This is written for the folks who keep cage free chickens and live in areas where the temperatures dip into the single digits during January and February. These tips are suggestions backed up by advice I’ve been given by experienced backyard egg producers and (family) farmers.
Security and Warmth are equally important factors to consider when prepping your chicken coop for winter. If you want eggs, Light (chickens should always have access to natural daylight, here I’m referring to the artificial kind you plug in). Space is important as well. You want enough space your girls (and maybe a rooster or two) won’t get on each other’s nerves. When you live where I do, in rural Maine, the chickens can be shut indoors for days at end. I get the girls outside at least once a week if I can for a few hours and other days let them run about the barn in the morning and afternoon. I’ve read 3 square/feet a bird is a good gage for free-range birds (again, this is all relative depending on how much time your chickens get outside). **Make sure to provide adequate roosting space (in my summer coop I’ve got elevated branches, in the winter one a ladder and two elevated dowels) and nesting boxes (where the gals lay their eggs – it’s like a box or crate with one side open – my summer boxes are all elevated, my winter ones are not – something I’m resigned to fixing in the spring).
Predators include foxes, neighbor’s dogs (hopefully not your own), coyotes (depending on how rural an area), raccoons, fisher cats (like a weasel, really mean, makes a very scary sounding noise), maybe a regular housecat (though mine is quite the mouser and won’t go near the chickens), skunks and owls…among others. Make sure to protect your flock from these unwanted visitors.
Depending on the breed(s) you have, temperatures and being shut inside will be less/more of an issue. I picked Australorps and Buff Orpingtons, because both are cold-hardy (especially the Australorps), sweet/calm, and excellent layers.
Sunlight – nothing, not heat lamps or electrical heating devices, can take the place of Mother Nature’s natural heater. You love sunny days right, well don’t you think your girls do too?
Dampness – big no, no. Make sure the coop is dry – if you spill water or there is a leaky pipe/vent somewhere clean it up. Whether dirt (ground), wood or slab and you’ve got wood chips on it…keep it dry and moisture free.
Wind – as well as putting a roof over their cute feathery heads, make sure their bodies are shielded from those cold winds that come with living in a cold climate. Because the coop I keep my girls in during the warmer months is not outfitted for winter (no electricity for one) and I have the space, I decided to build a winter coop for them in the barn. I stapled (wire) poultry netting to barn posts to close in the space. Then, to limit drafts I purchased enough hay bales to build a wall on one side and ½ a wall on the other. If you can afford/have available/are skilled put up drywall, otherwise I’m told hay will do and so far I feel confident about it.
Electric devices – don’t use a heating lamp, do use a regular 40 or 60w bulb to extend the daylight hours (i.e. I run mine from 5:30 a.m. – 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.). The reason you don’t want to use a heat lamp, is because if you do and then you lose power your chickens might not have adjusted to the cold the way they naturally would have and could freeze. The other reason is fire. Trust me, every year I hear of at least one (and there are always more) barn fire where someone’s heating lamp fell into hay and the whole barn was ablaze, the animals were lost…a complete and mostly avoidable tragedy. Do feel comfortable using an electric water heater, but ONLY the kind made for that purpose. The heater will keep your flock’s water from freezing inside your coop. It operates automatically when the temperature drops below 35 degrees, and will keep up to 3 gallons of water from icing over in temperatures as low as 10 degrees.