Do Chickens Need Heat in Winter?

In the past when I have had chickens I have always given them some heat for the winter. Usually a heat lamp burning in one corner of the coop so they can warm up if needed. Now I am not so sure whether that is a good idea. We live in a pretty cold climate, here in the Rocky Mountains. We are 4500 feet above sea level, so winters are very cold but usually dry, despite the snow. I have done a lot of research recently on chickens and winter, and it seems that as long as they are dry and out of the wind, winter-hardy breeds can tolerate very low temperatures just fine.

Some even say that providing them with too much heat could be a serious mistake. If they are used to a warm coop, if the power goes out they will freeze to death. If they are used to a cooler coop, they won’t have a problem with the weather. However, in any case, they do need a source of fresh water. Frozen water just won’t do. So, I am thinking that a little heat to keep the water from freezing would be fine as long as they are not coddled into believing that it is eternally spring in the hen house! My past flocks continued laying well all winter – and I attribute that to a little heat and a fair amount of light.

While I feel sorry for anything outdoors in cold weather, I realized that if tiny local birds can survive the winter with no shelter, surely a 6 pound chicken in a nice backyard chicken coop can survive! The main point seems to be to choose breeds that have smaller combs so they are not as susceptible to frostbite. If you research the breeds you are looking for, you can find out which are most cold-hardy. Generally, the bigger birds with smaller combs are just fine in winter. I even read accounts of chickens doing well in a dry chicken coop in Canada with the temps at 20 below zero. Oy!

I have a few options for building a chicken coop since we are starting over from scratch. One option would be to do a chicken tractor and pull it up close to the house for the winter. This is what I did with our last two sets of chickens (one set and their coop was given away when I moved out of state briefly, the other set was given away when I was pregnant and on bed rest and not able to keep up with them). That worked well for the coldest part of the winter and I was able to run an extension cord to the coop for a light. However, I was always nervous about the possibility of a fire or problems from a wet extension cord. Turns out that coop fires are common, even when precautions have been taken.

The next possibility would be to use an existing shed for a coop. It is not an ideal location, and the shed needs a lot of work. But it is sturdy and has a good solid frame. Any heat there would have to be from an extension cord across the driveway (BAD, bad idea!) or from solar heat. Solar heat is fine most of the time in our sunny climate, but there are times when it is cloudy for days – usually right at the worst of the winter weather. This soda can solar heater or this passive solar heater both should work to provide a bit of heat.

Finally, I could build a freestanding coop a bit farther from the house. There would be no practical way of getting electricity to it, so the chickens would be on their own for heat or it too could have a solar heater of some kind installed.

So, the answer seems to be that since I chose breeds that winter well, they will be fine with a cool coop as long as I keep them dry and out of the wind. So, I’ll keep contemplating my coop options for a bit longer. Building a backyard chicken coop is easy, once you make up your mind! My chickens will be warm and dry this winter, one way or the other. Meanwhile, they are warm and dry under a heat lamp in my house until they are big enough to go outside at all!

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