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 I’ll share a few tips to insulate your chicken coop, winterize your chicken keeping practices, and adjust lighting- all to help keep your chickens warm and happy even through the coldest months of winter- naturally!
Yes, You can Collect Eggs All Winter, Here’s How
You may be resigned to not collecting eggs in the winter months- but it’s not only possible, it’s EASY to get hens to keep laying in November, December, January, and even February. We’ll start with these coop winterization tips, then I’ll share some of my best secrets for keeping hens regularly laying eggs through the darkest point of the year.
Insulating your chicken coop might seem like a huge job, but it’s actually an easy one-person DIY- and you don’t have to do every item on this chicken coop winterization checklist at once.
Pick one or two ways to add insulation each season, and by next winter you’ll have a toasty coop ready to keep hens laying all winter.
Insulating your Coop on a Budget
Most of us don’t have a lot of money to spend on our chicken keeping hobby, but insulating your chicken coop doesn’t have to be an expensive project. A chicken coop is a great place to use up leftovers from other construction projects, use a mishmash of different materials, and repurpose items found at thrift stores, flea markets, or even recycling centers.
First, Cover or Partially Cover Wire Screens
Like your house, your chicken coop may need seasonal weatherproofing to be better insulated for winter wind and chill.
In hot summer months, large screened windows and doors help improve airflow through a coop, cooling it, improving flock health, and boosting air quality. In the winter, if these windows and door screens are left exposed, all that moving air can result in dangerously cold temperatures inside the coop.
The first step in winterizing your coop should be to block these giant drafts and add an insulating cover. You’ll still want to allow for some air flow to maintain good air quality inside your chicken coop, but large openings should be 75% or more covered with an insulating layer.
For our chicken coop, we fit these rigid foam sheets (the kind 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 coop winterization step in the fall takes two minutes to install but makes a huge difference in the temperature of the coop during the coldest nights.
Remember: Be sure and leave room for ventilation. You can do this by offsetting foam insulation panels to leave a gap or by using a hole saw to cut small 1″ holes in the panel.
Keeping Chicken Waterers from Freezing in Winter
If your coop has electricity, keeping water thawed is easy: Bucket heaters are an easy option. For even less energy use, we’ve found low-voltage birdbath deicers to be sufficient for keeping water thawed in the winter in an insulated coop.
Keeping Chicken’s Water Thawed Without Electricity
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 lower stress solution, check out our article on keeping horse troughs thawed in winter without electric heaters.
Boost the effectiveness of all of these winter chicken watering options by harnessing the ambient heat of deep litter bedding (read on to learn more about this method).
Naturally Keep Your Coop Warm in Winter through Deep Litter Bedding
Deep litter bedding is a coop-keeping practice borrowed from the equestrian world. To utilize the heat-generating power of deep litter coop bedding, use this practice instead of your typical coop cleaning method:
The Deep Litter Method:
- Stop sweeping, scooping, and disposing/composting used chicken litter beginning in late summer.
- Instead, when the coop develops and odor and needs cleaned, cover the existing bedding with 1-3 inches of new wood shavings. Repeat as needed, adding shavings without removing the underlying layer.
Each additional layer of bedding insulates the air in the coop from the odors beneath, so the coop stays fresh and clean while an important process begins to occur in the lowest levels of bedding.
Over the course of weeks or months, as several inches of bedding build-up, the bottom layers of bedding begin to generate small amounts of heat as the composting process begins. The nitrogen in chicken waste combined with the warm blanket of insulation provided by the upper layers of bedding begins to activate the decomposition of the lower layers.
In deep litter bedding, as the lower layers begin the process of becoming compost, a small amount of heat is naturally generated, which rises and warms the coop. 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.
While this method does not involve adding insulation, there’s a synergistic process that can occur if the coop is well insulated: An insulated chicken coop keeps the litter a little warmer, which keeps the composting process more active, which generates a bit more heat, which gets held in by the insulated coop and further supports the thermal warming of deep litter bedding.
Keep Hens Eating Well in Winter Using 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.
Providing these fresh nutrients (and something to do!) an help keep chickens thriving through the cold winter months.
Read our separate article on building and maintaining chicken grazing boxes.
Modify your Roosts for Cold-Weather
Chickens are most vulnerable to cold, frostbite, and hypothermia at night – especially when roosts are narrow.
Because narrow roosts mean that instead of roosting on top of a surface- allowing their feathers to cover and insulate their feet – toes are curled around the roost, extending away from the warmth of feathers and body heat.
A night spent with a tight grip on a narrow pole exposes toes to potential frostbite.
Winterize your chicken coop by replacing any narrow roosts with wider boards- such as the broad side of a 2 x 4.
Add Creative Insulation to Your Coop
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 money while adding coop insulation by checking out a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. There, you can find donated building supplies for a fraction of the price of new. Leftover insulation is a common donation to lumber yard resale stores- and it’s often sold for 80-90% less than big box stores charge for new insulation.
When I insulated my 100-year-old chicken coop, pictured above, I simply repurposed 1″ plywood sheets leftover from another project. The density alone added significant protection and warmed the coop significantly.
Block Winter Drafts with Spray Insulation
A spray can of insulation foam can make a BIG difference in 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 flag that drafts enter via the same route. Mark the locations and return, when dry, tp plug the gaps with spray foam insulation.
Locating these vulnerable spots can help you winterize your coop and prolong its life. (Spray foam doesn’t keep, so empty any leftover into the space between wall panels and insulation panels, to increase their insulative capacity).
How to Get Hens to Lay Eggs in Winter
Of course, keeping your coop warm during cold winter months is only part of keeping your flock of hens actively 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 mostly 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 meet demand during winter months. If full-spectrum light is provided in your coop that extends the amount of time that chicken’s bodies experience daylight to 12-14 hours, you can expect your hens to lay some eggs all winter (although production will be slower than spring or summer egg laying rates).
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 most budget friendly 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 coop dust and the rigors of life on a farm.
Set the timer to turn the interior coop light on from about 7 am to 9 am, and then again from 4 pm to 9 pm. Doing so will emulate the full sun of a 12 hour summer day.
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 in midwinter, it may take a few weeks to get your chickens to lay eggs in the winter. 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 with creative chicken keeping practices like this, 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 for Winter Chicken Coops
You can experiment with the right amount of light to add to your coop to get your chickens to lay eggs in the winter. It should be bright enough to fool the birds’ bodies into thinking it’s daylight. 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 to be effective at getting chickens to lay eggs in the winter.
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