Helena Ricketts is a blogger, freelance writer, and artist. She cares for dogs, cats, hamsters, and chickens.
Winterizing a chicken coop should actually start during construction. Some of the same things that will keep the chickens cooler in the summer will also help to keep them warm in the winter chill. A few extra minutes of thought at the time of construction can really save you time and help eliminate the potential for trouble with your flock once winter temps have set in.
Some chicken breeds do better in colder climates, so it is a good idea to do your homework before bringing the first chick home. The Rode Island Red, Barred Rock and White Rock are three of my favorite breeds that do very well in cold climates. They are cold hardy and can withstand drops in temperature to zero or below.
It is never necessary to bring chickens indoors when the temperature drops, nor is it necessary to keep any source of heat out in the coop. Most breeds of chicken will generally do fine in a coop that is well built with winter's chilly air in mind. There are a few things to watch for that will tell you that your chickens are in distress, but as a general rule, chickens adapt very well to changes in weather and temperature.
The Best Ways to Insulate and Winterize a Chicken Coop
Straw Is Your Friend
Straw is a natural form of insulation. The center of the stems are hollow and contain air. It will retain warmth and provide your chicken coop with the needed extra insulation to help keep the chickens warm.
You'll want to provide a thick layer of straw on the floor of the coop. I spread mine about 10 inches to 12 inches deep when I first put it down on the coop floor. The chickens will actually end up packing it down so you'll want to add more as the winter progresses.
If you have gaps in the walls of your coop, you can use straw bales to insulate the walls. Just stack them up against the wall. Straw creates a natural wind barrier that will also help to keep the inside of the coop warm.
Tarps and Wood Are Better Than Nothing
If you don't have straw readily available, you can create an extra barrier between the exterior coop walls and the wind with plastic tarps or sheets of wood. One thing to remember is that this will not provide any insulation, only a wind barrier.
Insulate During Construction
If you are building your own chicken coop, there are a few things that you can do to insulate it during the building process. Insulation will not only help keep it warmer in the winter, it will also help keep the coop cooler in the heat of summer.
One way is to construct interior and exterior walls. We did this on our coop during construction. The exterior wall boards were hung vertically while the interior wall boards were installed horizontally. You can even go as far as installing some type of insulation between the walls with things like old newspaper to give it that extra layer.
Use an Eco-Roof on Your Coop
An eco-roof is an interesting concept that not only provides an extra layer of insulation to your coop, it will also provide a place to plant a garden. An eco-roof is an easy addition to any coop that has an angled roof. We have one on our coop and planted sugar pumpkins on it last year for the chickens to enjoy a nice pumpkin treat every now and then.
The dirt on this type of roof actually cools the coop in the summertime and helps to retain heat in the winter. Hot air rises so a lot of the warmth in a coop goes right out through the roof, just like it would in your home. A few inches of dirt will really make a huge difference in the temperature inside the coop.
Use a Winter Waterer to Prevent Water From Freezing
Laying hens require over four cups of water per day in order to stay productive. Of course, each hen varies in the amount of water that they need each day. Investing in a waterer that is heated to keep it from freezing is an essential part of winterizing your coop. It will save you from having to make multiple trips per day to change the water because it is frozen and will ensure that the hens have all of the water that they want or they need even when the temperature falls below freezing.
Winterizing a Chicken Coop: Common Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes but unfortunately for many first time chicken owners, those mistakes can be fatal. Like I said before, chickens are hardy animals but they can't fight nature and an inexperienced owner's mistakes at the same time. That is why it is important to never make these winterizing mistakes.
- Never, EVER use a heat lamp inside a chicken coop! The inside of the coop is one of the most flammable areas around. A chicken can easily knock a heat lamp down into their bedding (or litter) and easily start a fire. This happens quite often and entire flocks of birds are killed in coop fires.
- Never seal off the ventilation completely. If you are using tarps or wood, never create an airtight, or close to air tight, environment inside of a chicken coop. There are a couple of reasons for this.
- Condensation is your enemy. When a chicken exhales, they exhale moisture just like humans do. If they are inside of an air tight environment, the moisture condensates on everything inside the coop, including the chicken. This can create a prime environment for frostbite on their combs, legs and waddles.
- Ammonia build-up is not good. Chickens poop inside their coop in addition to anywhere else they go. If there is no air circulation inside the coop, the chickens will be breathing in the ammonia that they have created. Unfortunately, this can make a chicken sick, even causing death if the concentration is high enough for an extended period of time.
How to Know If Your Chickens Are Too Cold
There are telltale signs of when a chicken is in distress and with good observation and husbandry practices, you will hopefully never see any of these.
- Dark spots or color change on the comb or waddle. This can be a tell-tale sign of frostbite in the winter time.
- Eyes aren't "sparkling" or are cloudy. This could indicate that the chicken is sick.
- The chicken has lost weight. Keeping an eye on the weight of your chickens in the winter time is important. Chickens will drop weight when they are ill.
- Loss of curiosity, not moving around much. Chickens are curious creatures by nature. If you have a chicken that is not acting very "chicken-like" you can guess that the chicken is sick.
Chickens can catch colds just like we can. It's important in the winter time to make sure that your chicken coop is winterized properly to keep your chickens from becoming ill.
What to Feed Your Chickens in the Winter to Help Keep Them Warm
Believe it or not, there are certain things that you can feed to your chickens that will help them make it through the winter easier. I have found that by feeding my flock certain things through the winter, they are happier and show no signs of distress. I always add these things to my chicken's regular feed to help make winter time a bit more tolerable.
Any type of whole grain is an excellent addition to winter time feed. Since it takes more energy for a chicken's body to process whole grains, their body temperature will rise to not only help with processing the grain in digestion but will also help keep them warmer. This is also the reason why it is not a good idea to feed chickens whole grains in the hot and humid summer months.
- Whole Oats: I had always been told that you should only feed your chickens whole oats in the colder months of the year because it actually warms their body temperature. There's no scientific proof of this that I'm aware of but since oats are 70% carbs, 15% fat and 15% protein and 617 calories per cup, it would definitely help with a body's natural insulation which is fat.
- Corn: Hopefully of the non-GMO type! Adding extra corn to a chicken's diet in the winter time will also help with keeping them warm. Corn is extremely high in carbs at a whopping 82% and is made up of 11% fat and 7% protein. With 606 calories per cup, it is a good idea to increase their corn in the winter months to help create more natural insulation.
- Eggs: I know some of you just gasped, but yes, chickens will eat eggs. Some will even eat their own eggs if they are not taken out of the coop in a timely manner. Eggs are extremely high in fats and proteins but lower in carbs. Scrambling the eggs along with finely mashed or chopped shells will give the chickens much needed calcium, fat and protein that is lacking in the corn or oats. It is important to only give your chickens cooked eggs, usually scrambled, so they don't start a bad habit of breaking and eating their own.
- Mealworms: Any type of insect is a high source of protein and very beneficial for chickens any time of year. In the winter time, there aren't as many bugs running around for your chickens to eat. Supplementing them with a mealworm treat will provide them with another source of protein. Not only that, but chickens absolutely LOVE them.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2013 Helena Ricketts
Crystal Tatum from Georgia on March 18, 2013:
Really helpful information. I don't have a chicken coop, but know someone who does. I am sending this to her! Voted up and interesting and shared.
Helena Ricketts (author) from Indiana on January 22, 2013:
Thank you pstraubie48. It was probably a very well constructed coop! I've noticed that coops built from "scratch" on site are usually better for the season changes than the commercial coops that are assembled or made from thin materials. Unfortunately not all coops measure up to winter's cold temp. My girls do well with the thick straw in ours. It's 9 degrees here right now and they are moving around just fine. :)
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 22, 2013:
Oh, chicken coop. We had one while I was a little girl growing up in Virginia. And you know, I am certain that things were done to protect our hens in the winter as they were there all throughout it. It snowed and was cold where we lived so I know something must have been done for them but I honestly do not remember. I do know that my Daddy had built them a very nice shelter so I do not think that much cold air blew in but I know it was still cold.
You have shared an abundance of information and if I ever decided to have chickens here on my property I will have a great source to turn to.
Sending you Angels :) ps