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Are My Chickens Warm Enough?

Updated: Sep 7, 2020


Here in Massachusetts, temperatures fluctuate. (Don't like the weather in New England? Wait 10 minutes!) Despite some 45 degree nights, there have been some nights well below freezing. As a first year chicken-mama, I admit I've been really nervous.

Will my ladies be too cold? Will they get frostbite? Even if I know they're warm enough to survive, how do I make sure they aren't miserably shivering in their roost all night?

So I did some research. A LOT of research. I was surprised to learn that cold temperatures are NOT a major concern for chickens like they would be for us humans in the same outdoor scenario. Chickens bodies stay incredibly warm during cold weather, because they are basically wrapped up in their own zero degree down sleeping bag every night. For this reason, supplemental heat is a very unnecessary (and potentially unsafe) idea. This is due to fire hazard and because birds who get used to a supplemental heat source could die of exposure if it suddenly failed.

Turns out the most important factors to consider to ensure your chickens warmth are what I call THE THREE B'S: BREED, BEDDING, AND BREATHABILITY. Allow me to elaborate:

BREED: Since chickens can't fly south for the winter, the first way to ensure a warm flock is to be sure you get chickens that are built for cold winters in the first place. The internet can provide plenty of additional information about other winter hardy breeds, but we chose Black Australorps, Barred Rocks, (a.k.a. Plymouth Rocks) and Silver laced Wyandottes. All three breeds are known to be cold weather hardy, friendly, and good egg layers. Other factors that make a breed cold hardy are shorter combs (less likely to get frostbite) and "thick" birds with some insulating bulk on their frames (no twiggy chicks up in this flock!)

BEDDING: Chicken poop contains water. Water creates condensation. Too much condensation creates a problem. (More on that below.) The best kind of bedding for your coop absorbs excess moisture, prevents growth of harmful bacteria, and allow for natural breakdown of waste.

As for types of bedding, there are many, but my favorites are straw (not hay-I ready that hay retains too much moisture and can encourage mold) pine shavings, or sand. For straw and shavings, give the deep litter method a try: Instead of removing waste from the coop in winter, turn the top layer like compost when it gets too poop-laden, and add more bedding. Each time I add bedding, I sprinkle this fantastic, organic product called "Sweet PDZ" which helps further absorb moisture and keep odors at bay. A few folks even said to add scratch treat or veggies to the fresh bedding, to encourage the chickens to forage and turn it themselves. The plant based organic matter accelerates the composting effect and creates more heat. (I'm not sure how I feel about that part. Calls to mind the old adage, "Never s*#t where you eat." Maybe if the coop were bigger...I dunno.)

Anyway, so the other surprisingly great bedding option is SAND. Like the play sand you get at the big box stores in bags. Or try your local landscaping center for larger amounts. Sand in the coop and run, 6-8 inches deep, is super absorbent, drains well, discourages growth of toxins, and, the best part-you can scoop it like a cat box! Get a sturdy garden fork. Zip tie some 1/4" hardware cloth around it, and voila! Your own chicken poop scoop! (This was a great tip I read on website! Thanks for that one, Chicken Chick!)

BREATH-ABILITY: The last, and perhaps most important part of keeping happy chickens in winter is breathability. AKA: ventilation. (I know, I know, but it had to have a "B")

As we said above, too much condensation in the coop is BAD. Excess moisture creates a whole host of problems, including bacteria and mold. But in winter, the worst concern is FROSTBITE. Extra moisture is created from the chicken's breathing, keeping water in the coop, (smaller coops especially) and chicken waste. Ever sleep in a tent in winter? All that moisture, without proper ventilation, will condense on combs and feet and freeze. This will create the telltale white areas of frost nip, or painful and dangerous black frostbite.

So how do you prevent breathability problems? Make sure you have PLENTY of ventilation in the roof area (eaves) of the coop, while making sure there are no drafty spots down at "chicken level". My coop is a small cube, with a four sided roof. (See photo-this was before we added on the egg box.)

I left two of the eaves open and blocked two with insulation. I made sure to keep the ventilation even on both sides so that a swirling updraft effect won't chill the girls on gusty nights.

As an added layer of warmth, I covered a rectangle of 1/8 inch plywood with metallic bubble-wrap type insulation and hung it from the ceiling above the roosting space. I hung the board at a slight upward angle. My theory was this would give the girls added warmth in their sleeping quarters by holding heat from their bodies closer to them in the coop, but the angle still allows the moist air to escape to the vented roof. So far, it has worked like a charm. Even on the coldest nights (Several nights have been in the low teens. And upon checking the coop in the early morning, there are no signs of interior condensation or frost nipped chickens.)

What methods do you use to keep your chickens warm in winter?

Would love to hear tips and tricks which have worked for others!

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