Chicken Fact or Chicken Poop by Andy Schneider (Quarry Books, 2018) is a reference for separating fact from myth regarding chickens. Schneider is known as “The Chicken Whisperer” and is an expert on backyard poultry. This excerpt addresses the question of whether chicken coops need to be heated or not.
Chickens are birds of the bamboo forest. They are designed for fairly warm climates. They have strategies for both keeping warm and expelling heat. However, humans have greatly influenced the appearance of the chicken. Some breeds, such as the Chantecler, have been selected for their adaptability to colder climates. So what does a cold coop really mean to a chicken?
Chickens lose heat through their combs. Males have larger combs and wattles and in the winter, are more prone to frostbite on both. Hens have smaller combs and wattles and therefore less surface area. Not all chickens put their heads under their wings at night. Even if they do, breeds with large combs may not be able to completely tuck the comb under their wing. Any exposed flesh is prone to frostbite at night, when temperatures are at their coldest.
Toes can also get frostbite. Chickens like to pull their toes up under the feathers on their breast. The shape of the roost in the coop can either help or hinder this process. A wider, flatter roost will allow birds to tuck up their toes and any unfeathered areas on their legs. Egg laying can be forfeited for many reasons, including suboptimal environmental conditions.
So, what are the critical temperatures for frostbite? Anything below freezing, which is 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. What about temperatures just above freezing? When the temperature of the coop drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, hens start to slow down the egg-making process. Prolonged low temperatures may start to yield smaller eggs or fewer eggs. Temperatures below freezing for prolonged periods reduce this rate of lay much faster. When temperatures get below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, your flock may stop laying eggs altogether. A hen will stop producing eggs in favor of staying alive.
Fact and Poop. You may find providing heat to be out of the question on your farm. Luckily you have other options in the form of good insulation and winterization of the coop. How do you insulate? It can be as easy as stacking hay bales around the walls or putting up insulation on the roof and walls. Chickens eat insulation so be sure to cover it up with plywood. Winterization can include wrapping draffy portions of your coop with in thick plastic.
If you rely on the eggs from your flock, I would recommend providing supplemental heat when temperatures outside approach freezing. How do you know the coop temperature? Keep a min/max thermometer in the coop and record the lowest temperatures on a clipboard. Alongside temperature, record the number of eggs you get daily to determine any noticeable trends within your flock.
For warmth, you could try a heat lamp, though I dislike them generally because they provide not only heat but light as well. Over-lighting your hens can also halt egg production because the hen’s reproductive tract gets tired. A heat lamp on at night makes the hen thinks it is still daytime physiologically, so her body continues to respond to the long days. You might not see any big changes in young hens, but older hens may quit laying sooner and go into a molt at an inopportune time of year.
One other reason I dislike heat lamps is because they can start fires from being knocked over or broken. I have seen rodents chew through rope, causing the lamp to drop into the shavings (so use a chain to hang heat lamps). I have also seen lamps shatter when chickens shake cold water from their beaks and it lands on the bulb.
I prefer safer alternatives like the Sweeter Heater. Hang it over the roosts and plug it into a Thermo Cube so it turns on and runs only when the cold is of concern to your flock or plug into a light timer so that you only pay to run it when the coop is coldest at night.
What It Means
If you expect eggs from your hens, be prepared to provide a form of heat. Older hens, sick chickens hiding an illness, or birds with parasites go into winter already at a disadvantage and may not make it through the first cold snap. To prevent a negative experience for your birds, you may wish to put a heat source in the coop, ideally on a timer or on a Thermo Cube that automatically turns on when temperatures dip to their lowest.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Chicken Fact or Chicken Poop by Andy Schneider, published by Quarry Books, 2018.