It's early October and fall is in the air. The leaves are starting to change colors and mornings are chilly. With winter just around the corner, it is time to start preparing your chickens for the colder temperatures ahead.
A lot of debate is had over whether or not chicken coops should be heated in the winter. As the caring, compassionate chicken lovers that we are, we only want what's best for our feathered friends. However, what is best for them may surprise you.
So what's the answer?
Here is the down and dirty... chicken coops should not be heated in the winter, with only a few exceptions.
Adult, fully feathered birds do not need heat. Chicks, young birds, sick or recovering birds, and speciality breeds (silkies, frizzles, polish, etc) do require heat. But not with a heat lamp. More on that later.
Why shouldn't I heat the coop? It's cold outside!
The cold is exactly why you should not heat the coop. As the mercury gradually drops throughout fall, birds naturally acclimate to the colder temperatures. Additionally, chickens are not mammals. They do not perceive cold as we do. So while it may be cold to you, your birds will be ok.
Heating the coop also comes with some serious risks, including the possibility of losing all of your birds.
First, heat (brooder) lamps pose a serious fire risk. Many, many coops catch fire from the dust, a stray feather or a lamp that was knocked down. If your coop is close to your house or other property, your losses could be more than just the birds inside. It is not worth the risk.
Second, a sudden loss of your heat lamp could shock and kill your entire flock. Think about it, how often do you lose power in the winter? Or what if the extension cable is unplugged, heater fails or the bulb burns out? The sudden drop in temperature will likely be fatal.
What if I have young birds or those with unusual feathers such as silkies?
Silkies and frizzles do not possess the same feathers are other chickens and young birds are physically smaller than adults. As such, they are not able to keep themselves warm as easily. In this case, heat is likely warranted. As mentioned before, heat lamps are very dangerous due to their high fire danger. Plus, a 250 watt bulb costs about $20/month to operate (when ran for 24 hours a day).
Fortunately, there is a wonderful product that is safe and inexpensive to operate, solving these problems. The Sweeter Heater is a fully contained infrared heater. Infrared heaters warm the birds body, not the ambient air temperature. They are able to move away from the heat if they get too warm, and they are not shocked by the cold outside air.
Since the heater is fully contained, dust, feathers and other particles cannot get into the unit, causing a fire danger. And since it is contained, it can be sprayed clean with a hose. The heater has a snap switch and will power off if it detects a fall. Further, the surface never gets hot to the touch, which eliminates burn injuries. The largest unit only uses 150 watts, making it much less expensive to operate than a traditional heat bulb. According to the company, in over 10 years in business, there has never been a fire reported from the Sweeter Heater. They have several sizes available, in both overhead and side mount. As an aside, this is the only heater I use for newly hatched chicks. They are worth every penny.
What else can I do?
Even if you do have electricity to your coop and choose to utilize a Sweeter Heater, there are a few more precautions that should be taken to keep your birds comfortable.
During the Fall, when temperatures are still pleasant, the coop and next boxes should be thoroughly cleaned. If using a deep litter method, it should be turned. A clean coop is a healthy, comfortable coop.
Prevent drafts and increase ventilation
The most important aspect of a winter coop is one that's draft free with good ventilation. Coops that are air tight or poorly ventilated will build moisture from the birds breathing and poop. Moisture is your number one enemy and the cause of frostbite on combs and wattles. Think of drafts as air movement, where ventilation is addition of fresh air into the coop. Yes, ventilation will release some warm air, but that is ok.
Make sure coops are free of drafts by sealing any cracks. Insulation can also be added to the coop. If you choose to do so, make sure the chickens are not able to eat the insulation. It may need to be covered. Loose straw (not bales) may also be placed in the coop for added insulation. It is important to control the humidity in the coop so the straw does not mold, creating dangerous mold spores.
Ventilation can be increased by the addition of vents well above the roost. If vents are insufficient and the coop remains too humid, larger screened windows could be added. Also, the water source should not be placed in the coop itself as it contributes to the humidity level. Ideal humidity is 50-70%. An inexpensive hygrometer can be purchased to measure the level of humidity in the coop.
Provide a wide roost
A 2x4 turned wide side up creates a great roost. Birds will be able to cover their feet with feathers, preventing frostbitten toes.
Cover the run
Chickens do not like walking in the snow. Some may begrudgingly do so, but then are subject to getting wet (very dangerous for silkies/frizzles!). If possible, take some time to wrap the coop, including the top, in plastic. The plastic will keep out the snow and moisture, and hold in some extra heat. Keep in mind that snow is heavy and only cover the roof if it can support the weight of the snow. While you are fixing up the run, the addition of a few new perches or other toys will be appreciated by your bored, cooped up chooks.
Vaseline can be applied every few days to the comb and wattles for frostbite prevention. Note that frostbite is the result of moisture in the coops, which should be mitigated.
Access to fresh water
Proper hydration in just as important in the winter as it is the summer. A hydrated bird is better able to maintain its body temperature. Be sure that fresh, unfrozen water is available at all times. If no electricity is ran to the coop, the water must be checked and likely replaced several times a day. It may be easiest to bring the water inside the house at night and replace it first thing in the morning. If electricity is available, a bucket heater or aquarium heater plugged into a thermocube is very effective, especially when using nipple waterers (this is what I personally use).
Read more about keeping water from freezing in the winter here.
Feed and Treats
Feeding a small amount of scratch at bedtime will increase the birds internal temperature as they digest. Birds will also eat more feed in general during the colder months, so it is imperative to keep the feeders full.
A quick note on chicken sweaters. As cute as they may be, they are bad for your birds and should not be used. Chickens keep warm by fluffing their feathers, something they are unable to do with the sweater. Additionally, they prevent preening and dust bathing, and a rooster can easily get his spurs caught.