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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Keeping chickens through the harsh Alaska winter

Yesterday, a fellow Alaskan asked me how I keep my chickens through the winter.  I thought the question would be easiest to answer in a post rather than as a comment, so here it is.  This is what we do, it’s not necessarily the “right” way to do things.  We do look up information, but most chicken keeping information is not for climates that go to -50, so in the end we figured out through trial and error what works for us.

We have kept chickens here for just a couple years, on this property.  When we moved here there was a wooden floored shop that has seen better days.  Its uninsulated, unheated, the roof leaks in a couple places, and it already had electricity in it.  It is large enough that we were able steal the back corner of it for the chicken coop.  DH made the coop 8X12 feet finished, so it was a little bigger than  before he made the inside walls.  He insulated the floor building a new floor framework right on the previous floor, then insulated it with R-13 and covered it with wood.  Then he insulated the existing side wall, and built the other two sides the same, insulating them, and making them plywood, he also insulated the ceiling the same way.  Almost all the wood was salvaged wood from other projects, or gleaned from the transfer station.  What I’ll call the front wall is where it leads outside to the chicken yard.  There was an old broken window on there, which he removed.  He salvaged 2, double pained windows from another project and used that for the chicken coop.  They are nice and large and give a good amount of light, and can be opened to increase ventilation and closed to increase warmth.  They are placed pretty high, one so there was room for chicken doors to go outside, and also when it gets really frigid DH puts insulation over them.  In our old coop we once put foam insulation board on a lower window and the chickens ATE it!  Those darn girls laid Styrofoam eggs for a weak.  So these windows are out of reach, and when he does insulate he uses bat insulation, stapled on and covered in plastic, none was eaten this year.  He also painted the ceiling and upper walls white to make it brighter in there.   This size of house gives us 6 square feet for each chicken.  We do have some rabbit cages in there too, they are up along one wall, and then there are nest boxes below the cages.  If it’s too large, it makes it much harder to keep them warm, their body heat does a lot of the work.

 Working on the chicken coop

 All finished, the chicks explore their new home

We don’t use any heater in there.  Their body heat does most of it.  Once there is a few inches of snow on the ground, they quit going outside on their own, they only adventure out a couple feet where the roof overhang keeps the snow back.  When it gets around -10 with a threat of super low, we close them up for the year.  DH locks down their doors, puts insulation in front of them, then nailed a board in front of it to keep them from eating it.  In the spring , the board and insulation will removed and the doors will be opened again.  Once it is getting darker, we start giving them artificial light.  At our shortest day we get only 3 hours of light above the horizon.  DH puts it on a timer, we primarily use2 fluorescent bulbs hanging on feed store lights on timers set, 12 hours on and 12 hours off.  The body heat of the chickens keep the house above  40 degrees until about -20.  At that point we add a 100W incandescent bulb that is left on all the time.  That works until -30 to -40, when we add a heat lamp.  We had a month long stretch requiring the heat lamp, which ran our electric bill up greatly, and when it warmed up and the lights went abruptly back to 12 hours, the girls quit laying.  We ended up putting the incandescent back in all day and night, until they started laying again, then slowly decreased the light and they kept laying.  We will be looking into less expensive options than the heat lamp, we’ve used one prior and it didn’t seem to make the bill go up so much, so I’m not sure if it’s just that particular one or what.  We may at least try a red one, so it provides heat, but not 24 hours of light.  Now we are getting enough light, that the light timer is only coming on for short periods of time.  When it gets too warm in there, there is a buildup of moisture, and it stinks, A LOT.  So DH ended up uncovering one of the windows after our severe cold spell, and opens and closes it for increased or decreased ventilation.  In our old coop the waterer sat on a block near the wall and it kept freezing, we ended up putting a battery warmer (for a car) on it, or they sell heated bases to put them on.  This year ours hung in the center of the room with the feeder, and it froze a little only once this year so we didn’t need to warm it.    

 In the dead of winter, you can see the uncovered window coated in ice 

For bedding on the floor, we used  a thick layer of straw to insulate their feet further, but DH plans on changing this to wood chips next year.  The straw became a woven mat that was very difficult to clean out.  The wood chips the chickens love, they pretend they are in dirt and settle down into little holes, and roll around in it like they are having a dirt bath.  They also dig around in it more, stirring it up and keeping it more dry.  

We feed them organic layer crumbles, vegetable kitchen scraps, and some other things like bread, cooked rice, noodles, beans etc… anything leftover that we don’t eat up.  We also toss around some organic cracked corn, it gives them something interesting to do, as well as stirs up the bedding, and also gives them some extra fuel for body heat in the cold of winter.  I have recently read on Mother Earth News I think, about sprouting trays of grains for the chickens, to give them during the winter, it boosts their health and happiness.  I may try this next year, for this year I just tried to get some veges out to them all day.  I do not feed them any meat products, although I know some people do.  My brother reports his chickens favorite treat is mashed potatoes.  

For the most part, the chickens are getting along well and do not look too  worse for the months of cold weather and confinement.  The breeds were selected specifically for handling cold and confinement well.  Some of the girls are showing signs of a lot of attention from the rooster.  We recently split the house in half and put the Australorps and Buff Orpington on one side and the Barred Rock and the Ameraucana on the other side with the rooster.  Well one of the Australorps has been picked on until her back is bleeding and we had to put her in a cage to seclude her and are treating the back.  I guess we messed up the pecking order by separating them into two groups.

Well I guess this pretty much covers our winter care and housing of the chickens, and since this post is quite long already, I’ll make a summer housing and care post a little later.  Please feel free to share you chicken keeping tips, and questions.  

 You can see the chicken coop behind the garden, and they have a huge fenced in area behind the garden.  I'll talk more about free ranging, chicken tractors, and why we ended up going with confinement instead.


  1. wow, what a lovely area for your girls....I would love to have chickens for fresh eggs...unfortunately Rusty dog and Cindy dog would not stop barking until they killed them....so no chooks for us....
    I am 100% sure that your chickens are happy. Well done, love your blog...keep up the great work you are doing.....Alaska...wow....I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like there (besides cold)

  2. Thanks! We have the luxury that the chicken yard is on one side of the barn, and the fenced dog yard is on the opposite side of the barn, although they can see each other through the double fence. We are planning on putting an electric fence wire around the bottom outside the chicken yard. The fencing is buried down, but wouldn't keep a determined neighbor dog or a fox out if they really wanted. We got lucky last year.

  3. Interesting account of how you deal with problems I never have to face. I wonder if the water heater, or possibly two working together might solve your problems. If it's putting off heat, it will definitely contribute to warming the space. I know they sell some specifically to keep pet/livestock water from freezing, but I've never used one myself. And then you wouldn't have the too much light issue to deal with.

  4. Kate, thanks for the suggestion, it's definitely something we will look into.

  5. Thanks for the detailed post. Your post gave me a ton of ideas. We are going to insulate our coop this summer. I've been speaking to other chicken owners in the area and sounds like scraggily birds are the norm....Now I just need a work around for the bears! lol.

  6. another idea - depending on how far the distances are - is to set up a simple heat exchange loop. You could pipe some PVC or copper tubing (keep the walls of the piping as thin as possible) and get a small pump to circulate the media (glycol usually works better than water because it doesn't corode the pipe or freeze) between the coop and house. Leave it uninsulated in the house and coop and wrap it for the run in between. It will pick up heat from the house and deposit it in the coop. The only thing you will have to play with is the rate at which the media circulates...the faster it goes, the warmer it will stay. :)

  7. Thanks for the idea, I'll definitely talk with my husband about it. It's basically how our home is heated, hot water baseboard heat.

  8. I just ran across your blog recently. Thanks for all the details on keeping your girls comfortable. Sounds like you've provided them with a great home. I'm new to chickens. We just completed a coop and have 10 Gold Stars about 6 weeks old. We live in Willow where the temps can get pretty cold so I'm still trying to figure out how all my options to keep water from freezing. Can you tell me about the battery heater you use, please? I've looked at the bases available in the feed store and online and they all say good to 15 degrees. Not sure that will do the trick in the dead of winter. Like you say, the chickens body heat keeps them warm so maybe the coop won't get lower than 15. Any advise would be greatly appreciated. Great writing! ~Jean

  9. Jean, after speaking with my husband about how he did it, I found out it wasn't a battery heater, it was a oil pan heater, it's smaller than the battery heater 3X5". It's what we use in Fairbanks for our cars available from the auto parts store. He use silicone to stick it on the side of a 3 gal metal watering container. and then ran the cord up the side. He said when he put it underneath they kept picking at the cord. He said he ended up putting it on a timer to run for 2-3 hours every 12 hours, depending on how cold it is. I'm not sure if this is better than the base heaters or not, they just didn't have any so we tried this first instead. In our current coop, we didn't need heat. Good luck!

  10. You look after your chickens like we do :) Our friends call our coop the Chicken Hilton :) We have a 6x11 space for our 12 birds and we could open the door and let them have the rest of a 12x15 space if necessary. Ours is also insulated. How do you cope with ventilation in the winter? We are in Nova Scotia and it only gets to -20 (celsius) here at it's worst, and we're still mulling over the best way to ventilate the coop while not letting the chickens get cold.

    P.S. Love your blog.

  11. For your chickens that get peck on and bleed you might try chicken coats or also called chicken saddles.