8 Ways to Use Chickens in the Garden

 

how to use chickens in the garden

I’m honored to have Justin Rhodes from Abundant Permaculture guest posting today. Justin is a wealth of information when it comes to sustainable chicken-keeping, and you’re going to love his tips for putting your flock to work in the garden. He is also currently in the thick of producing a documentary all about Permaculture Chickens. I’ve NEVER seen anything like this– this information has been so hard to find up until now, but Justin is making it easy to access. I’ve already donated to the Kickstarter campaign– I hope you will too! This is the kind of information that has the potential to really make a splash!

I am continually blown away by the power of chickens in the garden! They’re such great workers, I would keep them even if couldn’t eat their eggs or meat. Plus, they reproduce themselves, unlike any man-made tool.

In this article, I’ll explore eight different ways you can use chickens in the garden. You’ll discover how you can put chickens to work by providing nitrogen for your compost pile, replacing machine tillers, fertilizing your garden, turning compost, spreading mulch, disposing of your garbage, controlling pests and sanitizing your orchard. Let’s go…

Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography
Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography

8 Ways to Use Chickens in the Garden

1. As a Nitrogen Source for a Compost Pile

One chicken can produce eight pounds of manure a month according to Ohio State University. That’s about enough to compost one cubic yard of leaves!

To make great compost, you need a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of about 30:1. Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen and is rated at about (10:1). This means you won’t need much to balance it out with its readily available counterpart; carbon materials like leaves, hay or straw. Leaves for example, are rated at (47:1), so for every 1 pound of chicken manure, you’ll use 45 pounds of leaves! A little goes a long way with chickens manure!

How to do it:

Harvest your flocks’ manure regularly and store it in a leach-proof container until you are ready to build your pile. If you don’t want to store poop, then you can apply the manure with the carbon material as you go. For more information about compost building check out my article on composting with chickens, “I Cut My Chicken Feed Bill 100%

Ingrid Pullen Photography
Ingrid Pullen Photography

2. As Tillers

One chicken can till 50 square feet of established sod in just 4-6 weeks!

By scratching and eating practically all vegetation, chickens make great tillers. Although they take much longer than a machine tiller, they require no fossil fuel, they’re much quieter, and you don’t have to do any of the work. I sold my machine tiller years ago and have been using my chickens ever since. Based on my own experience, 1 chicken can till about 50 square feet of reasonably short sod within 6 weeks. (Jill: Keep in mind that chickens will also till areas you might want to keep, so consider fencing them out if you are wanting to preserve certain areas of vegetation or sod)

How to do it:

Simple leave your flock in one place long enough! For small jobs, like individual garden beds, I suggest a chickens tractor suited for your particular garden design. For larger projects, I suggest mobile housing and temporary electric netting. Feel free to estimate your timing based on the size of you flock and garden plot on the 50 square foot per chicken statistic.

You can see in the photo below how chickens can clear an area of vegetation:

ground cleared by chickens
Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography

3. As Automatic Fertilizers

One chicken can provide enough nitrogen fertilizer for a 50 square foot garden in a little more than a month.

The chickens nitrogen levels in manure isn’t just great for compost, it’s the key ingredient to fertilizing our gardens. Based on the eight pounds one chicken will poop in a month, the average chicken will extract about a quarter pound a day! There’s 1.5% nitrogen in their manure, so that’s .004 of nitrogen a day. If we’re shooting for a solid .30 pounds of nitrogen every 100 square feet, it will take one chicken 75 days to fertilize a 100 square feet. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly when you have multiple chickens. At this rate, 24 chickens could fertilize 1200 square feed of garden in just 6 weeks!

How to do it:

Confine your chickens to the area you want fertilized and figure their length of stay based on the size of the area and how many chickens you have. Be careful not to leave your chickens in one place too long (without mulching) as you can have too much of a good thing!

using chickens to fertilize
Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography

4. As Compost-Turners

One chicken can help do a quarter of the work of turning a compost pile!

In order for your compost to break down, it must get oxygen. The more air you give it, the quicker it will break down. Many gardeners make a habit of “turning” their entire compost pile regularly when they need some of the precious material quickly. Turning is a laborious job, but your chickens can do at least a quarter of the work for you. I estimate they’ll do a quarter of the work, because they won’t take down the entire pile and they certainly won’t re-stack it for you. However, they will take down a good chunk of it, and all you’ll have to do is turn what they left of the pile and re-assemble what they spread out.

How to do it:

Assemble your compost pile and allow it time to heat up. If contains only fresh ingredients your chickens won’t show much interest. Once it’s warmed up and had time to start to decompose it will be swarming with life! If you need to protect your pile while it heats up, you can put it in protected bin, temporarily fence it off, or keep it covered. Once it’s had time to heat, your chickens will show great interest in the live biota that now makes up the pile. Later, you’ll come back and re-assemble the pile. I re-assembly and turn the piles once a week and within 4 weeks I have finished compost.

how to use chickens in the garden

5. As Mulch Spreaders

One chicken can level a large pile of leaf mulch within two days.

Chickens can level a pile in no time. If I want to spread mulch or compost, I just pile the material where I need it spread and fence in my chickens around it. My flock of 30 can easily spread a large pile of leaves in a half a day, and one cubic yard of compost within two weeks!

How to do it:

Confine your chickens around a pile of mulch or compost where you want it spread. Leave them until the work is done! Time to spread will depend on size of pile, material, and age of material. Older material will have more biota and the chickens will show more interest. If your chickens aren’t showing interest in a pile you need spread (like fresh wood chips), try spreading their feed on the pile, so they have to scratch for it.

chickens spreading mulch in the garden

6. As Garbage Disposals

One chicken can convert up to pounds of food “waste” a month into fresh eggs and meat!

17% of what Americans throw out as “trash” is food according to the Gossamer foundation. Chickens are omnivores, like us, and will eat practically everything we can and more! Why not give our food scraps to our chickens and save money on trash disposal and lessen the burden of our landfills? Based on my own experience, chickens will easily eat a 1/4 to a 1/3 pound of food in a single day. That means a small flock of six could eat up to 60 pounds of food “trash” a month! (Jill: This is also one of my favorite ways to save money on chicken feed!)

Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography
Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography

How to do it:

Collect your food scrap in a food grade container or bucket. Chickens will eat practically any type of food your throwing out, including meat. If your not sure it’s safe for you chicken, try it and see what they do. I believe they have the sense to know whether it’s good for them or bad. You can clean up what they won’t eat or let it decompose where it’s at.

7. As Insect Control

One chicken can easily de-bug up to 120 square feet a week!

Chickens will thrive on all kinds of insects, beetles and grubs. They’ll snap up pretty much any thing that moves above the surface and they’ll scratch down more than six inches in garden mulch for grubs! A couple of years ago, I moved a flock of 15 around the pasture in 1700 square feet of mobile electric netting. Those birds easily eliminated the bug population in that area within a weeks time.

How to do it:

There are several options here. Before you plant the garden, you could confine your chickens in a tractor or with electric net over the area, then move them out when you start your garden. You could also free range your birds, while protecting your garden and other areas you don’t want them. I’ve heard of folks fencing the chickens around the entire garden. This would work to protect the garden from any crawling insects and the chicken manure might attract harmful slugs out of the garden, to the chickens. You could also move the chickens around the garden or property with a tractor or mobile netting depending the size of your operation. Finally, you can allow them supervised time in the garden or give them in 30 minutes to an hour before dusk. That way they’ll have just enough time to get at the bugs, and they won’t have any time left for your goodies!

using chickens as insect control in the garden

8. As Orchard Sanitation

One chicken can de-bug an entire fruit tree within an hour, breaking the life cycle of pests and disease.

Disease and insect problems plague your typical orchard, but it should come by no surprise that the that the chickens can help in this area too. With some strategic timing, chickens can significantly boost orchard production! Two years ago some of my friends ran their flock through my granny’s abandoned/low production orchard. That next summer, we harvested so many apples, we’re still enjoying the applesauce!

How to do it:

Typical fruit trees don’t need a lot of nitrogen so you’ll wanted to limit the birds time around them and use some strategically timed planning. I suggest running the chickens through during the spring when the adult worms are coming out to lay their eggs. I would run the flock through again in the Autumn to eat the fallen fruit that that insects might use as housing throughout the winter.

using chickens in the orchard
Credit: Ingrid Pullen Photography

gardening with chickens poster

 

(Want the printable version of this poster, for free? CLICK HERE. A HUGE thanks to Justin and Abundant Permaculture for creating this for Prairie Homestead readers!)

Don’t forget to head over and check out the upcoming Permaculture Chickens film– I’m stoked to be a part of this project by donating, and am counting down the days until it’s released. This is just the kind of information we need more of to empower more people towards homesteading and self-sufficient living.

About Justin: 

Once Justin discovered self sustainable farming around 2004, he has enjoyed many years of practicing “beyond organic” and permaculture methods on his 4th generation, 75 acre, family farm near Asheville NC.
 Justin trained under the highly accredited Geoff Lawton of PRI Australia for his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) and has trained under popular authors Joel Salatin and Pat Foremen. He’s passionate about teaching from his own homestead on the chicken systems essential to more sustainable living. 
 With a great combination of business and permaculture skills, Justin is well positioned to deliver high quality educational films of this nature.

 

Supplemental Lighting in the Chicken Coop

how to use supplemental lighting in the chicken coop during the winter

Your frying pan is crying out for scrambled eggs and omelets…

The egg cartons are empty, and the only place you see those brown-shelled eggs is in your dreams…

Winter is a rough time of year for a chicken owner.

Shorter days equals fewer eggs, and you watch the dollar bills fly out of your wallet to pay the feed bills, with little to show for it.

So what’s an egg loving homesteader to do?

Why Chickens Stop Laying in Winter

There are a couple of different reasons you should count on seeing fewer eggs in the nesting boxes come winter:

1. Decreased daylight — The reproductive cycle of a chicken is stimulated by light, and chickens need 14-16 hours of light each day to maintain peak egg production. In some locations during the winter months, you might only see nine hours of light each day, which signals to the chicken’s system to cease production of those gorgeous orange-yolked eggs.

2. Molting — Each year, a chicken undergoes a process of losing feathers and growing new ones. This is the molt. Generally, chickens will molt in the fall or early winter, although it can greatly vary from flock to flock. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty big deal to grow a new set of feathers, (feathers are made of almost pure protein), so it totally makes sense why a chicken would stop laying during the molting period. Their body needs to spend its resources on feather production, not egg production.

3. Temperature Changes — While drastic drops in temperature may play a small role in decreased egg production, I’m going to venture to say that the other two factors are the biggest players here. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if a heavy-duty cold snap throw your flock into an eggless state as well.

artificial light in chicken coop during winte

Two Ways to Increase Egg Production in the Winter

1. Forced molting — (Note: I don’t recommend this, but felt it needed to be mentioned anyway…) Molting is a bit of an issue for commercial poultry operations, as it’s really not profitable to have non-laying birds sitting around for a portion of the year. Industrial flocksters have come up with ways to control or force a molt by withholding feed or feeding drugs or hormones. However, this is a practice I have no plan of incorporating on my homestead, so don’t expect to see tutorials any time soon. ;)

2. Increased lighting — Although still an artificial method, providing supplemental lighting in the chicken coop is a slightly kinder way to maintain egg production, without the severity of forced molting. However, there is definitely a method you’ll want to follow if you decide to use artificial lighting for your birds.

The Dos and Don’ts of Supplemental Lighting in the Chicken Coop

  • DO wait until your chickens are at least 20 weeks of age before introducing any artificial lighting plans.
  • DO use a regular 25 watt or 40 watt bulb, hung in a place far away from feathers and bedding.
  • DON’T make a sudden switch (i.e. going from zero supplemental lighting, to an extra five hours every day)
  • DO gradually increase your lighting over a period of time. Many experts suggest increasing in increments of 30-60 minutes each week.
  • DO shoot for 14-16 hours of light each day, for best results. Anything less than 14 hours will mean fewer eggs. Anything more than around 16-17 hours may stress out the birds and cause them stop laying altogether.
  • DON’T add the extra hours at night. Opt for the early morning hours instead, as plunging them into darkness when the bulb shuts off at night can be an unnecessary stress.
  • DO use a timer so you stay super consistent with your lighting efforts.

is it natural to use lights in a chicken coop during winter?

So You CAN Use Lights, But Should You?

Believe it or not, there is considerable debate surrounding the topic of artificial lighting in chicken coops…

Pros of Supplemental Coop Lighting

  • EGGS! (need I say more?)
  • You’re getting something in return for feeding your flock alll winter long.

Cons of Supplemental Coop Lighting

  • You have to deal with the hassle of  setting up a timer, or turning lights on/off
  • There’s a potential fire hazard of keeping a light bulb on unattended in the coop (this is the #1 reason I do not use heat lamps in my coop…)
  • Forcing hens to lay with supplemental light prevents them from following their natural reproductive rhythm and some chicken advocates argue it is hard on the birds and causes them to “wear out” faster.

supplemental light in winter chicken coop

My Conclusion…

After hemming and hawing about supplemental chicken light for several years, I’ve finally decided to embrace eggs as a seasonal food. This is an obvious concept when you’re growing fruits and vegetables, but can be harder to grasp when it comes to other food products, as we are accustomed to having them available 24/7 at the grocery store.

As we’ve amped up our personal food production efforts, it’s become increasingly clear to me that milk and eggs are just as seasonal as corn and beans. It’s OK to have times of the year when we don’t eat scrambled eggs 4x per week.

Therefore, we currently don’t use any supplemental lighting in our coop. It simplifies chicken keeping for us, and I feel good about giving my hens their natural break. Sometimes I still get a few eggs per week, other times I get none, but I adjust my cooking as needed and we always survive until laying picks up in the spring.

If you’re still struggling a bit at the thought of being eggless, here are a few strategies to soften the blow:

  • Egg fewer eggs: This one is obvious, but I’ve found we really can survive on fewer eggs for a portion of the year, and nothing terrible happens. And then of course, we glut on omelets, custards, crepes, and fried eggs when the hens are laying heavily. It’s a happy trade-off.
  • Preserve eggs during peak production times: As some of you know, my past efforts with preserving eggs have been a little rocky, but it’s definitely doable. Just in case you’re interested, here is my tutorial on how to freeze eggs, and here are my misadventures with dehydrating eggs (hopefully you have better luck than I did!)
  • Buy from the neighbors:  Every so often, a neighbor’s flock will continue to lay like crazy during the winter, and I’m happy to buy or barter eggs from them.
  • Get creative with your feed bill — If it totally makes you cringe to be pouring the feed to your flock, even though you are eggless, check out this big ol’ list of ways to save money on your chicken feed bill.

supplemental light for chickens during the winter

Do you use supplemental light in your chicken coop?

Other Posts from the Coop:

15 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed

how to save money on chicken feed

It’s a heartbreaking moment…

When you first realize your homegrown eggs are costing you more than what you’d pay for eggs at the store…

The current state of mass food production has duped us into believing things like milk, eggs, and grains cost much less than they actually do or should.

For example: Even though we have our own milk cow, our milk technically costs me MORE than it would to simply buy a gallon at the grocery store.

The good news? Saving money isn’t the primary reason we’ve chosen to own a cow. For us, it’s really about the quality of the product; our milk is fresh, beyond organic, and wonderfully raw. Not to mention owning a cow just plain makes me happy, so it’s a quality of life thing for us as well.

Chickens and eggs fall into the same category. While it depends on feed prices in your area, I’m still going to venture to say if you are looking for “frugal” eggs, you’ll probably be better off to buy eggs from the store. But, that’s not the reason most of us keep chickens, right? We love the bright yellow yolks, the satisfaction of watching the hens peck around the yard, and all that comes with chicken-ownership.

However, if you experienced sticker-shock the last time you walked into the feed store, take heart! There are plenty of ways to save money on chicken feed, AND boost your flock’s nutrition in the process. This list will help you get started—>

15 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed

1. Shop around. When I started calling different feed mills, I was surprised at the huge difference in prices. Just remember– cheaper isn’t always better, and if you are feeding an ultra low-quality feed, it can be very hard on your birds. Never sacrifice your chickens’ health just to save a buck.

2. Mix your own feed. I say this with a wee bit of hesitation, since depending on your situation, it may actually be MORE expensive to mix your own feed… However, I do suggest finding a recipe you like (all my homemade chicken feed recipes are in my Natural Homestead book), and then shopping around with local feed stores to see how much it would cost for them to mix it for you. Also, don’t forget to check with the local farmers in your area. Sometimes they’ll have older grains sitting around that aren’t fit for human use, but would be fabulous for your flock.

3. Buy feed in bulk. I buy everything in bulk, including my chicken feed. Often feed stores will give you a cut if you purchase a pallet of feed, rather than just a bag or two. Another trick is to split a large order with a friend. My one caveat is this: chicken feed which has been ground/processed/cracked, rapidly looses nutrition as it sits. It’s probably not a good idea to purchase a year’s supply at a time, unless you are using a recipe that calls for whole grains–they are much more shelf-stable.

4. Ferment your chicken feed. Fermenting your chicken feed greatly increases nutrition, and decreases the amount they eat. The same goes for sprouting.

5. Stop feeding free-choice. This is actually a topic with a bit of debate surrounding it… (Have you noticed everything causes a debate these days?) While I like the thought of allowing my flock to self-regulate, it can be a problem if you have lots of rodents. Rats and mice think free-choice chicken feeding is the best thing ever, and if you struggle with rodent problems in your coop, it’s likely your all-you-can-eat grain buffet is to blame. This problem can be avoided by only feeding as much as your chickens can eat in one day.

how to cut your chicken feed bill

6. Free range as much as possible. I realize this isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, allow your chickens to roam around your yard. Not only will this greatly supplement their diet, it can also help to control bug populations, and keeps them from becoming bored. Plus, there is something so soothing about watching chickens scratch around your front porch.

7. Bring the yard to the flock, if the flock can’t roam the yard. When my hens must stay confined to their pen in the summer months (usually because they are destroying my almost-ripe tomatoes), I like to pick large handfuls of weeds or grass and toss them over the chicken-run fence. The girls definitely enjoy rummaging around in the green matter. I also like to take a bucket to the garden with me when I weed, and I collect all the weeds in the bucket and transport them to the flock as well. (Although I don’t have near as many weeds as I used to, thanks to my deep-mulching adventures!)

8. Ask for leftover vegetable and fruit scraps at the grocery store. Not all stores will allow this, but ask if you can have the wilted lettuce, squishy tomatoes, and bruised apples. Some folks also collect stale bread items from bakeries, but I personally avoid this. Many of the bread items sold in stores like donuts, breads, rolls, or muffins are made with heavily processed ingredients and additives. They might be okay for the occasional treat, but they aren’t something I’d recommend feeding on a regular basis– just as humans shouldn’t eat them as the bulk of their diet.

9. Grow your own feedstuffs. Grains, cover crops, greens, sunflowers, and various veggies are good places to start.

10. Grow duckweed. I haven’t tried growing my own duckweed yet, but I’m totally intrigued! Duckweed is a high protein plant that can be fed to a variety of animals, including chickens. If you’re a duckweed grower, please leave a comment and share your wisdom!

11. Raise soldier grubs. As tough as I like to think I am, I must confess I’m still not quite ready to tackle the whole concept of raising grubs/larvae for my birds. Do I think it’s incredibly smart? YES. Do I think it’s a fabulous way to create low-cost, high-protein feed? YES. Do I want to get up-close-and personal with maggots? Eh, not quite yet. If you’re braver than me, my chicken-keeping idol, Harvey Ussery, has a chapter in his book (affiliate link) devoted entirely to cultivating soldier grubs.

12. Offer leftover milk and whey. If you own dairy goats, cows, or sheep, you are familiar with the feeling of drowning in milk. When you’re floating in milk and have made all the homemade yogurt and mozzarella cheese you can handle, consider sharing your excess with your chickens. Leftover milk and whey are full of protein and most flocks will enjoy the treat. For an extra boost of probiotic nutrition, clabber your raw milk by allowing it to sit out at room temperature for several days until it begins to thicken. (Don’t attempt this with pasteurized milk– you will not have the same results.)

13. Save kitchen scraps for your flock. I keep a small bucket on my kitchen counter at all times and continually toss in bits of leftover bread, celery ends, carrot peelings, watermelon rinds, and more. It’s a feeding frenzy when I show up at the coop. My chickens have even been known to chase me down in the yard when they see me carrying any sort of white bucket. It’s insanely satisfying to watch your birds turn kitchen waste into orange-yolked eggs.

14. Sell eggs. Yeah, I know this isn’t exactly a way to save money on feed, but selling excess eggs is a wonderful way to offset feed costs, and make your chickens pay for themselves. Plus, there is always someone wanting farm-fresh eggs!

15.  Cull non-productive members of the flock. I know many of you keep chickens as pets, and that’s great. But if you are truly trying to cut costs, it may be time to turn non-producing hens into nourishing chicken soup. I know this thought might cause some of you to recoil in horror, but keep in mind this is exactly what great-grandma would have done.

More Chicken Resources

  • Natural Homestead– my latest eBook that’ll help you mix your own chicken feeds, create herbal supplements, fight garden pests naturally, and lots more.
  • I adore Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock. I reference it constantly, and he has ideas you won’t find anywhere else. (affiliate link)

What are YOUR best tips for feeding chickens frugally? Leave a comment!

15 ways to save money on your chicken feed bill

 

Do My Chickens Need a Heat Lamp?

should I use a heat lamp in my chicken coop?

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…

are heat lamps safe for chickens?

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 into 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.

chickens-in-snow

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?

Wrong.

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. ;)

should I use a heat lamp in my chicken coop during winter?

Other Chicken-y Posts