It’s kind of an alarming feeling, having your eyelashes freeze shut. But with temperatures dipping below -30°F, what do you expect?
We had an extremely cold winter out here on the One Acre Lott; at one point in time, we went a full 48 hours without ever getting above zero!
Red noses, numb fingers, and frozen eyelashes and nostrils were pretty commonplace during chore time, but our sturdy old chickens weathered it all without a single complaint — and without any supplemental heat.
Heck, their egg-laying didn’t even seem to drop off too much! (Not until they started molting, anyway…)
So, do Chickens Need A Heat Lamp?
When push comes to shove, chickens can survive incredibly cold temperatures. But we’re not in the business of just keeping our animals alive — we want them to be as happy and comfortable as reasonably possible.
In most circumstances, the real danger usually isn’t having your chickens freeze to death — it’s actually frostbite.
Frostbite occurs when the fluids within living tissues freeze, damaging the cells to the point of no return. The tissue dies and often shrivels up and falls off.
Chickens are most susceptible to frostbite on their combs, wattles, and feet.
If you want to see some mildly gruesome images, just try Googling “chicken frostbite.”
(Just don’t try looking it up right before dinnertime…)
Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to help avoid frostbite in your flock.
Keep Things Dry
The number one rule for preventing frostbite is to KEEP THINGS DRY!
Freezing temperatures, in and of themselves, aren’t always the the main culprit when it comes to frostbite. More often than not, the kiss of death is actually moisture.
In other words, a dry chicken is a happy chicken (i.e. a frostbite-free chicken).
That’s a little easier said than done though, right?
During the winter, moisture seems to be everywhere. I mean, there’s snow and ice all over the place — and on top of that, it seems like our silly old chickens can’t seem to take even the tiniest drink without splashing a whole bunch of water all over their faces!
How are you supposed to prevent that?!
You could drive yourself crazy trying to keep your chickens completely dry during the winter. But really, one of the biggest dangers (the one you should be most concerned about) is actually the moisture that accumulates within the coop itself.
Sure, the chickens are gonna track a little bit of snow and mud in with them. It just happens. (And all their pooping doesn’t help the situation either). But one of the main sources of moisture within the coop actually comes from their breathing! As strange as it may sound, those old featherbags can put out quite a bit of humidity just by breathing.
If you ever notice frost on the inside of your windows (or anywhere within the coop, really), that’s a pretty good indication that things are too moist and humid in there — which is a recipe for disaster!
But what can you do to prevent it or fix it?
#1 Dry Bedding
Personally, we keep at least 4 inches of straw on the floor of the chicken coop at all times.
During the winter, if I notice things are starting to look a little damp, I just pile on more straw! Not only does it keep things insulated, but it also soaks up any moisture that might have accumulated on the floor.
You can use whatever kind of bedding material you want: straw, hay, pine shavings, cedar chips, etc…
‘Round here, we just use straw.
It’s cheap. It’s easy. It does a great job of keeping things clean and cozy for our ladies. PLUS, it makes great fertilizer in the garden when spring finally rolls around.
On a totally unrelated note, if at all possible, do NOT keep the chicken’s water inside the coop (that’s just asking for spills).
#2 Adequate Airflow
Good ventilation is incredibly important when it comes to preventing frostbite in the chicken coop.
Sure, it’s a little counterintuitive to think about allowing airflow into the coop when temperatures are subzero — and don’t get me wrong; you certainly don’t want it to be drafty — but it’s important to provide some way for the moisture to escape.
Ideally, you want fresh, dry air coming in from the bottom, with the muggy, moist air escaping near the top (with very little cross breeze).
Cold drafts can be just as dangerous as moisture!
Which brings me to my next point…
Keep Your Chickens Out of the Wind
Wind is another real killer in the wintertime.
Sadly, we know this from experience.
Our chickens had been doing wonderfully, all through our extra cold winter. But just as the temperatures were finally starting to warm up in late January, the wind decided to pick up its pace as well.
Although it was relatively warm outside (and by “warm”, I mean mid 20’s), I got to looking at our chickens after a particularly windy day, and I noticed that two of our ladies (a Rhode Island Red and a Black Australorp) had the telltale signs of frostbite — pale, lifeless looking lobes on tops of their combs.
As the days progressed, our Rhode Island Red (a.k.a. “Henny Penny“) recovered fabulously. The frostbitten portions of her comb scabbed over a bit, but they eventually healed without any lasting effect.
Our poor Australorp, however, ended up losing her lobe. Nothing life-threatening. Certainly not the end of the world. But still unfortunate.
I hate feeling like I’ve failed to protect my animals…
Looking back, I can think of only two possible solutions that might have prevented it: either I lock them up in the coop for days on end, or maybe put up some kind of a windbreak.
I don’t like the idea of keeping them shut inside for long periods of time (especially since I can’t keep the waterer inside the coop), so I guess I’m gonna have to look into the windbreak option.
When all is said and done, and we’ve finished weighing out all of our options, it just doesn’t make sense for us personally to use supplemental heat.
I would much rather provide our chickens with plenty of dry bedding, adequate airflow, and, like I said, maybe a couple of good outdoor windbreaks — and then just let the miracle of chicken hardiness work its magic.
Is our method perfect? Of course not. But it does work pretty dang good.
If truth be told, my long-term plan is actually to selectively breed a new variety of chicken — one that is specially suited to our situation.
I’m really liking the pea-combs of our Easter Eggers (none of them had any trouble whatsoever with frostbite). I like the egg production of our Rhode Island Reds. And since we are raising birds for both eggs and meat, I’d like to keep our meaty old Australorp’s genetics circulating through the gene pool.
I’d also like to try and breed some broodiness and mothering instinct into our flock so we don’t have to keep borrowing an incubator, year after year. It’d be awesome if we could put together a self-propagating flock of superbirds!
I’m not kidding myself though. I realize it could be decades before we get to that point — if we get to that point.
But I digress!
We were actually talking about heat lamps…
Although heat lamps don’t make sense in our situation, they might work for you. Just be careful where you put it; they can be a fire hazard.
[Insert joke about the smoke causing bronchitis — ain’t nobody got time for that!]
You might also want to look into using the red-tinted bulbs, since they are supposedly less stressful for your birds. Red-tinted bulbs tend to be a bit easier on a chicken’s internal clock than the plain old white ones — but, like I’ve said before, I’m no expert.
I’m just sharing some of my personal experience. Take it with a grain of salt, and feel free to let me know what you think!