As colorful fall leaves cascade to the ground, temperatures drop, and chilly winds pick up, winter is rapidly approaching. With it comes our first snow of the season, an excitement for the holidays, and much preparation around the farm and yard.
If you care for chickens, that means it's time to winterize the coop. The cold season can be hard on your flock and they'll need a place – especially at night – to huddle together, keep warm, conserve energy, and continue to produce eggs.
Here are several helpful tips for how to keep your chickens happy, healthy and productive through winter.
A spot in the sun
If you're just starting with chickens, plan ahead when you're picking a spot to place your coop. Choose a place in the yard where it will receive natural daylight for the chickens and afternoon sun to keep the snow melted off. The more daylight the chickens receive, the more eggs they produce. It takes between 14-16 hours of daylight to lay an egg. A light on a timer for six hours (2 a.m. to 8 a.m.) can help imitate daylight and help increase production.
Another consideration when placing your coop is choosing a spot without extreme wind and not under an awning or anything that will drip rain or snow onto the coop.
Eggs or no eggs?
When you're winterizing your coop, the first question you should be asking yourself is this—Do you want to continue getting eggs or give your chickens a break for the winter?
If you want to continue getting eggs, the most important element is light. Experts recommend 14-16 hours of light to keep chickens laying eggs. A little bit of heat is helpful to keep up productivity as well. However, make sure to keep the heat low. Too much heat in the coop can send your chickens into an early molt.
To heat or not to heat
Outside of helping with egg productivity, chickens do not need additional heating in the winter. Chickens produce quite a bit of body heat, plus they grow extra down under their feathers that will keep them warm.
While it’s not necessary, you may choose to add heating anyway. If you do, we recommend heat lamps or heat pads designed for chicken coops. If you go with the heat lamp, make sure it is secure and cannot fall into the bedding to potentially cause a fire. Also, avoid small space heaters. These tend to be a fire waiting to happen.
Protect & ventilate
During the winter, your chickens will need both adequate ventilation and protection from the cold wind. To keep the draft down, cover any windows, screens or large sections of wire with clear plastic. Be sure to place the plastic on the outside of the coop to prevent the chickens from tearing it off (and eating it!), and leave a few inches open at the top for proper ventilation.
High openings in the coop allow fresh air in, while still protecting your chickens from direct drafts. They also allow unwanted dust, moisture and more to escape. Without adequate air flow, condensation will remain in the coop and can lead to sickness (and even frostbite) in your chickens. It’s also possible for ammonia to build up through the manure, which can be harmful to their lungs. Remember, an air tight coop is not good for the chickens.
Keep it clean & dry
Chickens spend more time in the coop during the winter than they do in the summer. It’s tougher and there’s more waste, but do your best to keep things clean.
The biggest issue is keeping the coop dry. Wet coops, especially those bedded in straw or hay, invite mites or lice, much more than a coop bedded with pine shavings. Mites love to live in the hollow stems of straw or hay, plus shavings and bedding pellets are, overall, more absorbent.
Another way to keep your chickens clean and warm in the winter is to deep bed the bottom of the coop. Six or more inches of pine shavings on the coop floor helps insulate it against the cold ground. Your chickens will dig in the thick bedding, helping to keep it fairly fresh. As they dig and turn the bedding, it brings a new layer to the top and composts everything at the same time.
A layer of pine shavings will also benefit the chicken run, keeping it clean and dry as well.
Room on the roost
Make sure there is enough room for all your chickens to get on the roost at night. This will help keep their feet from freezing. Not only does it keep their feet off the ground or floor of the coop, but their feathers also naturally cover their feet while they sit on the roost.
Follow these helpful tips and your chickens will have a safe and comfortable winter. Visit your local IFA Country Store for additional advice and to find everything you need to keep your flock happy and healthy through the upcoming winter.
Information for this article was provided by Maureen Goodrich, Logan IFA Country Store; Sandie Shupe, Poultry, Rabbit and Animal Health Manager, Ogden IFA Country Store; and Jill Singleton, Bagged Feed Category Manager, IFA.