After a very warm fall, winter has finally decided to show up and give us some weather closer to normal. However, one of the problems with this kind of weather is how it can negatively affect our small poultry flocks. In order to help alleviate this concern, I’ve put together some recommendations that address care of poultry during the winter. The main take-home message here is the importance of providing a dry, draft-free environment, several inches of dry litter and sufficient ventilation. Notice that I did not mention supplemental heat.
Depending on the number of birds to be housed, almost any type of building that provides controlled ventilation, such as windows and doors, can be used. The windows of the coop and outside run should face south to allow maximum exposure to the sun throughout the year. This helps with warmth in the winter and dryness during the rest of the year.
Keeping heat out of the coop is more important than keeping heat inside. More birds have been killed by extreme summer heat than extreme winter cold. A basic rule in cold weather is to give birds protection from the wind. Combs and wattles freeze easily in high winds but survive at temperatures well below freezing when air is calm. Temperatures less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit usually cause egg production to slow down or stop. Temperatures of about 10 degrees will probably lead to frozen combs or toes. Heavy or dual-purpose birds that are well feathered and fat and have small combs will fare best.
Give birds a place to stay dry. Remember, moisture in the coop can lead to increased levels of ammonia, as well as make it more difficult for the birds to stay warm. Feathers only retain body heat when dry.
Equally as important as warmth is adequate ventilation, which provides comfort for the birds by removing moisture, ammonia and other gases, provides an exchange of air and helps control the temperature of the pen. You can use natural or gravity fed ventilation with windows, flues and slats. In a small coop (less than 150 square feet of floor space) you can use a bathroom fan in the ceiling and slats in the walls or windows to remove excess moisture in the winter.
Use wood perches as they will not conduct cold. Preferably, perches should have a flat surface (like a 2 x 4) that will allow the birds to cover their feet with their feathers when on the perch to keep them warm.
Check the water several times a day, and make sure that it is not frozen and is available to the birds. You may consider keeping the water from freezing with a heat lamp or a heater that goes under the waterer.
Feeding chickens in the evening and using deep litter will help keep them warm all night. In addition to providing insulation from the ground, deep litter also generates heat as it is broken down by microbial action.
While insulation is not necessary, it will help keep the heat generated by the birds in the coop. If you are adding heat to a house, then insulation is a cheap way to get the most heating for your money. Young birds will need a source of heat in order to survive and grow, and while not necessary, adding heat to older birds will help them maintain egg production throughout the winter.
For more information about this topic, contact your local county Extension office.