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Please Don't Heat our Coop... Love, The Chickens

Each winter, coops catch fire with heartbreaking results. Chickens are extremely cold-hardy and don't need heat. Be safe, say no to heat in your chicken coop.

To heat or not to heat your chicken coop in the winter.....that is the question.

Dry straw or shavings, wood, chickens, plus a heat source....not a good combination. An oft-debated topic among chicken keepers is the subject of heating your coop or not. But in this case, it's best to listen to your chickens.

"Please Don't Heat our Coop.... Love The Chickens"

Some chicken experts flat out say no - never, ever heat your coop. Their rationale is that people have been raising chickens forever, even before electricity was invented, so chickens don't need heat.

While that's essentially true, I don't agree with that rationale completely.

Remember, generations ago, chickens most likely slept right in the barn along with other, larger farm animals - maybe snuggled up next to a fuzzy sheep or roosting on the rafters above a pen full of warm cows. The photo above is the chicken barn at my childhood home, by the way! 

Farm families also generally kept fairly large flocks since they were using their chickens for eggs and for meat. The average farmer had a lot more than 4 or 5 chickens snuggling together on a roost trying to stay warm.

They had Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, and other cold-hardy breeds that they bought at their local feed store.

Back then, people only had breeds that were indigenous to their particular climate. They weren't ordering fancy breeds from a breeder or getting a box of chicks delivered by their mail carrier! But chicken raising has evolved in just a few generations to be something entirely different.

Backyard coops are springing up everywhere, housing just a few chickens, sometimes chosen not for their cold-hardiness but for temperament, appearance or pretty egg color.

There's nothing wrong with that, in fact, I'm guilty as charged! ... but you need to be aware of how your flock will do in the cold and make allowances.

Chickens Don't Need Heat in their Coop

I agree in principle that heating your coop isn't a good idea because of the fire hazard and because your chickens will be a lot more hardy and healthy if they are allowed to naturally and gradually get used to the drop in temperature as winter progresses.

 Also, chickens are actually pretty cold-hardy and know to fluff their feathers to trap warm air next to their bodies. They have a much harder time in the heat than in the cold, being most comfortable in temperatures between about 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your chickens rely on the artificial heat, in addition to the fire hazard that any heat source poses, if you were to ever lose power or the bulb burn out in the middle of the night, your chickens could die, not used to being without heat.

In addition, the difference in temperatures between night (warmer) and day (colder isn't good for them. Lastly,  the heat source will create moisture, which can lead to frostbite.  Most frostbite is actually caused by moisture not the cold itself.

Going as natural as possible is usually better when it comes to most decisions relating to animal care. And the vast majority of chicken keepers should never need to heat their coops. 

We live in Maine and don't have heat in our coop. The coldest outdoor temperature we've had so far is -16F and our chickens were just fine.  

However, I do agree that there are situations when heat might be necessary. If you live in a place where the temperatures in the winter go down to -40F for example, then running electricity to your coop, preferably having a generator as backup if you lose power, and installing a flat panel heater is going to be far safer AND far healthier for your chickens than using a heat lamp.

Here are some other exceptions to the blanket rule that chickens don't need heat. 

When you Might Need to Heat your Coop

Use your best judgement and remember there ARE situations when heat might not be a bad idea, such as:

  • If the temperature is predicted to suddenly drop 20 degrees or more from the norm, going into the single digits or lower
  • If you have young chicks who are going from indoors to outside during the winter or pullets that are not fully grown
  • If you have chickens who are injured or recovering from a sickness
  • If you only have two or three hens in a large coop so their body heat won't be sufficient to keep them warm
  • If you have breeds that are not cold-hardy, such as silkies, polish and frizzles
  • If you temperatures are predicted to be -20 degrees F or lower

Side Note: A friend of mine lost her silkies last winter to the cold after reading on another chicken page that chickens NEVER need a heated coop. I just read a post from someone else yesterday about losing a silkie to the cold because she didn't realize that silkies can't fluff their feathers to stay warm like other breeds. 

Another friend had to have her rooster's foot amputated because of frostbite. It's important to make your decision based on your location, situation and mix of breeds. 

Please Don't Use a Heat Lamp

If you DO decide to provide a heat lamp (and again, I can't stress how much I recommend AGAINST heat in coops!), be sure it's secured so nothing can catch on fire... and then secure it again. Remember that clamps can come unscrewed, wires untwisted and bulbs will shatter if water hits them. 

Straw and wood shavings catch on fire so easily. So you're taking a huge risk by rigging up a heat lamp in your coop. 

An even better alternative to a heat lamp is a radiant panel heater like this one or this one. Far less chance of fire using an electric panel heater. But regardless, always use caution and common sense. And remember, mice will chew through electric wires....and that's a fire hazard regardless of the type of heater you're using.

This is an actual photo (below) posted in Instagram. The fire started in the chicken coop (to the left) and was caused by a heat lamp. All the chickens perished in the fire, which then spread to the barn, which could not be saved.

Fortunately, there were no animals in the barn at the time, and the fire was contained before it spread to the house. But I wonder if that family will rethink putting a heat lamp in their coop in the future.

All that said, there are better, safer ways to keep your chickens warm through the winter than using a heat lamp:

  • A well-insulated and well-ventilated (but not drafty), dry coop
  • A thick layer of straw on the coop floor
  • Using the deep litter method (basically maintaining a 12" floor base of straw, and turning it over periodically to let the poop decompose and create heat)
  • Placing straw bales along the outer walls (inside or outside the coop - if outside, you can use hay)
  • Having the correct number of hens for the size of the coop

And believe it or not, snow is a wonderful insulator. Think igloos... so if you have a considerable amount of snow, shovel it up against the coop. And remember, you're likely feeling more sorry for your chickens than they are feeling cold!

And of course the best way to keep your chickens warm in the winter is to get MORE chickens ! An average-sized chicken produces about 10 BTUs of heat. With my 21 chickens snuggled in my coop each night, it has been consistently averaging 10-20 degrees higher than the outside temperature when

I open it up in the morning, due entirely to the chickens' body heat and the heat created by using the deep litter method. A warm chicken is a happy chicken!

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