Winterize backyard coops to get flocks through coldest months
Small-scale poultry growers need to pay special attention to their birds' needs during the cold months
Part of responsible flock ownership is considering the welfare of birds during the coldest months of the year.
According to Colleen Carlson, University of Minnesota Extension educator, coop inspections and upgrades are required so that flocks don’t have a poorer quality of life during the winter.
“Old age, low body weight, or poor health can prevent birds from adapting well to cold weather and may lead to prolonged stress and eventually death,” said Carlson.
The average body temperature of a chicken is 106 degrees Fahrenheit, she said, and when poultry loses more heat than it can produce, the body temperature drops, leading to cold stress.
Signs that chickens may be cold are huddling together, holding feet to breasts or puffing feathers, according to Carlson. Most cases of frostbite affect a chicken’s comb, wattles and feet.
"These areas may become black or gray in color and feel brittle," she said, with the main causes of frostbite being high moisture in cold temperatures.
“So controlling moisture through airflow and manure management during the winter is critical,” said Carlson.
Petroleum jelly can be applied to chicken combs and wattles to help insulate them and prevent frostbite damage, but petroleum jelly does not treat frostbite, said Carlson.
Heavier breeds such as Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Ameraucana and Orpington are better at weathering cold temperatures. For mixed-breed flocks, Carlson recommends separating them by size or dominance during the winter.
“Heavier or more dominant breeds may peck on others and keep them away from the feed, water or roost,” she said. “As a result, chickens of lighter or less dominant breeds may not get what they need to maintain body weight, health or warmth.”
Preparing the coop
Preparing a coop is essential to protecting chickens from precipitation, wind and predators. Carlson provides several steps that can be taken to make a coop ready for winter.
Roosts offer an elevated space for chickens to rest overnight, which keeps them off the cold floor, said Carlson.
“While roosting, chickens can comfortably lay on their feet to warm them,” she said. “Roosts should provide enough space for the chickens to fluff their feathers and lay together for warmth without overcrowding.”
Generally, roosts should start at least 12-inches above the floor of the coop and provide 9-inches of room per chicken, Carlson recommends, but the exact height and dimension of the roost will depend on the size of your coop. The best material to use is wooden 2 x 4- or 2 x 2-inch boards, she said.
“Avoid using metal, plastic or other materials that retain the cold and may cause frostbite,” said Carlson.
Manage drafts and insulate coops
Inspect coops for holes and cracks that allow air to flow freely in, and seal those spots to not only prevent cold drafts, but stop rodents from entering the coop over winter. Carlson said if possible, unfinished coops should be insulated.
“Make sure the insulation is closed off to prevent chickens from pecking or scratching at it,” she said.
Provide supplemental heat
When temperatures fall below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, provide supplemental heat at the height of the nest boxes or lower rung of the roost, said Carlson.
“Placing a thermometer on the wall at each of these heights can help you track coop temperatures,” she said.
Radiant heaters, which include brooder plates, panels and hanging heaters, are able to heat the birds but not the surrounding space. But operators should only use approved products for chickens and livestock, and read fire risk warnings and instructions before installing.
Thermostats can be found in heaters or otherwise bought separately to manage use and reduce electricity costs, said Carlson. Heat lamps are another option, but should also be used with safety in mind.
“Never hang a heat lamp by the cord,” said Carlson. “Lamps with a cage around the bulb can help prevent the bulb from contacting the bedding if the lamp were to fall.”
All wires should be kept away from poultry, water and flammable litter to prevent shocks or fires, said Carlson, and extension cords should only be used on a short term basis.
“Do not use them to run power to your coop,” she said of extension cords. “Always work with a professional electrician when installing electricity in your coop.”
Keep coops ventilated
Air exchange within a coop is key to preventing moisture build-up and poor air quality due to ammonia. High moisture in a coop, combined with cold temperatures can lead to condensation, which can cause frostbite, said Carlson.
Examples of ventilation are partially opening a south-facing window, installing roof vents, placing burlap over open windows or opening a small door or window on warmer winter days.
“If you smell ammonia or notice moisture collecting on objects or windows within the coop, you need to increase ventilation and clean up manure to help remove moisture,” said Carlson.
Manage manure and bedding
According to Carlson, chicken manure is 70% water.
“Which makes manure management key to controlling moisture in your coop,” she said. “Manure tends to build up under roosts and other perching sites. Installing trays to collect manure below roosts can make cleaning easy.”
One option Carlson gives is to deeply bed the coop with 4 to 6 inches of straw or shavings.
“As the top layer becomes soiled, stir the bedding to allow the manure to move to the bottom. Then, add fresh bedding to the top,” she recommends. “This option will provide some natural heat as the manure decomposes but requires a deep cleaning in the spring. If you plan to bed deep, placing a 6- to 8-inch kickboard around the doorway can prevent bedding from spilling out of the entry.”
Feeding and water
Continue to feed chickens a normal, balanced diet through the winter, as it plays a key role in feather and egg production. Carlson proposes increasing a flock’s feed intake up to 25% during cold weather.
Access to grit throughout the winter months should be provided for chickens, as grit helps chickens break down feed for digestion. Snow cover and limited outdoor access during winter prevent chickens from scavenging for rocks and other materials that support digestion.
Scratch grains can encourage activity within a flock and reduce boredom, said Carlson.
“Digestion of scratch grains also produces heat, so providing scratch grains before roosting can help chickens stay warm on cold nights,” she said.
Without water, chickens will stop eating. To prevent water from freezing there are several commercially available products such as plastic, heated founts, heated bases, heated dog dishes and more.
“These dishes should be partially covered to prevent birds from stepping into the dish or drowning,” said Carlson.
Nest box management and egg laying
Nest boxes should be kept clean throughout the winter, and eggs should be collected as soon as possible. Carlson said that most chickens finish laying eggs before noon.
“While freshly laid eggs are 109 degrees Fahrenheit, they are largely made of water and are prone to freezing,” she said. “Always inspect your eggs when you collect them and discard any with cracked shells to prevent foodborne illness.”
As daylight shortens, chickens may need supplemental lighting to encourage egg production.
For optimal egg production, chickens should have about 14 hours of light daily, said Carlson. Using a regular lamp and a timer, supplemental lighting should be provided in the morning hours prior to sunrise.
“Chickens can not see well in the dark,” she said. “If you add light after sunset, the chickens will not be able to find their roost when the light turns off. The chickens may spend the night on the cold floor.