Chickens are hardy birds that adapt well to a wide range of temperatures if given the resources needed to keep themselves warm. In this article we’ll talk about a few basic ways to winterize your chicken coop, a few unique ideas to help your birds stay toasty through the coldest months, and how to keep your girls laying eggs year round.
Improving the winterization of your coop + a few more tips from the pros can help keep your chickens laying eggs productively all winter long.
Cover Ventilation Screens with Draft-Proof Panels
Like your house, your chicken coop may need seasonal weatherproofing. In hot summer months, large screened windows and doors help air flow through a coop, cooling it and improving air quality. In the winter, windows and door screens left exposed can result in dangerously cold temperatures inside the coop. To help your chickens keep warm and laying eggs through the winter, plan ways to cover and insulate large exposed areas of your coop.
For our chicken coop, we fit rigid foam sheets (designed to insulate garage doors) to fit over most of the screened panels in doors and windows (leave small openings for fresh air to circulate) . This easy upgrade in the fall takes two minutes to install but makes a huge difference in the temperature of the coop during the coldest nights.
TIP: Be sure and leave a few gaps for ventilation.
Prevent Coop Waterers from Thawing
If your coop has electricity, keeping water thawed is easy: Bucket heaters are an easy option- and for less energy use, we’ve found low-voltage birdbath deicers to be sufficient for keeping water thawed in a well-insulated coop.
Keeping your chicken coop’s waterer thawed during particularly cold snaps can be a challenge without electricity- but not impossible! Many chicken owners in climates that only have a few bitterly cold nights each year simply allow the water to freeze overnight and provide fresh water in the morning. For a solution that’s less work, check out our article on keeping horse troughs thawed in winter without electric heaters. Boost the effectiveness of that solution by harnessing the ambient heat of deep litter bedding (read on to learn more about this method).
Generate Natural Warmth with Deep Litter Bedding
Deep litter bedding is a coop-keeping practice borrowed from the equestrian world. Instead of doing a regular clean-out and replacement of soiled bedding, the deep litter method involves simply adding a layer of new bedding on top of soiled bedding. Putting down a fresh 1-3 inches of new bedding prevents odor from the underlying layer. Over the course of weeks or months, as several inches of bedding build up, lower levels of bedding begin to generate small amounts of heat. The nitrogen in chicken waste combined with the insulation of the upper layers of bedding begins to activate decomposition of the lower layers. As these lower layers begin the process of becoming compost, a low level of heat is generated. This heat can be helpful for providing natural ambient heating in your coop.
As long as the upper layers of bedding are fresh and sufficiently thick, odor/air quality in the coop is not affected. In spring, a full cleanout can be conducted and the process started over again.
Grazing Boxes and Cold-Weather Grasses
For most backyard chickens, kitchen scraps will be the only fresh greens they have access to it until spring. But if your chicken run gets some light, you can use grazing boxes and cold-weather grasses like oat grass to provide access to greens through much of the winter months. Read our separate article on building and maintaining chicken grazing boxes.
Building Cold-Weather Friendly Roosts
Chickens are most vulnerable to cold, frostbite, and hypothermia at night – especially when roosts are narrow. Why? Narrow roosts mean that instead of roosting on top of a surface- allowing their feathers to cover their feet – toes are curled around the roost, extending away from the warmth of feathers and body heat. This grip exposes toes to potential frostbite. Winterize your chicken coop by replacing any narrow roosts with a wider boards- such as the broad side of a 2 x 4.
Insulate, Insulate, Insulate.
Insulation is a fundamental and basic way to winterize your chicken coop- and it doesn’t have to be fancy! Scrap boards, poly-insulation, or foam can be attached to the interior walls of your chicken coop to help keep drafts out and warmth in. Save on adding coop insulation by checking out a Habitat for Humanity ReStore- where you can find donated building supplies for a fraction of the price of new. Leftover insulation is a common donation- and very affordable!
Spray Foam Gaps
A spray can of insulation foam can make a BIG difference keeping your coop warm and safe all winter.
The best way to determine how to better insulate your coop is to stand in your coop on a rainy, windy day, does water leak in? The entry of water is a red fleg that drafts enter via the same route. Mark the locations and return, when dry, the plug the gaps with spray foam insulation. Locating these vulnerable spots can help you winterize your coop and prolong its life. Any extra spray foam can be sprayed between wall panels to increase their insulative capacity.
Egg Laying + Winter Chicken Keeping
Of course, keeping your coop warm during cold winter months is only part of keeping your flock of hens laying eggs throughout the winter. In addition to applying these techniques to keep your coop warm and comfortable, one of the best techniques to keep your hens laying in the winter is by extending the daylight hours. Chickens stop laying eggs in the winter due not only to cold but also in response to the shortened amount of daylight during the winter when days are shorter.
Artificial lighting is very effective to keep hens laying in the winter – it’s how commercial egg farms consistently continue to meet demand during winter months. If full-spectrum light is provided in your coop that extends the hours of light from 6-7 hours to 12-14 hours, you can expect your hens to lay eggs all winter.
What You’ll Need:
Any light source that delivers full spectrum light in sufficient quantities should work for keeping hens laying in winter. For backyard sized coops, the cheapest setup is this one:
1. Clamp-on Light – mounted in an upper corner of the inside of the coop.
2. an LED Lightbulb formulated for plants – this takes the guesswork out of buying bulbs in various spectrums. Any light labeled as a grow light should emit light that will work for replicating daylight for your chickens.
3. Mechanical Timer – A timer can automatically turn lights on before dusk and flip them off a few hours after dark. Skip the computerized versions, this heavy-duty mechanical timer holds up much better to the rigors of life on a farm.
Set the timer to turn the interior coop light on from ab7 am 7am until full daylight, and again from dusk until 9 pm.
For larger coops, you can use multiple lights or a fluorescent shop light with one fluorescent tube of “cool” light and one fluorescent tube of “warm” light.
You’ll know it’s working if:
If you introduce lights midwinter, it may take a few weeks to get your first winter eggs. You’ll know you are well on your way to winter-laid eggs if, a few days after installing the light, your chickens are active and milling about the coop well after natural sunset.
In my experience, backyard flocks of chickens that are kept under light tend to produce about half as many eggs in the winter as they do in the summer, partly due to some hens not laying it all, while others lay less frequently under artificial light. (Breed seems to be a factor as well, as some breeds of chicken – and some individuals – will respond differently to the added light.)
Full Spectrum Light
You can experiment with the right amount of light to add to your coop. It should be bright enough to fool the birds’ bodies into thinking it’s daylight – so a dusty 60W bulb in the corner won’t be bright enough to have an effect.
I’ve had the best luck using fluorescent lighting – combining one daylight spectrum fluorescent light tube and one cool light spectrum fluorescent light tube into a standard shop light. Be sure that whatever light you choose includes a full spectrum of light – using only warm light, or only cool light is unlikely to effectively keep your hens laying in winter.
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