I write the title with tongue firmly in cheek. Our winter has been disappointing. At our extended family’s Christmas, one of the cousins’ (I think he’s a cousin) wives (I think they’re married….they have a couple kids) had her family (I think they were related to her…..AARRGGGHHH, Christmas is SO confusing) in from New Zealand. Nice folks, really interesting, but they had never seen snow except on mountains, and were looking forward to Canada in winter. I am embarrassed at how poorly Canada has performed for these valued visitors. Right now, my lawn is pretty green, and there is a tiny snow bank in the corner. Weak.
All that aside, it is important for backyarders to “winterize” their flocks if they live in a climate that traditionally has winter. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts about using lightbulbs and bubble wrap or some other form of insulation to keep the hens’ environment above 10 degrees Celsius. Chickens don’t tolerate cold very well, and it is important to try to keep them in their “thermo-neutral” zone if you can.
There are other considerations for keeping the environment comfortable for your hens. Especially when the coop is “closed down” for the winter, humidity, ammonia and dust can be serious concerns. It is necessary to bring fresh air into the coop for the birds’ comfort and health. Birds staying inside and just breathing will add a lot of moisture to the air, and moisture, along with manure will result in ammonia, which is damaging to the eyes and lungs. In poorly ventilated spaces, I have seen birds develop severe burns to their windpipes and corneas from the acid that results from ammonia.
The most convenient way to ventilate your coop is to allow air to escape from the top of the structure, and allow air to enter through the bottom portion of the coop. It is awesome when physics works for you once in a while…..warm air rises, and the air exiting the “chimney” will draw air in through the bottom. This will pull ammonia and carbon dioxide out of the coop, and make the hens more comfortable.
Now you will start to face the dilemma that professional farmers face each winter…..how do you balance the need to bring in fresh air with the need to keep the birds warm. If the outside temperature is -20, you can’t bring much fresh air into the coop before you cool them too much. Plus, wherever the cold air enters the coop (or the inlet in a professional barn), physics says that there will be condensation form from the warm air meeting the cold. This results in more moisture in the coop, which means you need to bring in more fresh air, which makes more condensation……fun, huh?
The bottom line for the health of the birds is that they can handle being a little cool much better than they can handle high ammonia in the air (read the warning labels on some old type cleaners to see how nasty ammonia is). So, if you have to make a decision between lesser evils, put your head in the coop at the level your chicken’s heads are at, and take a deep breath in through your nose. If tears well up in your eyes, allow more fresh air in, even if it allows the temperature to drop below ideal…..then go to the hardware store and get a higher wattage light bulb, or turn up you heater’s thermostat.
I apologize for not being able to give you a “recipe” for providing a good environment for your hens. Your coop is unique, as is your climate and hen’s tolerances. Even in professional barns, which are pre-designed to very direct specifications, the environments are subtly different and need to be “felt out”. I can’t tell you to keep the temperature at 12 degrees and replace the air every 20 minutes…..that is a reasonable place to start, but then you need to watch your hens, and listen to what they tell you….if they huddle under the heat source they are too hot….if they are crowding the walls, with feathers puffed up, they are too cold. If they sit with their eyes squinted shut, and the air hurts your eyes, you need to allow more airflow, regardless of the temperature.
Again, if it was easy, I wouldn’t have a job.
All the best, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Mike the Chicken Vet