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.
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.