Being from a northern climate, we’re fairly well acquainted with colder temperatures. This past year our wood pellet stove ran 8 of the 12 calendar months. In our ‘neck of the woods’ it’s not uncommon to see snow more than lawn. Consequently, when we built our house, we built it with lots of insulation.
Having this experience under our belts, I automatically assumed that a chicken coop would need the same treatment of heavy insulation. But that was incorrect. A chicken coop should not be heavily insulated from the cold, but rather be a dry place with very little draft.
As proof of a bird’s capability in the cold, think of a chickadee. Those little birds are a fraction of the size of a chicken, and yet can be found chirping merrily away in even the worst of snow storms. With the proper conditions designed into the coop, your flock will be comfortable and happy in the winter cold, even without an insulated structure.
Do You Need To Keep Chickens Warm In The Winter?
The feathers on an adult chicken do a remarkable job of keeping them warm. Their fluffed feathers hold the air around their bodies allowing it to be heated.
To visualize this, imagine covering yourself in a blanket with a hair dryer blowing warm air underneath it. Cozy right?
So long as your bird has access to quality feed and fresh water, it’s body will work to generate all the heat it needs. Giving them supplemental heat is not necessary. However, there are exceptions to this.
- Chicks – Having yet to reach physical maturity, chicks are not developed enough to handle cold temperatures. Without supplemental heat, either from a heat lamp or mother hen, the chicks will perish.
- Illness – When it comes to a sick bird, their body is already working very hard to combat whatever health issue they might have. Adding temperature demands to their situation is only going to complicate efforts towards a recovery.
- A heavy breeze – Wind chill will rob your bird of its body heat just like it robs us of ours. Consequently, chickens can not sit out in the snow indefinitely. Your flock must have a place to escape the wind.
- Moisture – It goes without saying, but a bird covered in snow will soon be a wet bird and that’s bad when it comes to freezing temperatures. For this reason, I put an extra amount of dry bedding in the coop (such as straw) for the birds to burrow into. This dries and blankets them, helping them warm up.
Chicken Coop Ventilation
One of the most critical aspects of coop design is adequate ventilation. A coop that is too airtight will retain moisture and ammonia – both of which are detrimental to your flock’s health.
- Moisture – While moisture is a non-event during summer, it can be quite problematic when temperatures drop below freezing. Think of the heavy frost you see on roof tops, especially during the transitions from fall to winter and then again from winter to spring. Any skin that is exposed to heavy moisture can sustain frostbite when temperatures go below 32 degrees.
In the case of a chicken’s comb and wattle, frostbite can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be cause for excessive concern.
However, should the frostbite occur on the chick’s legs or feet – the fleshy parts not protected by feathers – then your bird might not be able to move around, making it difficult to access food and water. Please keep this in mind when observing your flock during the colder months. Should you note a bird that is limping or unable to stand, look for frostbite!
- Ammonia – This toxic byproduct of the chicken’s feces is bad for everyone. Imagine being a chicken confined to a small area where the toxic air just continues to worsen! For this reason, installing proper ventilation – especially towards the top of the coop – is absolutely crucial for your flock’s health.
Allowing airflow at the top of the coop is good as ammonia naturally rises. It’s also helpful high above the birds as this keeps any draft over, and hopefully away, from where the chickens are sleeping.
Does A Chicken Coop Need A Floor?
Chickens make a mess…no two ways about that! They’ll especially make a mess overnight, as they sleep in their coop. A little bit of planning in the coop’s design will make cleaning this mess a little easier.
When it comes to a coop’s flooring there are two main choices: to install flooring or use the ground. Either of these is acceptable. Both have their pros and cons, but either of these can work.
- Pros – Without a doubt, an installed floor can make the initial cleanings easy. Throw some hay or some wood chips down over your floor and cleaning things up is a simple task of the rake and broom.
An installed floor also gives you another level of protection against predators. And when it comes to chickens, there are a lot of critters looking to make a meal out of your birds.
- Cons – While the initial cleanings may come easy, depending on the material you made your floor of, you may have set yourself up for some heartache further down the road. In the case of wooden flooring, some of your bird’s waste will eventually seep its way down through the bedding to be absorbed. And once enough of this waste is absorbed, you will have no choice to be completely replace the flooring.
Occasionally, you may hear of someone who used linoleum over the wooden floor in order to stop the waste from getting through. This is a terrible idea as this surface is slippery for chickens and could easily result in injury.
Using The Ground:
- Pros – This is a very common choice among hobby farmers, especially if a mobile coop is being used. Any waste simply falls to the ground and when the amount gets to be too much, you simply move the coop to a new location. By doing this, no waste removal is ever needed.
Even fixed coops can benefit from using the ground instead of installed flooring. While waste still needs to be removed, any spilled water from your flock’s waterer, will simply sink into the ground – leaving you nothing to worry about.
- Cons – While having a dirt floor allows any spilled water to soak in and out of sight, it also soaks up any fluid waste from your birds. When this happens, the soiled dirt must be removed manually as it will not go away on its own. Also, when considering the care of your flock, one must always be vigilant about predators – as they are always thinking about how to eat a delicious chicken. If you are using the ground for the bottom of your coop, then precautions are necessary against the kinds of critters capable of digging their way in.
Chicken wire can be a great asset against digging predators. Start by digging a trench around your coop – making it 1ft deep and 2ft wide (starting at the coop wall and moving outward). Then take your chicken wire (4ft tall) and lay it in the trench, giving yourself 1ft of overlap against the bottom of the coop. Once the chicken wire is in place and secured to the coop, fill the trench back in with dirt.
How Big Should A Chicken Coop Be?
There are many variables to consider when sizing your coop. How big are the birds? What breed are the birds (some require more space than others)? What’s the environment like where the birds are living (hot, cold, ect.)? And even after you’ve done all of your homework, you can still end up with problems because ‘someone has an attitude’. So while advice is plentiful, please be observant of your flock and always go with your gut over something you found online.
That being said, a general guideline for planning your chicken’s sleeping space, is to provide them with three square feet of space per bird. But please note, this only applies to the birds roosting at night or laying eggs. When the sun comes up, they’re going to need a LOT more space – generally in the area of 10 square feet per bird, minimum.
It’s been our experience that when night comes, the chickens tend roost very close to each other. And for someone who grew up playing Tetris, I’ll look in the coop and note a lot of empty space. But I’ve learned not to think of this as a waste as, every now and then, one bird will be at the opposite end of the coop, away from everyone else (think personality issues or illness). By providing my flock 3 square feet of space in the coop, I’m giving them the space they might occasionally need, while maintaining the opportunity for them to be close when they feel like it.