As autumn gives way to winter, you have to be mindful of the coming weather extremes if you keep a flock of chickens. Before you incorporate a heating unit into your chickens' coop, you'll want to take steps to prepare their winter home. Basic maintenance and proper placement of the coop will serve to protect the flock from frostbite, hypothermia and possibly even death, often without supplemental heat. It is important to understand when to use a coop heater and the risks involved.
About the Chickens
Cold-hardy breeds like Australorps, Orphingtons, Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks naturally adapt as the weather cools. They may only need petroleum jelly applied at night to their sensitive feet, combs and wattles for protection from frostbite. Even so, you'll do well to fortify such breeds' coops. Chickens who aren't particularly cold-hardy, such as Silkies, are especially reliant on a dry, warm and clean environment. It's important that you prepare such a habitat ahead of time rather than at the outset of a cold snap. Chicks as young as a day old need to be indoors in a brooder with adjustable heat lamps. Temperature at day 1 should be 95 degrees Fahrenheit; you'll lower the temperature 5 degrees each week until you achieve 70 degrees. By 12 weeks, the chicks will be fully feathered and can make the transition to an outdoor coop. Check on them, as you would older chickens, two to three times each day.
About the Coop
Inspect the coop when you clean the litter and the chickens are out of it. Identify necessary repairs, such as loose boards and draft holes that can let in cold air. The roof should be watertight; doors and windows must align evenly with the walls. If the coop is in the middle of a field or yard, place it closer to a building or bushes that will serve as windbreaks. Instead of changing the birds' litter frequently, consider using the deep-litter method during the winter. After the coop is fully cleaned and necessary repairs are made, add several inches of wood shavings and fresh straw. This thick layer of litter helps keep in heat. Remove waste regularly to prevent it from freezing and to inhibit the buildup of bacteria. Add shavings and straw as needed.
Insulation will help hold heat, but too much could promote dampness, which makes the chickens cold as well as harbors viruses and bacteria. Place insulation between drywall or plywood so the chickens cannot access and peck at the material. Place plastic wind screening on windows, one layer inside and one outside. Keep ventilation windows near the roof of the coop open to allow the circulation of air without causing a direct draft onto the chickens. Humidity levels should remain around 40 percent to 60 percent so the atmosphere is not too damp. Shovel snow away immediately to keep the coop warm and dry, and to encourage the chickens to come outside for exercise and fresh air.
Loose electrical outlets, frayed wiring, improper installation, improper placement and incorrect usage are all potential fire hazards. Running a heater or 250-watt bulb consistently is not only costly, it's risky for the chickens. If they become reliant on the warmth and a power outage occurs, the birds are ill-prepared for the sudden freezing temperatures; in this case, you would need to bring them indoors to a garage or basement. Two 40- to-60 watt lights are an alternative -- not to generate tremendous warmth but to keep intense cold at bay in the worst periods of winter. The bulbs' secondary purpose is to supplement light for egg-laying hens.
Since chickens must always have access to clean water, allowing the water to freeze will not do. Instead of heading out to the coop multiple times a day to refill the water, purchase or make your own water heaters or fountains. Heated dog bowls are popular, though you must use double-wall galvanized steel rather than plastic material.
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Pam Smith has been writing since 2005. In addition to her work for Demand Media, her articles have been published online at CBS Local. She also wrote for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book's Literary Map while earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the Pennsylvania State University. She is currently an editorial assistant for Circulation Research.