Although the changing of the leaves is a splendor to behold, we homesteaders see the process as something else altogether. A reminder that the cold temperatures of winter will be following very close behind.
November itself can prove to be quite a chilly month in and of itself. With that said, it doesn’t compare to the frigid and blustery days of December. That is why it is now that you really should be prepping your chicken coop to stand up to those cold, wintery days that are coming.
Keep in mind that these suggestions do not have to be done all in one or two days. By simply working on them throughout the month, by month’s end, you will have them dive in.
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Heating the Chicken Coop — Yay or nay?
When the November temperatures begin to drop, and we experience those first cold nights, we are reminded of what is to come quickly. And as such, many homesteaders and chicken-keepers find their mind turns to how to keep their chicken flock warm.
It is at this time when they begin to think of the possibility of adding a heat source, and thusly provide additional warmth to the coop.
When researching and reading pretty much any homesteading list, board, or group out there, you will find that this is one, if not the most hotly debated, topic for the new as the experience flock keeper.
The reason being that even with the most vigilant and cautious use of both heaters and heat lamps, there is still an excellent chance they can lead to an accident that will cost you not only your coop but possibly your entire flock.
As many know, a chicken coop has all the perfect ingredients for a quick and all-consuming fire. Adding together the contents of the bedding, the wood components of the coop itself, as well as all those feathers from you flock, and you can see that you have one major recipe for a tragic disaster.
Where I currently live, the winters are known to sometimes dip down into the single digits at times, and this being the first winter with my flock, I admit the idea of adding heat to my coop did bubble up into my thoughts. However, I have decided to forgo the concept in an effort to keep my flock as safe as possible.
The decision is something that you, and only you can make. But make sure to get all the facts first, and think on the idea long and hard before making any snap decisions to add electricity to your coop. Remember that your flock is relying on you for not only their health, but their safety as well.
Will My Chickens Get Cold?
Chickens, unlike we humans, do not feel cold in the same manner and, as such, they are great at dealing with extreme weather, including remarkably colder conditions. They manage this by the process of trapping air under their feathers.
This is why they naturally molt in early and mid-autumn so that when winter arrives, they will have plenty of new and healthy feathers that will work to keep them warm through the cold winter months.
When roosting in the colder weather, chickens survive by instincts that nature has seen fit to hardwire into their DNA from the very dawn of time. They will nestle down on their roost, and fluff up their feathers, making sure to cover and protect their feet.
They will then tuck their heads into and under their wings, which then serves to keep their comb protected. Finally, chickens typically run pretty warm by nature, so they will huddle up together, providing extra warmth to each member of the flock.
Even though your flock is very capable of taking care of themselves during the colder months, there are still a few steps you can take to help with their comfort and protect them in the process.
Be selective in the breeds that you keep. Not all breeds are necessarily cold hardy, as not all breeds are necessarily heat hardy. Do your research to make sure that the breed or breeds you select will be conducive to the temperatures of the area in which you live. Seek out the advice of fellow homesteaders in your area, who have been raising chickens, or even check with a local feed store. Many of the online hatcheries out there today are great at answering questions and giving advice on just these types of subjects, as well as many more.
Make sure to keep a check on the roosts that are provided for your flock. As a rule, it is suggested that there be at least 8-10 inches of roosting place per flock member—this, of course, depending on their size. It is also recommended that the roosts are flat, solid, and sturdy as well as clean and free from any type of mites. Round roosts, such as branches and such, are not recommended for chickens. Unlike other birds, they need to sit flat on their feet when roosting, not only to prevent various issues to their feet but to keep them warm during the winter months.
Your choice of bedding type plays a large part in keeping the winter coop warm, as well. Many individuals use sand in the warmer summer months, as this type of bedding aids in keeping the coop cool. However, when the temperatures begin to drop, sand can tend to be too cold, so as a result, many flock keepers have found very good results with the deep litter method for their winter bedding choice.
In many areas that experience frigidly freezing temperatures for most of the winter, or where the winter season last longer, sand may not be a viable choice for bedding. That is why a change in bedding type if a very good idea. If this is something that you are considering, get this done first thing—the earlier, the better.
Even though the temperatures may drop, your flock is still going to want the ability to get out of their coop, and enjoy their run when they want. It is highly suggested that in an effort to help protect your flock’s run from cold winds, the placing of some sort of windbreak is a good idea. Although you could plant bushes around the run, I find for my flock the addition of tarps zip-tied to the hardware cloth works very well. This is an excellent method, as when the weather starts to turn warmer, I simply snip the ties and take the tarps down. If your flock does not have a shaded run or yard area, you may choose to leave the tarps up to provide some much-needed shade.
This next one, I can not stress enough — do NOT dress up your chickens. You know what I mean — you’ve seen them on YouTube. Those cute chicks, dressed up in sweaters, waddling around and looking so cute, you just can’t stand it. You may think that supplying them with warm winter weather outwear would be doing them a service in helping to keep them warm, but the truth is that in actuality, you are not doing them good, but instead could very well be harming them. When you place any type of outwear on them, it prevents them from the ability to fluff out their feathers. This, believe it or not, will cause more a chance of them dying from the cold temperatures than merely allowing them to provide their own warmth as nature intended.
Be On The Guard For Frostbite
Although chickens are naturally equipped for dealing with lower temperatures to a point, when it comes to frostbite they are significantly at risk. Frostbite is caused by a combination of both unchecked damp conditions along with drafts present in the coop. For larger-combed chickens, as well as any member of the flock, frostbite is a serious possibility.
Your coop should have been checked for any possible existence of drafts in October. However, if you didn’t have the chance to get this step done, then its not too late to make sure to do it now. You must block up any and all holes that may exist along the lower two-thirds of your coop–from just above the flocks roosting level down to the ground or floor. Although it is true that any breezes that blow through the coop at this level during the summer are indeed very welcome, the opposite is true in winter months. It is essential to remember that those very same breezes at these levels during the winter are dangerous and can prove to be deathly fatal for your flock, especially so for its older members.
Even though it is crucial to block out any lower level drafts, it is just as vital to make sure that you have proper ventilation along with the upper third of the coop. When it comes to the movement of air throughout the coop, there is quite a difference between the much-needed ventilation and the whistling winds of winter blowing over and around your flock. When considering your coop’s ventilation, it is suggested that it be placed well above the level of your flock’s roosting bars. The suggested proper placement is where the walls meet the roof, if not higher, if possible.
Keep in mind that when using hardware cloth to cover any gaps against possible predators, take care not to block them altogether and to interfere with the necessary airflow. The ventilation is necessary as a means to help any moisture that is created by your flock’s breathing, as well as any ammonia created by their poop, the ability to rise and escape from the coop. Again, any moisture that builds up can lead to frostbite, and the build-up of ammonia can lead to respiratory conditions that can, in many cases, prove fatal.
It is suggested that you go into your coop, on a rainy day, and examine and check for any possible leaks. If you do, in fact, find that there is indeed a leak, no matter the size the leak may prove to be, fix it then and there. Do not wait! Not only will the extra moisture pose a possibility of frostbite for your birds, but any wet bedding in the coop will only serve as a variable breeding ground for harmful bacteria—a real chicken killer!
Even though it may look strange and uncomfortable, it is common for a chicken to place their head under their wing when they are roosting. This is nature’s way of them protecting their comb from the chilling cold temperatures. Even so, it is still a good practice that you regularly give them the once over, checking not only their combs for frost bite, but their wattles and feet as well. If you notice that they are showing signs of turning black, you most probably have a case of frostbite to deal with. This article on frostbite gives some great tips on how to handle this type of situation.
Keep The Mouse Outta The House
When old man winter arrives and the temperatures begin to dip, humans and chickens are not the only ones to feel the bite of the cold air. It is during this time of year that many flock keepers notice an increase in the rodent population around and in their coops. It is pretty much a given that, as a flock keeper, you’re not adding rodents to your list of responsibilities.
First off, you need to try to refrain from feeling like the situation is more significant than it is, and over-dramatizing it. New flock owners think that they have done something, or overlooked something, that has led to their new coops newest residents.
This is further from the truth. However, you also need to understand that the situation does need dealing with—sooner rather than later.
Other than the fact that no one wants to begin to think about having to deal with rodents, there is also quite simply the fact that they carry a whole host of diseases. When they decide they are going to take up house in your coop, they are most surely exposing your chickens to these dangerous and deadly diseases that may very well drastically impact the overall health of your flock members.
There has commonly been a belief that if you keep chickens, then you might as well expect to automatically be inundated with rodents, resulting in an all-out rodent infestation. This is simply not true. In colder months, rodents look for a warm place to hold up till spring and, as such, they are not picky or choosy about where they will reside. Many choose to infest a home, some an outbuilding, while others will choose a coop. It has nothing specifically to do with your flock—it is more about their coop.
One of the best measures that can be taken is that of prevention. You need to make sure that you regularly inspect your coop for any and all signs that you have or are in the process of getting an infestation. Quite simply put, the earlier you know you have a problem, the faster you can take care of it. Check out this article for five steps to securing your coop against rodents.
Rodents are attracted by both warmth and food. That is why it is crucial to prevent them from access to any and all food sources. Never underestimate their determination when it comes to food. You may think you have your feed locked up tighter than Fort Knox, but they WILL find a way into it — give time.
Now, if you find that you are already infested with rodents, you must decide how you will choose to eliminate them. Most methods are not that pleasant a choice, and quite honestly, this is pretty much a judgment call. Whichever option you choose, keep in mind that no matter how unpleasant rodents are, they are sentient beings.
Once you have your infestation taken care of, it is now that you may want to invest in an electronic trap. This option is more of a way of controlling the odd rodent here and there, in the hopes of preventing another infestation from occurring, rather than treating an already established infection.
High Protein In The Winter Months
Let’s face it, the coming of winter, the end of the molting cycle, predators on the prowl, and rodents prowling around in search of warmth—it is easy to see why fall can be one of the most stressful of all the seasons for any flock.
However, as their caretaker, you can help them through this challenging time by feeding them high protein foods. It is essential to know that the high protein foods should never be considered as taking the place of their regular feed, but more like an extra add treat for your flock during the winter months. And, as goes without mentioning—like all treats, they are to be given in moderation.
Unlike other birds in nature, your flock does not need much extra fat. For this reason, it is crucial that you not feed them any suet that contains excess animal fats. Most of the DIY recipes you see online are better served for the wild birds at your birdfeeder, rather than the members of your homestead flock. Studies have shown that high-fat levels can contribute to obesity issues in chickens just the same as it does in humans. As a result, serious illnesses can develop, some of which can cause sudden death.
As an alternative, look for high protein treats that are healthy and beneficial to your flock. Maybe try an option of some garden peas, which are 23% protein but have little to no fat.
Water is crucial as well—in fact, much more so than food when the temperatures dip. If you didn’t get a chance to make a plan already, make sure to now that will ensure your flock will have a constant supply of fresh, unfrozen water throughout the winter months.
Keep Down Any Celebrating
For chickens, one day is like the other — eat, poop, sleep, repeat. They live in their own little bubble and, as such, are not aware of most of what goes on around them, such as those days that we humans tend to celebrate. That is why when it comes to celebrations, we flock-keepers need to make sure that our flocks are not unnecessarily stressed out.
Although most holidays are observed in quiet, there are those select few that are much more loudly commemorated. This is why you need to make sure that your flock is sufficiently protected from any undue anxiety or stress on those louder days.
On those days when you know there will be the chance of a possibly loud celebration — such as fireworks — simply keep your flock locked up in their coop. It is a given they will not be too happy about this, but it is better than the alternative of being stressed or possibly injured during the festivities.
If you have friends or family over for a holiday get together, make sure that you instruct them to stay away from the flock and their coop. We all have the best intentions. However, accidents can and do happen, and in the case of chickens, it doesn’t take much to harm or injure one.
As you can see, with a little planning and patience, you will have your coop ready for the winter months in no time at all. You will appreciate the peace of mind, and your flock will enjoy their home that much more.
Tracy lives with her furry baby, Chigger, in a small, quaint, country town nestled within the Appalachian Mountain range.
A mere four years into her homesteading journey to obtain a simpler, more self-reliant lifestyle, she finds that she always has something to learn, and there is always something to be grateful for.
When not researching or writing, she can usually be found working on one of the many tasks that always seem to be needing done on her homestead, tending to her garden, or laughing at the many antics of her chickens, whom she has affectionately named the “feathery five,” as well as Chigger himself.
Meet the rest of the team here.