It’s my favorite time of the year – it’s fall!
And no, that’s not because I have any kind of an affinity for pumpkin spice or Halloween (Halloween is my least favorite holiday and I abhor pumpkin spice – I know, I know – sorry).
Instead, my time is being consumed with other chores – harvesting and canning all that produce and preparing everything for the upcoming winter.
Winter can be tough here in New York, and while there are plenty of things that can be done after winter has already arrived, some things need to be done now, before the cold weather hits.
One example? Prepping the chicken coop. I don’t know about you, but my chicken coop has a tendency to fall by the wayside during the hectic days of the summer and early fall. I like to take the opportunity once the temperatures drop a bit – but before there’s a chance of snow – to winterize the coop and get it ready for winter.
Here are some tips on how you can prepare your chicken coop for the fall and winter months.
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Do I Really Need to Prepare My Chicken Coop for Winter?
If you’re hoping to cut corners by not doing anything to ready your chicken coop for winter, you are doing yourself (and your animals) a disservice. It’s a good habit to get into, regardless of whether you live somewhere that has winters where temperatures reach -30 or those that barely break freezing point.
Preparing your chicken coop for winter helps you conduct a seasonal change and clean-out that’s absolutely essential to the health and wellbeing of your birds.
Not only will you get a better idea of your animals’ living conditions, but you’ll also be able to conduct scheduled maintenance that can help your animals stay happy and healthy.
It’s best to come up with some sort of checklist before you begin the (potentially) daunting task of preparing your coop. For example, make a list of everything you need to get done ahead of time regarding cleaning, repairing, or purchasing any fixtures.
In conducting a seasonal check and cleanout on your coop, you’ll be able to get ahead of problems before they even become issues.
Plus, if you live somewhere that does have a super harsh winter, you are going to need to engage in some basic tasks to make sure your coop can handle the brutal winds, harsh temperatures, and heavy snow loads. Fall is the best time to do this – before the snow begins to fall, naturally.
Tips to Prepare Your Chicken Coop for Fall and Winter
Give Everything a Thorough Cleaning
Start by emptying out your coop. Get rid of everything. Make sure the chickens are kicked out for the day so you have room to work, and then remove your nesting boxes (if they aren’t built-in), your waterers, feeders, bedding – even your roost bars should be removed if you can manage it.
Then, using a nice sturdy shovel, scrape out any remaining, stuck-on bedding. It’s a good idea to get all the built-up gunk off before you continue on with your deep clean. You may need to use a sharp edge like that on a paint scraper in order to get some of the more stubborn grime off the walls and floor.
Next, you should take a broom (you probably aren’t going to want to use the one that you use in your house) and sweep everything down. Sweep the walls, floor, and of course, the ceiling. Chickens produce a lot of dust, so you may have those pesky “chicken dust cobwebs” hanging from the ceiling – in addition, you might have regular ol’ cobwebs that you need to remove.
The roost bars can be tough to clean, but do your best with the sharp edge. As a general preventive measure, it’s a good idea to clean your roost bars weekly. This will prevent the stubborn grime from becoming too difficult to deal with in the future.
As you’re cleaning, make sure you’re tossing the bedding and manure into a dedicated pile for your compost. By adding chicken manure to your winter compost pile, you’ll be able to supercharge your vegetable garden next spring.
Once everything is free of debris, it’s time to hose the coop down. Make sure you get into every last corner. If your coop is super grimy, you’re going to want to use a 50-50 mixture of white distilled vinegar and water to clean out the coop.
Some people also use bleach, which can be helpful if you have excessive mold buildup, but it’s usually not necessary.
If you have windows or vents in your coop, make sure you clean those with a soft brush or your broom, too. Give your coop one more rinse after you’ve scrubbed with the vinegar. Don’t forget the feeders, waterrs, and nest boxes, either – these also need to be cleaned out.
Let your coop dry. If you are doing this clean-out on a nice, sunny day (which I recommend) that shouldn’t take too long. You can move on to some of these other steps as you’re waiting for it to dry.
Conduct a Point-by-Point Inspection
It may help to make a list as you conduct a thorough point-by-point inspection of your coop. Check over everything carefully, looking for cracks that allow in drafts.
Drafts are not good if you live somewhere that has extreme winters – while air flow is important, wind blowing directly on your chickens can lead to some serious health problems.
Removing any cracks you find (you can seal them up with caulk or replace old building materials) will also help remove any potential entry points for predators.
Chickens aren’t going to be the only ones drawn to a warm, cozy coop in the dead of winter! You have to watch out for all kinds of chicken predators, like weasels, who are able to wiggle their bodies through small cracks with ease.
There are other predators you need to watch out for, too, like snakes and rats. These won’t often go after your adult chickens, but will target your eggs and your food supply in the coop.
That’s why it’s so important to seal up any cracks or leaks now – no matter how small they might seem. Similarly, if you find any damages to the coop, make sure you repair them before you’re trying to hobble through three feet of snow.
It’s also a good idea to look around for any signs of predators. Check for tracks, droppings, or other damages that indicate a predator is nearby, and reinforce weak areas in the coop, run, or fence before they can get to your flock. You should also check the coop and your chickens for signs of a parasite infestation.
Finally, if you have electricity running to your coop, inspect it now and complete any necessary repairs. Cords should not be frayed and all of your wires, outlets, and hardware should be in good shape.
Check the Ventilation and Humidity in the Coop
Minimizing drafts, as I mentioned in the point above, is vital. This will reduce the rate of heat loss from the coop and will prevent predator problems. You can easily fix gaps with a cut piece of plywood over the hole, some caulking, or by other basic repair steps.
However, you need to make sure you don’t seal up the coop too much. Not only can reduce air flow lead to problems like ammonia build up, but it can actually have the reverse effect of chilling your birds because of too much condensation and moisture build-up in the coop.
Any ventilation you have should be placed toward the roof of the coop. This will reduce the likelihood of cold air flowing directly onto your birds.
It will also remove the warm, moisture-laden air to replace it with dry, cooler air to prevent mold buildup and to eliminate the likelihood of your chickens becoming sick.
Mesh vents work wonders at ventilating the coop, ideally if you have a way to cover them up at night.
It’s not a bad idea to use a hygrometer to check the humidity in the coop. Ideally, you’ll want a coop with a humidity reading of about 50%. The biggest danger to chickens in the winter is frostbite, which is made worse by high humidity in the coop.
Figure Out Your Water Situation
By far, our biggest challenge in raising chickens throughout the winter months has been figuring out water. Automatic waters can be tricky because water will rapidly turn to ice.
You can bring fresh water out twice a day, but to avoid dehydration, I find that it’s best to invest in a heated waterer.
We use a galvanized base that has a heating element and can be used with any galvanized drinker. It’s safe as long as you have it plugged in to an extra heavy-duty extension cord rated for outdoor use, like this one.
Check out the heated waterer here – it’s an inexpensive solution to one of the most frustrating issues regarding raising chickens in the winter!
Add Fresh Bedding
Once your coop is dry, you can add new bedding. Wood shavings and shredded paper will go the longest way toward making your coop warm and toasty – but you can continue to use whatever kind of bedding you prefer for your chickens.
If you’ve had problems with parasites in the past, you might also want to sprinkle some diatomaceous earth in the bedding. This can keep those sorts of problems at bay.
Don’t forget to add fresh bedding to the nesting boxes, too. You can use the same type of bedding that you use in your coop.
Remember that you will need to change this bedding out more frequently during the winter than you will the floor’s bedding, particularly if you use the deep litter method of bedding the coop.
I’m personally obsessed with the deep litter method of bedding the coop.
Not only is it a super-sustainable method of managing the litter in the coop, reducing the need to change and clean bedding constantly, but it will also help insulate your flock because the bedding will produce heat as it breaks down.
Start by layering bedding over the floor after your big deep cleaning. Then, as your chickens accumulate waste, you should just stir up the bedding once a week and let the flock do the rest.
As the waste breaks down, you can continue to add more bedding. It will help insulate the coop and prevent pest infestations. In the spring, you’ll have ready-made compost!
Decide How Your Run Will Be Cleared
Have a plan in place for how you will clear the pathway to your coop if it becomes covered in snow – and more importantly, decide how you will clear the run.
If you have an open, uncovered run, you’re going to need to shovel some snow. This is particularly true if you live in an area that gets multiple feet of snow each year.
Chickens will come out in the snow, but they don’t love being in super deep piles.
Make sure you have your shovels, snowblower, or whatever else you use to clear snow ready to go so your chickens don’t have to wait for days to be let out of the coop after a major storm.
If you don’t want to have to shovel the entire chicken yard, you can hang a tarp over a portion of the run to give the birds a nice, dry place after a snowstorm.
Check On Your Roost Bars
Count your chickens, and make sure you have enough roost bars for all of them. Chickens use the roost bars as a primary method of staying warm during those cold winter nights. They will crowd together during intense cold and fluff up their feathers to help themselves stay cozy.
Your roosts should be about two feet off the ground, and there should be enough roosts for all your birds.
Check on your birds once the winter months settle in, and if you notice that not all of your chickens are sleeping on the roost, add more bars immediately. You don’t want your chickens sleeping on the ground by any means.
Set Up An Indoor Dust Bath
When the ground is frozen, your chickens aren’t going to have access to the dust baths they need to groom themselves.
You can easily set up a dust bath in the coop by using a galvanized tub that’s wide enough for two chickens. Make sure the bath is big enough for a couple of birds and that it’s deep enough to prevent the dust from being kicked out.
You can also purchase a premade indoor dust bath like this one to save you some time.
Get Your Nutrition in Check
Keep your hoppers full during the winter – and make sure they’re loaded with nutritious feed. A well-fed chicken is a warm chicken, as the process of digestion raises a chicken’s core temperature.
You might want to throw your chickens some extra treats during these colder months, too.
Not only can high-calorie treats like chicken scratch or homemade suet raise the body temperature of the birds, but it will also provide them with some entertainment and physical activity.
Some fun treats to give your chickens include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Peanut butter
- Seed blocks
- Suet (find a great recipe for homemade suet here!)
- Scratch grain
And if you’re really looking to entertain your birds and get their blood flowing on those cold winter afternoons, you might want to consider adding some chicken toys like these to your coop!
Supply Some Grit
If you experience hard freezes during the winter months, you likely aren’t going to be able to give your chickens access to natural sources of grit. While some feed can be digested without grit, it’s not a bad idea to include some grit supplements to make sure your bird are able to process nutrients effectively.
Plan Ahead for Egg Collection
Egg production will naturally drop off during the winter months. Shorter days make it more difficult for your chickens to have access to the 14 hours of light they need to produce eggs.
You can give your flock a break from laying if you don’t mind a lapse in production, but if you rely on consistent production you might want to add a light to your coop.Just be sure to add the extra daylight hours on to the morning instead of the afternoon.
No matter what you choose to do, you should collect eggs more than once a day during the winter. Not only are your eggs likely to freeze and crack, ruining the possibility of you eating them, but this can also increase the likelihood of hens eating their own eggs.
Harness the Power of the Sunlight
Sure, the days are shorter – but that doesn’t mean you can’t use sunlight to your advantage! Letting sunlight capture heat during the day can help it stay warm as the sun goes down. Consider installing well-insulated windows to trap the sun or add light-absorbing building materials.
A good option is to add stone, concrete, or deep litter bedding to your coop. This will add thermal mass to your coop, allowing it to retain heat during the day and let it out at night.
You can also use a sheet of thick plastic to make a greenhouse-style addition to the coop. This will give your bird plenty of space to roam, but they’ll be more protected form the elements and a little warmer as well.
Plan Ahead For Frostbite
Frostbite is easy to prevent if you follow the steps I’ve mentioned above. However, don’t panic if you notice frostbite settle in. It’s usually not fatal and it can easily be treated by rubbing petroleum jelly on the wattles and combs.
These areas tend to be the most susceptible to frostbite, and petroleum jelly will not only soothe the wounded area but it can also help prevent frostbite, too.
Keep an Eye on Your Flock
One of the best ways to prepare your chicken coop for winter is to know exactly what to expect from your flock. There are some chicken breeds that are better suited for the heat while there are some that thrive in cold weather.
Most chickens are going to be better at withstanding the cold than they are the heat, but chickens with small pea combs and small wattles tend to be much better at surviving cold temperatures.
Just keep track of your chickens and watch them as the winter months progress. Look for signs of lethargy or hypothermia, and address any issues immediately to prevent them from becoming bigger problems.
Should I Add a Heater to the Coop?
Ask any homesteader or chicken keeper whether you should keep a heater in the chicken coop during the coldest months of the winter, and you’re probably going to get a different answer from each. However, I argue adamantly AGAINST heating the chicken coop and here’s why.
First, a heater in the chicken coop is difficult to monitor. Space heaters are notoriously dangerous and when used in the crowded conditions of your coop, you are going to have to worry about dust causing the heater to overheat and start a fire as well as basic electrical fires.
You also need to worry about a chicken burning itself on the heater, knocking the heater over, or otherwise creating an unnecessarily dangerous situation.
Chickens will do just fine 99% of the time when using their own combined body heat to stay warm. We have never used a heater in the coop and our chickens have never suffered any ill consequences.
And that’s not coming from someone who experiences mild winters with minimal snowfall and temperatures in the 30s, either.
Where I live, winters routinely see temperatures of sub-zero readings, with weeks of prolonged temperatures below -10, -20 (even -30 or -40) with the windchill not out of the realm of possibility.
Another problem with heating the coop is that if you live in an area that experiences frequent power outages – like where I live – you are going to run into problems if the power goes out, killing your source of heat.
Your chickens will be acclimated to a nice, toasty coop -and when that heat source goes away, their bodies are going to have a more difficult time adjusting.
You don’t need a heater. Your chickens will stay warm on their own as long as the coop is well ventilated and protected against the wind. If you’re really worried, you can always add a hundred-watt bulb in a caged, mounted socket.
I won’t lie to you – it does take some work to prepare your chicken coop for winter. However, with a little bit of diligence and a few hours of work on your part, you can easily prepare your coop so that it can handle whatever winter might throw at it.
What tips do you have for keeping your chicken coop warm, clean, and safe throughout the winter months? Let me know in the comments!
Want to learn more about raising chickens? Be sure to check out these articles!
- How to Butcher Chicken
- How to Keep Predators Away From Your Chicken
- The Best Egg-Laying Chicken Breeds
- The Ultimate Guide to the New Hampshire Chicken Breed
- How You Can Make Money Raising Chicken
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