Do your chickens wear sweaters?
Mine don’t, although I have to admit the pictures I’ve seen of sweatered hens are pretty cute. Alas, knitting is one area where my craftiness fails me, so I don’t see myself creating outerwear for my flock anytime soon.
But it brings us to an important topic– how exactly does one keep a chicken warm in the winter?
When I first got my chickens, I assumed they needed supplemental heat anytime the thermometer dipped below freezing. I mean, I was cold, so they obviously were too, right?;
There’s actually a bit of debate surrounding the whole topic of chickens and heat lamps (not a surprise, because there seems to be debate surrounding everything these days…), so let’s look at this a bit closer.
Why do People Use Heat Lamps for Chickens?
Most people follow the same thought pattern I did: If I’m cold, my chickens must be cold too. Being the kind-hearted homesteaders we are, we want to make our animals as comfortable as possible. This usually means installing a heat lamp or two to provide extra warmth on those chilly days.
I did this for a while, mostly because I assumed it was the “right” thing to do–especially considering we homestead in Wyoming where it’s freeeezing cold during the winter months.
But as I did more research and made more observations, I started to question as to whether this was actually correct…
Why Heat Lamps can be a Problem
First off, thinking an animal must be cold, just because we are cold, is a faulty assumption.
Chickens have feathers. Cows and goats have layers of winter hair. We don’t. Most all animals are designed to withstand weather conditions without any help from us humans. It can be hard for us to accept, but it’s true.
The biggest problem surrounding heat lamps?;
They are extreme fire hazards. Like big time.
Anytime you stick a 250-watt heat source in an area with a lot of dry, combustible material (i.e. feathers, dust, wood shavings, etc), you have a potential hazard. And chicken coop fires do happen, with devastating results.
But here’s the interesting part:
(Are you ready for this?)
Most of the time, chickens don’t really need heat lamps anyway.
Shocking, I know.
Most chicken-care experts will agree– your average dual-purpose chicken breed will do just fine without any supplemental heating, as long as they have a way to stay dry and out of the wind.
(If you’re brooding chicks, things are a little bit different, since chicks need supplemental heat until they mature– unless you have a mama hen, of course)
OK– I confess. For a while, I was a bit skeptical of this advice… That is, until I started paying more attention to what was happening in my own coop…
My Heat Lamps Observations
I’ve been gradually weaning myself off heat lamp dependency, but still felt inclined to turn the lamps on during the coldest nights (especially this winter, as we’ve had several cold snaps of 30 to 40 degrees below zero.)
However, what I observed during the last cold snap has officially changed my mind:
On a particularly cold day (I’m talking 40 below zero here…), I turned on the heat lamps over the roosting areas (the lamps are bolted into the wall and very secure, although still not entirely without fire risk). After it got dark, I popped in to check the chickens once more before we headed to bed. Much to my surprise, they were all crowded in the other section of the coop– as far away from the heat lamps as possible. They also seemed rather annoyed, as they were bedded down on the floor, instead of on their cozy roosts.
The next day, I left the heat lamps off, and once again returned to the coop at dark. All the chickens were happily sitting on their roosts, just like normal. It suspiciously seemed they were avoiding the heat lamps–even on a subzero day.
Also, during our most severe cold snap this year, one chicken went missing. I looked aaaaaalllllll over for her with no luck, and finally assumed she must have ended up being fox food. There was no trace of her, and with the extreme temperatures at night, I figured she was toast anyway. It was way too cold for a chicken to survive outside, right?
Several days after the worse of the cold snap lifted, I found her happily strutting around the barn yard– no frostbite, as happy as she could be.
She had survived several days/nights of -40 degree temperatures without a heat lamp, chicken coop, or any help from me. (I suspect she must have been hiding out in our open equipment shed, but it’s hard to say for sure…)
I’m not saying this is an ideal scenario, but still………
What We’re Doing Instead of Using Heat Lamps
So, I’m officially convinced heat lamps aren’t as vital as I thought they were… However, there are still a few things I’m doing to ensure my flock stays comfortable and safe during the winter months:
- Ventilate it! Ventilation is HUGE. If you want to focus on one thing in regards to chicken-keeping, let it be ventilation. According to expert flockster Harvey Ussery, as long as the chickens are sheltered from direct wind and rain, “a coop cannot have too much ventilation.” Let that sink in for a minute– wow! A damp, moist coop can breed pathogens, cause respiratory issues, and make your birds more susceptible to frostbite. While drafts are bad (a draft equals a direct wind blowing on the birds), there should be plenty of air exchange happening in the coop at all times. For us, this means I leave our coop doors open in all but the most extreme temps. I might shut the doors at night when it reaches 30 to 40 below zero, but otherwise, they stay open. An air-tight coop is NOT a good thing.
- Provide lots of fresh water – Keeping your chicken’s water liquid in the winter can be tough, but it’s vitally important. Either commit to hauling buckets of fresh water to your birds several times per day, or invest in a heated water bucket (that’s what we do).
- Keep food in front of them – The process of digestion creates heat and keeps chickens warm. Make sure your flock has plenty of food to munch on. You can create special treats for winter if you like, (like this homemade flock block), but they aren’t entirely necessary. Just your regular ration is more than sufficient.
- Looking for more winter chicken tips? This post has the full scoop.
To sum it all up? Watch your birds and create a plan that works for your climate and set-up. Remember chickens aren’t human, and have different ways of dealing with temperature shifts than we do. If knitting chicken sweaters is your thing, that’s totally cool by me– just know it’s not a necessity. 😉
Other Chicken-y Posts
- Should I Wash My Fresh Eggs?
- How to Cook an Old Rooster or Hen
- How to Peel Farm-Fresh Eggs (without making a mess)
- What are the Brown Spots in My Fresh Eggs?