. One method is to pack a rubber car tire with styrofoam or another insulator, and then put the chicken’s waterer in the central hole.
Using rubber water troughs will aid the attentive farmer: if you are checking your hens regularly you can leave them with a regular rubber trough, and easily knock out any ice as it forms. Floating ping pong balls in the water will also help keep waves moving around in the water, preventing freezing. Unfortunately no method except for electric heat can guarantee keeping mother nature at bay, but these tricks will give you an advantage against the ice.
Lighting the coop is a popular way to keep chickens warm, but it is fraught with as many fire risks as a heater and won’t give off as much warmth. A coop kept too warm will actually hurt your chicken’s natural abilities to adjust their body temperatures, making a trip out into the weather even more shocking for their systems. Instead of focusing on heating the coop, think about what you can to do make sure your chickens are heathy enough to happily survive a tough winter.
The so-called “deep litter method” is a popular way of keeping a winter coop clean. This method uses some of the principles of regular composting, allowing your chicken’s debris to break down in the coop over the course of a season. It involves a thorough clean of the coop in the spring and fall, and a thick layer of pine shavings to start. Simply put, you will turn over the bedding every week or so and add new shavings on top. This method of chicken keeping is very effective in winter, when moving manure can be a hassle, and results in excellent garden fertilizer come spring.
The right-sized coop, and good ventilation in the coop, can make a huge difference in your chicken’s ability to thrive in winter. Over-crowded chickens are never happy, but with too much space a shelter can become drafty. You don’t want a air-tight chicken house, however. Not enough ventilation results in trapped moisture, which leads to frostbite and bad smells. Small air vents should always be included, and many companies even offer small exhaust fans designed for hen houses.
Think about the winter temperatures in your area when selecting chicken breeds. While many breeds of chicken are cold hardy, some are much more tolerant than others and a few breeds are not hardy at all. In addition to better surviving the winter, cold hardy breeds are also more likely to continue laying throughout the darker months. Heavy-weight breeds, and ones bred in colder climates, tend to thrive in winter.
These include Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Australorps, and many hatcheries will have a section of their offerings dedicated to cold-hardy hens.
Snow can be an excellent insulator for your coop. Make sure you shovel out paths for your chickens and a space for them to get out and about, but leave the snow that gathers around the sides of your coop to help seal any would-be drafts.
Finally, remember that even chickens love a hot meal on a cold day. Most hens will always enjoy warm oatmeal, and the chillier it is outside the more they’ll appreciate heated foods and other snacks with extra protein. Not only will treats keep them warm, but any extra weight they gain will give them another layer against the cold weather.
Keeping your chickens warm in winter only takes a little bit of extra effort, and healthy birds will reward you throughout the year.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen farms about 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Days Ferry Organics and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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