Fall has arrived, and we are finally seeing cooler temps. That means that winter prep is officially underway. I’m about halfway through building a new wood shed, and my husband has been hauling and splitting wood for days. Along with wood storage, getting the garden put to bed, and general home maintenance, one of the big projects is prepping the chicken coop for winter.
Here in Southwest Colorado, our current nighttime temps are around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and our first freeze could come any day now, so it’s time to make sure our chickens are ready to face the cold days ahead.
How Cold is Too Cold for Chickens?
The funny thing about chickens is that, for the most part, they handle the cold better than the heat. And, if you really think about it makes sense. They are, after all, dressed in lovely down coats. There are no definitive rules about how cold is too cold. We have days that get below zero in the dead of winter, and last year, we had several weeks that never got above single digits, but we have never lost a chicken to the cold. Some breeds do handle the cold better than others, and you can visit the link below to see our list of the cold, hardy breeds that make up our flock.
Prepping the Chicken Coop For Winter
Chickens can tolerate subfreezing temperatures, but keeping your chickens warm through the winter will help them stay healthy and productive in the egg department all season long. It’s essential to protect your flock from precipitation, wind, and predators year-round, and there are several steps you can take to ensure that your chickens are comfortable no matter how cold the temperatures dip.
Particularly if you live in an area that gets significant snowfall, your fall coop maintenance may be the last proper cleaning your coop gets till spring. Now is the time to remove and thoroughly clean the roost bars, wash the insides of the nesting boxes, replace nesting box liners, and generally clean everything from top to bottom. Be sure to wipe down all surfaces and disinfect everything. You can do this with a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water. Do not use bleach or harsh chemicals, as these can be harmful to your flock.
Provide Ample Roosting Space
Roosts give your flock an elevated resting place and keep them off the cold floor. The general rule of thumb is that your roosts should be a minimum of 12” above the coop floor and have at least 9” of space per bird. Avoid using metal, plastic, or other materials that retain the cold. These types of materials could cause frostbite.
Wooden 2” x 4”- or 2” x 2” boards work the best. Never use boards or dowels that are less than 1” wide. Narrow roost bars can cause injury to the birds, and roosts that are more than 4” wide can make it difficult for them to get their back toe around the board. We expanded our flock this spring, so it was essential as part of our winter prep to ensure that we had ample roost space, which included adding extra roost bars.
Mind the Draft
Closing your coop up tight for the winter can seem like the right move. The reality, though, is that frostbite is more likely to be caused by excessive moisture and dampness within the coop than by the actual temperature itself. Ensuring good ventilation is crucial to prevent a build-up of moisture inside the coop.
Just remember, ventilation is not the same thing as a draft. You want to make sure that your coop is draft-free and that ventilation is placed high above the heads of your hens so that moisture can escape without causing an unnecessary chill.
There are pros and cons to the deep litter method of coop keeping, but we find it to be an ideal solution to winter warming. Providing your flock with a layer of bedding that is at least 6” deep will help add insulation to the coop. Additionally, the bedding at the bottom will begin the composting process with the deep litter method, adding heat from below. Just make sure that the bedding stays dry and opt not to leave water inside the coop. The Chicken Chick has a wonderful post on how to get this method correct for your flock.
Avoid the Ice
One of the biggest hurdles we faced when we first got our flock was keeping their water from freezing. We bought a heated water dish from Tractor Supply, which was a huge disaster for us. The cord was only about 12’ long, requiring us to bring in extension cords. And it could only be filled from the bottom, requiring us to dump icy water everywhere each time we wanted to fill it up—a huge no. So, we decided to DIY a water heater, which was the perfect solution. Whether you choose to buy or DIY, as fall marches on, inspect your water heater and ensure it is in good working order.
Watch the Light
This is a slightly controversial topic, but we’ll cover it, and you can decide on the best procedure for your flock. For optimal egg production, chickens require about 14 hours of daylight. To minimize an unwanted drop in egg production, you can provide supplemental lighting and use timers to artificially extend your chicken's day.
The drawback to this practice is that it can put additional strain on the chicken's body by trying to utilize the energy needed to keep warm to produce eggs instead. It can also shorten the overall time that your hen's body can produce eggs for. With our flock, we do not add supplemental light, but we did select breeds that are well known for winter laying. If you are utilizing additional lighting, be sure to test your system well in advance.
Inspect the First Aid Kit
This one is not necessarily part of your coop maintenance, but it should still be part of your overall fall flock care. As temperatures dip, your birds will likely spend more time “cooped” up and could be prone to the types of injuries that result from boredom. Things like pecking can increase when the flock gets combined. You’ll also want to make sure you have everything you need to treat your flock for frostbite should temps get really cold. Stay tuned for our DIY Chicken Frostbite Balm in the coming weeks, or join our emailing list to stay in the loop!
Getting Winter Prep Right
Your winter chicken coop prep will vary depending on where you live and your local climate. The good news is that no matter where you live, winter coop prep and chicken care don’t require much extra effort. As long as you can add an extra layer of bedding, keep their water thawed, and give them extra nutrition, you and your flock will make it through the winter with ease. Remember, chickens are well adapted to cold weather. Never add extra heat to the coop unless absolutely necessary, and make sure their diet includes extra protein to make up for the loss of bugs that they would typically eat during warmer months.
What are your top winter coop prep tips? Tell us all about them in the comments below and until next time,