by Crystal Sands
We have been keeping chickens in Maine for 8 years, and over those years, I have learned a lot about keeping our flock safe and warm through some fairly extreme cold. Some of what I learned, I learned through research; some, I learned through experiences. One of the key things I have learned is that there is the “ideal” situation for keeping chickens and then there is the situations many of us find ourselves in.
It is so true (and I have written about this very thing) that chickens generally do not need a heat source of any kind in the winter, even when the temps drop in an extreme way. But a good winter situation means you have a sturdy, dry coop with good ventilation, no drafts, and good, dry bedding. What do you do when this is not the winter situation you find yourself in?
I have given chicken talks for the Common Ground fair and written about chicken keeping for years. I have interviewed several big names in chicken care, and one of my biggest worries is when people offer “blanket” advice without knowing the ins and outs of particular situations.
Take our situation, for example. We had always done well with preparing our coop for the winter. We kept 15 to 20 birds for the longest time and went along at a good pace. We had no issues of frost bite in the winter. But, two years ago, we increased the size of our flock to 31 birds. When winter hit, we found we were struggling to get the vents opened to the proper amount, and our coop was getting damp from the increase in birds. After all, all that chicken breathing makes moisture. We were trying to adjust, but one night, the temps dropped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit, and our rooster got frostbite. We had an oil-based heater that we had used one winter when the temps were hanging out around -18 degrees for a couple of weeks, but since everyone told us you don’t need a heater, that year, we never brought out the heater. The night of -7 degrees meant frostbite for our rooster.
Thankfully, the frostbite was minor, but I learned a couple of valuable lessons: First, I needed to do better to prepare my coop for winter, and second, I needed to stop listening to “blanket” advice and make my own decisions based on the situations I am in, however not-ideal they may be.
As I write this post, we are looking at a significant temperature drop here in Maine tonight, so I wanted to offer some tips to help you prepare your chickens for a cold night–if you find yourself in one of those less-than-ideal situations.
Assess the Dampness Right Before the Temps Drop
Go out to your coop right now. Is it damp? Does the bedding feel damp? We use straw, and contrary to one of the many myths circulating the internet, no, it does not lead to crop or mite problems. When our straw is dry, I know things are okay in terms of the moisture in the coop. Because moisture leads to bigger issues with frostbite (essentially, the moisture sticks to any surfaces, including your chickens and leads to the cold feeling colder and doing more damage), you want to make sure your coop is good and dry tonight. Last year, when we had the frost bite, we had been struggling with the humidity, and the straw was a bit damp feeling. I should have pulled every bit of that damp straw out of our coop for that sudden drop and made sure, though we were struggling with ventilation, that, at the very least, we were starting the evening in a dry place. If your coop feels damp, get the wet bedding out of there today and put in fresh. Do not hesitate on this!
You should adjust your vents. The trick to a well-ventilated coop is that there should be no drafts, but up high, there should be vents you can open and adjust. If you have been struggling with dampness, open those vents a little more. It may feel counter-intuitive, like you are letting in more cold, but ventilation up high helps release the moisture from all of that chicken breathing.
Assess Your Flock
If you have healthy, cold-hardy birds, you are in good shape as the temperatures drop. If you have any Silkies, please understand these are not cold-hardy birds. We do not keep Silkies here in Maine, but I spoke to someone who lost some Silkies in a cold snap here in Maine. They do not have the same kind of feathers as other breeds and can struggle in the cold. If you have a less-than-ideal situation in your coop and can bring your Silkies into the garage or somewhere milder (you do not want too warm, as then they will get used to the warmth), I would. There’s just a big difference between a Rhode Island Red and a Silkie when it comes to handling the cold. Please note that I know there are plenty of Silkies in great coops who make it just fine, but every single year I read about Silkies freezing to death here in Maine, so I just have to raise this possibility.
Also, ff you have just one or two birds, I would be hesitant to leave them alone in a coop in sub-zero temps. The snuggling helps everyone handle the cold. Plus, more chicken breath equals more heat in the coop. If you have one or two chickens, as I know some people do, I would make a plan B.
Should You Add Heat?
If the only heat source you have is a heat lamp, no matter the situation, I just say no. I know I said I don’t like “blanket” advice, but I have seen far too many coop and barn fires from heat lamps. In my opinion, they are simply not worth the risk. Plus, there are other heat sources. If you have just a couple of birds, a Sweeter Heater, which does not get hot to the touch, works great. If you do not have one, ask around. We have one we let a friend borrow, and chicken people are generally really good about helping other chicken people.
We have an oil-based ceramic heater that does not get hot to the touch that we have used. My husband also built a cage to go around the ceramic heater, just in case. This oil heater doesn’t make a huge difference in coop temperatures, but it helps. Our flock is a closed flock due to a respiratory issue several years ago. We have some old birds that are not as tough as they used to be. I wish, last year, I would have gone ahead and put the heater out that night our rooster got a bit of frostbite.
Of course, in an ideal situation, I would never use heat. And, honestly, we have managed to fix our moisture problem in our coop with better ventilation. We may not break out the heater tonight for the -8 degrees, but if we find ourselves at -18 degrees again, I’m probably busting it out. Our flock has a health issue that makes for a special situation. My sweet Lucy is 8 years old and has survived a serious respiratory issue in 2019. She needs a little help.
Can Treats Help?
I used to feed our flock corn before bed on cold nights, but I recently learned this may be doing more harm than good. This article, What a Corn-Idea by Dr. Curran Gehring, explains why corn may actually be making things worse. This information is explained in some pretty clear scientific terms, and it’s new to me. However, it’s compelling enough that it is given me some hesitation about giving corn to the chickens tonight. In fact, I think I’m going to pass on it tonight and share it as a treat when it’s not so drastically cold. This article definitely goes against the chicken lore we read on the internet and in the forums, so I understand this may be controversial.
Ultimately, however, I think doing whatever you can to make sure your flock has a super clean, dry coop tonight is the best thing you can do. So if your bedding is damp, head out there before or after dinner and spiffy up the coop. And if you have a breed not really cold-weather hardy, I would bring them into the garage.
I hope this information is helpful, and I hope the extra cold temps do not bring any problems for anyone!