People have been keeping chickens for more than six thousand years, yet we've had electricity for only about one hundred of those. Does it make sense to add supplemental heat during the winter months? Most signs would point to no. The most important rule remains, cold and dry is better than warm and wet.
Every winter, as the thermometers begin to record ever lowering temperatures, poultry keepers start flocking to their local agricultural supply stores in search of heat lamps, oil heaters and other means of adding warmth to their coops to aid in protecting their chickens from the adverse effects of winter. After all, nobody likes to see their favourite poultry with frozen combs, among the many other things that winter tends to offer.
The problem is, many of these practices actually serve to have an adverse reaction on your flock as a whole. More and more, poultry keepers are avoiding the urge to add heat to their winter programs.
We've been keeping poultry, and chickens in particular, for over six thousand years. Long before electricity saw widespread usage. How then did those chickens kept over one hundred years ago ever survive? The answer is, they acclimated.
Time and again we see posts announcing a chicken coop in a charred condition from having installed a heat lamp that was seen to fail. Fire creating and dangerous, heat lamps have to be secured in such a way as to keep them from falling into the coop. Even then, the heat they produce can cause issues on its own if not carefully attended.
Many choose to use alternatives to heat lamps; cozy coops, oil heaters, etc. but they still suffer from the possibility of a cord breaking over time creating sparks and simple malfunction. The false sense of safety created with theses measures however is not of benefit for the most part and can have lasting repercussions on not only your current stock, but their progeny as well.
That's the greatest issue: reliance.
When the winter weather settles in every year, poultry keepers need to be mindful not to humanize their stock. As humans lacking a fur or feathered coat to protect us we tend to stuff our jackets full of feathers or line them with fur. Things that livestock already have installed as basic features.
When we begin to add supplemental heating to our coops we are causing an issue of reliance. The birds begin to rely that the temperature is not ever going to drop below a given level. If the power should fail or the bulb should burn out, or the cozy coop should malfunction, the chickens will have no protection through acclimation.
The most important thing to remember year round is simple: cold and dry is better than warm and wet. It is far more important to have a draft free coop with proper ventilation than it is to have heat. Frostbite isn't caused by the cold after all, but rather from the presence of moisture in the air. When it settles on the exposed areas of the birds it freezes, potentially causing hypothermia and most always resulting in frostbitten areas.
Be sure to have a vent near the top or on the roof of your building to let hot, moist air escape preventing buildup. You might also want to remove any water dishes as well. Their presence in a coop can often exacerbate the presence of humidity too. Just be mindful that your vent placement does not result in any drafts inside the coop. Regardless whether you choose to use heat or not, drafts are a poultry killer.
Perches are another often overlooked area. Many people like the look of logs or branches but their round nature allows for the birds' toes to stick out from under their feathers, increasing the risk of them getting frozen. Perches are recommended to be installed comprising of a 2"x4" board laid flat on it's side. Upright perches do not give the necessary space to allow for the birds to lay their feet flat and fully covered by feathers while perched.
Birds also generate their own body heat which works against the rule. Allowing this heat to escape is necessary to avoid moisture, contrary to one's urge to try to trap the heat inside. Many people have remarked over the years that they had better results in a dilapidated building with huge holes in the roof than they have in their fancy insulated coops. The reason for this is simple - ventilation.
Insulated buildings have a greater interior seal that serves to trap air inside them, which is great for heat retention but not really adequate in terms of ventilation and humidity prevention. That is why it is so important to come up with a means of ventilating your coop that will work in conjunction with the insulation and it's properties.
Given that moisture is the number one issue that one will likely look to combat, anything that contributes to moisture should be avoided. Of course your birds will need to have water to drink but many breeds are caused hardship throughout the winter simply from drinking water. Birds like Silkies or Crested Polish get very wet when they dip their big puffy heads into the water for a drink. More than a few birds have succumbed to the cold because of this.
That's why during incredibly cold days you may want to consider giving your chickens snow to eat in lieu of water. That's not to say that you should not give water at all during the winter, but during days of extended low temperatures snow is an adequate water source than benefits the birds by keeping their beaks and face feathers dry. As soon as a break in the weather arrives immediately offer fresh water should this approach be taken to ensure that your birds remain adequately hydrated.
You can also feed water laden foods like fruit and presoaked or fermented feed as a means of extra hydration when feeding snow in place of water for extra peace of mind.
If you look to wildlife you will notice that many animals eat snow for hydration during the cold months of winter, including birds, deer and more. In fact, lots of times our own animals have been witnessed to pass up a fresh offering of water to eat snow instead. Offering snow is better than offering nothing at all and equally better than chickens with wet heads.
Another option is to house more birds together at a time. Although if you choose to use extra birds for extra heat it is important to remember that those extra chickens with that extra heat they produce is going to account for extra humidity as well, making ventilation all the more important yet. If you already have ventilation in your coop based on a previous capacity there is a good chance you are going to need to increase the ventilation as well when you add more birds.
Dry bedding is integral to winter options and any substrate that is chosen, whether it is straw, hay, wood shaving, hemp or any other material, must be kept dry. Bedding material that becomes wet should be removed and replaced with dry matter. This prevents a chicken (or any other livestock for that matter) from laying in a wet spot that might cause them to be in contravention of the rule. This also applies to situations where a deep litter method is being used. If excessive moisture is to be found, it should be removed immediately leaving only the dry material remaining.
The acclimation that your birds receive as a result of these practices will carry on to their resulting offspring. This gives them an added resilience against the local environment and each successive generation is stronger and more capable of withstanding the extreme cold of winter months in the future. This allows for the breed to become less susceptible as a whole. You can't be there all the time and the power often fails when it is the least convenient. Avoid allowing your flock to become reliant on artificial measures for their safety by allowing them to develop a natural protection through acclimation.
Do block drafts and provide adequate ventilation, don't add artificial heat and always remember the rule; cold and dry is better than warm and wet.
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