It’s that time of year, fellow backyard chicken owners. Well, it’s that time of year if you live below, like, Zone 8 or something. Winter comes early for me in my Zone 4 yard. It starts with the puddles of standing water in the toy buckets and empty random nonsense that I should’ve already put away but haven’t, in the form of sheer layers of brittle ice, coating every inch of wet surface. I know that means soon, too soon, the ice will reach my run, and eventually encroach into my coop. Yes, you guessed it, I don’t heat my coop. Never have (not even when my coop was a prefab jobbie that was literally 2×3’ inside); never will. Sure, there are days I silently cry as I trudge through knee deep snow, in my robe, up a hill, while icy pellets sting my exposed skin and bitter winds pull my hair, all to check to make sure the girls still have water and that it hasn’t frozen into a deadly thick hockey puck, but the benefits of not heating the coop far outweigh the drawbacks (yes, even suffering hypothermia after my 30 second trek through my backyard wasteland), in my opinion. Now, I may not heat the coop, but I do have a single device at my disposal that has all but ended my hourly journeys to the coop during the winter months: the DIY Chicken Water Warmer. Let me explain:
Why I choose not to heat my coop:
Those pesky heating lamps
To start off with, I am terrified of those heater lights. Sure, they feel all warm and cozy and make your little coop so toasty on those super cold nights, but all it takes is a short, or for the light to come in contact with something flammable for your coop and hens to go up in a kind of barbeque that isn’t fun and doesn’t involve beer and laughter.
Heating your coop may seem like a great idea, but aside from the chance of fire, I also had to consider the ill affects heating can cause. Have you ever gone on vacation somewhere really warm in the winter, and then come home and been totally FREEZING??? But if you were to think about it, they day before you left for your vacation, you didn’t really notice the cold. That’s because your body had, until the vacation, acclimatized to the weather. Acclimatizing is a good thing. Being hardy is a good thing. The same goes for chickens. Allowing them to naturally acclimatize to the weather is important. Consider this: what were to happen if you heated your coop and one night the power went out? Your poor girls, who had been used to a balmy 20C, are now shocked into a -20C. Not optimal, and could kill them.
Even chickens deserve a vacation
Keeping your coop heated and lit, is necessary if you want eggs consistently year round, but I decided that I’d rather not mess with my hens’ natural seasonal rhythms. Chickens’ egg laying is dependent on how many hours of sunlight they get a day. To lay regularly, they need 12-15 hours of sunlight. The yearly moult is typically timed with the waning of the sun as summer ends and winter begins. This signifies too that egg laying will slow down and sometimes even stop over the winter months, when daylight is shorter. The cease in egg laying is not a bad thing. It gives their little chicken bodies a chance to take a break, because laying eggs is hard work! Yes, you probably will have to buy eggs for the winter, but the trade off is fair in my opinion. Using a light all winter to trick their bodies into laying is fine, however, keep in mind that chickens have a finite amount of eggs their bodies will release in a lifetime. Not giving them breaks from laying, hastens the end-of-egg-production lifespan, while also prohibiting times of healthy rest.
I am not saying that heating is never a good idea. It is entirely a personal decision. My girls are all hardy breeds, and have lost some of their comb tips to frostbite. There have been those cold weather alerts where I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Then I go check on them, and they’re just doing their normal chicken stuff like it’s no big deal. On those days, I give them extra sunflower seeds and protein to keep their little internal fires stoked. Ultimately, though the choice is yours. If you have fancy breeds, or tiny silkies, maybe heat would work better. Just make sure it’s safely installed and be cognizant of the fact that power outtages do occur and your chickens will need alternate (warm) living arrangements until the power is restored.
Chickens are already wearing awesome technical gear
Chickens are made of feathers. Think of your best duvet. It is most likely made of feathers. If you have a really nice duvet, it will be full of down feathers, which are the soft feathers between a birds outer feathers and skin. They are fluffy and are amazing insulators, trapping air warmed by their bodies in between the skin and outer feathers. So, if you can picture being cuddled up in a great down duvet, you can almost imagine what it’s like being a chicken! Those downy feathers are a great defence against some of the coldest temperatures. Chickens also huddle together at night on the roost. They rest their bodies atop their feet, tuck their heads in their wings to protect combs and wattles, and cuddle to their roost buddy. If you don’t believe me, reach under their wings with your bare hands in the middle of winter: it’s ridiculously warm!
My coop is insulated. By insulated I mean it has an R5 value on the floor and walls. The roof is uninsulated. I keep a window open all winter. There are ventilation holes along the roof line which are also open year round. Having good ventilation is important as it keeps the condensation to a minimum. This doesn’t mean that drafts are good, but open air exchange is. Have you ever seen pictures of open air coops? If not, you must look them up. They’re amazing and have been successful in really cold places.
I put a couple of bales of straw in the coop. I spread straw on the ground and leave one or two baled so the girls can chill on them during the day. I also wrap their run in heavy grade clear plastic, leaving the top 6 inches clear for air circulation. This cuts the wind and snow in the run, but allows daylight through. It actually gets quite “warm” in there on a sunny day.
My first winter of chicken ownership, fell during a period I will forever refer to as, The Year of the Prefab, (I may expand on this later, when I’m less traumatized), was the worst. Teeny tiny coop=no room for water in the coop. No water in coop=water in the run. Water in the run=frozen water. All. The. Time. I was back and forth to the coop 75 times a day, hauling warm water, cold water, it didn’t matter, it all froze. Halfway through the winter of The Year of the Prefab, I discovered the DIY Chicken Water Warmer. It was as if heaven opened up and angels sang and sun beamed down on me and for a moment I wasn’t freezing and snow-covered and desperate for my morning coffee which I hadn’t had yet because I was trudging up and down a hill with water. My water warmer was amazing. It stopped the water in the run from freezing most days. And I’m telling you, it was a cold, looooooong winter. And I like winter. Not the winter of the prefab. No, I try to block that winter out. Other than to remember it was cold and long and my water warmer was A-mazing!
The DIY Chicken Water Warmer changed everything. Seriously, I’m not even exaggerating. It’s such a simple hack, but one that has served me well for two and a half Canadian winters (which sometimes seems like 10 winters worth of winter!). Last year, the water froze 3 or 4 times, and that was when it was -40C and even then the water didn’t completely freeze, it just froze around the rim of the bowl so there was still exposed water.
Now, this warmer does use electricity, which means, that common sense should be used when using anything electrical near flammable sources and water. I can’t make any guarantees that you won’t get a short, or a fire might start (heaven forbid), but for me, I weighed the pros and cons and felt that this small caveat to electricity in the coop was worth it for my sanity. I check my warmer on a regular basis to make sure there are no breaks or chews in the cable, and that the plug is out of reach of flammables and the chickens. I also check daily to make sure that the warmer is dry, clear of debris, and that the lightbulb is still working. I now keep it in my much bigger coop and can get away with a 20 watt bulb, although a 40 watt one has been great as well. Going higher than that though will risk burning your chickens, and that’s not good for anyone.
Also, you’ll see in my instructions that I suggest a metal dog bowl for the water. I tried using a plastic bird waterer which was a bit of a fail. I find the metal of the dog bowl conducts the heat far better, plus my girls prefer an open bowl.
DIY Chicken Water Warmer
(a.k.a. The Christmas Miracle!)
Here’s what you need:
Cord Light (I got mine at Ikea years ago. I paid maybe $5 for it: here’s something similar from Ikea)
Cookie tin (should be at least 6″ deep to have space for lightbulb)
20-40 watt Lightbulb
Metal dog bowl
Drill (This one from DeWalt works great! And I got it at Lowes.)
Hole Saw (not essential, but awesome!)
Here’s how you do it:
Drill a hole in the side of the base of the cookie tin. If you don’t have a hole saw, no worries! You can draw a circle on the side of the tin the size of the opening you need, then simply drill a series of holes around the circle outline using a standard drill bit. Once you’ve done then, take a pair of tin snips and carefully cut out the circle, using the drilled holes as a guide (think of connect the dots with tin snips!). Wear protective gloves: metal is SHARP!
Insert the light through hole so the light socket is inside the tin. Screw on the lightbulb thingy, so the cable and light can’t slide back through the opening. Once you are happy with the positioning, silicone both the circumference of hole and around the base of the light socket so no water/flammables can get in.
Screw in lightbulb. Put lid on cookie tin.
Plug in. Place metal dog bowl on top of cookie tin.