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To Heat or not to Heat your Coop this Winter

To heat or not to heat your coop in the winter.....that is the question. Dry straw or shavings, wood, chickens, heat source....not a good combination. An oft-debated topic among chicken keepers is the subject of heating your coop or not. 

Image courtesy mary jane's farm magazine

Some well-known chicken experts flat out say no - never, ever heat your coop. Their rationale is that people have been raising chickens forever, even before electricity was invented, so chickens don't need heat. I don't agree with that completely. 

Remember, generations ago, not only did chickens most likely sleep right in the barn along with the other animals, maybe even snuggled up next to a fuzzy sheep or roosting on the rafters above a pen full of warm cows, but back then people only had breeds that were indigenous to their particular climate. They weren't ordering fancy breeds from a breeder or getting a box of chicks delivered by their mail carrier! 

They had Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, and other cold-hardy breeds that they bought at their local feed store. And the average farmer had a lot more than 4 or 5 chickens snuggling together on a roost trying to stay warm. 

Chicken raising has evolved in just a few generations to be something entirely different. Backyard coops are springing up everywhere, housing just a few chickens, sometimes chosen not for their cold-hardiness but for temperament, appearance or egg color. There's nothing wrong with that, but you need to be aware of how your flock will do in the cold and make allowances.

I agree in principle that heating your coop isn't a good idea because of the fire hazard and because your chickens will be alot more hardy and healthy if they gradually get used to the drop in temperature. Also, chickens are actually pretty cold-hardy and know to fluff their feathers to trap warm air next to their bodies. They have a much harder time in the heat than in the cold, being most comfortable in temperatures between 40-70 degrees F. 

If your chickens rely on the heat, in addition to the fire hazard that any heat source poses, if you were to ever lose power or the bulb burn out, your chickens could die, not used to being without heat. In addition, the difference in temps between night (warm) and day (cold) isn't good for them and the heat will create moisture, which can lead to frostbite. Natural is usually better when it comes to most animal care. 

However, use your best judgement and remember there ARE situations when heat might not be a bad idea:

‎1) if the temperature is predicted to suddenly drop 20+ degrees from the norm,
2) if you have young chicks who are going from indoors to outside during the winter or pullets that are not fully grown,
3) if you have chickens who are injured or recovering from a sickness,
4) if you only have two or three hens in a large coop so their body heat won't be sufficient to keep them warm,
5) if you have breeds that are not cold-hardy, such as silkies, polish and frizzles.

A friend of mine lost her silkies last winter to the cold after reading on another chicken page that chickens NEVER need a heated coop. I just read a post from someone else yesterday about losing a silkie to the cold because she didn't realize that silkies can't fluff their feathers to stay warm like other breeds. Another friend had to have her rooster's foot amputated because of frostbite. It's important to make your decision based on your location, situation and mix of breeds. 

If you DO decide to provide a heat lamp, be sure it is secured so nothing can catch on fire... and then secure it again. Remember that clamps can come unscrewed, wires untwisted and bulbs will shatter if water hits them. Use caution and common sense and you should be fine.

But a better alternative to a heat lamp is a radiant panel heater like this one or this one. Far less chance of fire using an electric panel heater.

All that said, a well-insulated, -ventilated (but not drafty), dry coop IS the preferred solution. A thick straw floor cover, straw bales along the outer walls, using the deep litter method (basically maintaining a 12" floor base of straw, and turning it over periodically to let the poop decompose and create heat), having the correct number of hens for the size of the coop and giving your girls scratch just before bedtime are all inexpensive ways to keep your coop warm. Even snow is a wonderful insulator, believe it or not. Think igloos...

But of course the best way to keep your chickens warm in the winter is to get MORE chickens ! An average-sized chicken produces about 40 BTUs of heat. With my 21 chickens snuggled in my coop each night, it has been consistently averaging 9 degrees higher than the outside temperature when I open it up in the morning, due entirely to the chickens' body heat and the heat created by using the deep litter method. A warm chicken is a happy chicken!

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  1. Very good info.... you know the only reason I have a heat light on is to take the dampness out of the 2 1/2 car garage on concrete...they have about 1/4 of the garage....penned in ....everynite...I am very very careful...the heat lamp 250 watt...RED Bulb... is in a ceiling fixture...a ways away from them...just for the dampness.... But a very important...note you have to be careful!!!

  2. and of course!!! I forgot to say their pen has shavings and straw...

  3. I grew up on a farm without power. The 10-20 chickens lived in a small, well-chinked log cabin without any source of heat, and most lived through the winter.

    That being said, if I was to do it again, I would make sure that the walls and roof were much better insulated (compressed earth blocks sound perfect), and use a small rocket stove mass heater (with the fuel fed in from the outside) to provide any heat needed.

    For those of you who are interested, here are some links to help you get better idea about rocket stove mass heaters and associated low tech solutions:

    1. ...

      Well, apparently, something didn't like all of those links. That's a shame.

      If you Google 'rocket stove mass heater' and 'compressed earth blocks', and do a bit of research, you'll find out all about them.

  4. Last year I did not heat my coop at all,but it was much smaller and the girls had less area to heat up. We have since moved to a new house. The coop that was already here, is much much bigger and I felt the girls would not be able to generate enough heat to warm it. So with that being said, I have a 60 watt light bulb on in the chicken coop. Common sense and knowledge of "your" chickens is all it takes.

  5. You are exactly right Denise.What works in one situation might not work in another. You are a good chicken mom !

  6. New here, I actually just found this blog today(05/08/2012). I live in the country, but work for a company that wastes like crazy paper fax, copy, everyone's newspapers and etc. I started trying to save all of it I could. Now some of the guys are even trying to help me save and recycle it. I take it home and shred it and use it as bedding and for the deep floor method. Turning it often I continue adding and about every six months I pull it all out add fresh clean paper and put the old stuff in the compost bin. The girls seem to like it and I have nice garden material later. I even use the paper idea for my rabbits and any other animals we have that could use it. This is a good way to recycle, just make sure not to use glossy newspaper adds. Just trying to go green, we can all help.

    1. Hi glad to have you ! We are trying to be as green as we can also. In fact we don't even get the newspaper anymore and read lots of magazines online. Yours is a great idea tho - could you imagine if everyone brought home all the paper from work that is just being thrown out ? I am going to share this on my facebook page. I hope you've liked us on Facebook ? Link on the right-hand side of the blog.

  7. Chickencicles are a major concern for me in Interior Alaska. We decided to have a summer coop for the girls on pasture, but house them in the main barn with all our other critters in the winter to help keep them warm. Temps around -40 is the average in Dec/Jan, -70F not uncommon.

    My major concern is what to use for insulation. I don't want to use a material that will attract pests and mites (like straw or cellulose), but also not one that could make the chickens or other animals ill if they accidentally eat some (like fiberglass batt). Any recommendations?

    1. I think that's a great idea to provide two coops since your temps vary so much through out the year. Straw is actually a wonderful insulator and you won't have to worry about pests when the temps drop. I would insulate at least the roof of your winter coop with fiberglass batting - just sandwich it between plywood so none is exposed for the chickens to accidentally eat - and then stack straw bales along the walls in the winter for added insulation. That way you can take the straw out in the summer to avoid insects or rodents taking up residence.

  8. Could you us a ceramic light? They use it in retile cages to keep them warm. I don"t think they could catch anything on fire?

    1. Yes sure you can. I know of a few who do that. I think that is far safer than a heat lamp.

  9. For your deep litter method, do you leave all the poo in there, or do you pull out the worst of the overnight poops each morning? I do the latter, mostly to keep the smell manageable and to bulk up my compost pile. But then my litter bed never does generate much heat. Maybe I just don't have it deep enough yet.

    1. You really need to leave the poop in there - that's what makes the 'method' work since its the decomposting poop that creates the heat. You can remove the worst, say if someone has a bit of diarrhea but for the most part, leave it - in the spring you'll have an amazing compost pile right under your roosts!

  10. We use the "sweeter heater" and a thermo cube outlet. The heater has lasted three winters and is just enough heat, not too much. I