Our thermometer dipped well into the negative numbers last night, here in Maine. I have to say, on these frigid winter mornings, I’m always glad to see my feathered girls looking so chipper and strong. If we’re honest, they look far more chipper than I feel at 6am when it’s 6 below – despite the fact that I’m the one clad in a heavy coat, wool mittens, and fur-lined hat.
With the onset of more seasonably cold weather this week, I’ve seen this question going around a lot on most of the farming and homesteading forums I’m part of. “Should our chickens get a heat lamp, or not?” It’s invariably a hotly-debated topic, with most of the reasoning falling into one of two camps. Those in favor of heating the coop argue that their chickens seem cold, and it feels cruel to leave them to the elements, when it’s so easy to take off the chill with a lamp. Those against them argue that heat lamps are a fire hazard – a refrain that rings throughout the comments thread like the persistent chanting from A Christmas Story: “You’ll shoot your eye out, you’ll shoot your eye out!”I fall into the later camp, and, wanting to add a little more to the conversation than a simple cautionary chant – here are my reasons for not keeping a heat lamp in our chicken house:
It’s actually not good for their health. For a few reasons. Heating an enclosed space, like a chicken house, promotes condensation. If it’s an insulated chicken house, this problem is more pronounced. Chickens are very sensitive to dampness, especially in cold weather. The extra humidity in an enclosed space can make them more prone to disease, and their combs more vulnerable to frostbite. Having a heat lamp also makes them more likely to huddle around it, which means they’re getting less exercise and are eating less – two of the most effective natural mechanisms a chicken’s physiology has for maintaining body heat in cold temperatures.
A heat lamp creates unnecessary dependence on supplemental heat, making them vulnerable to sudden change in temperature if for any reason lamp goes out. Chickens get sick so quickly – they’re much less hardy than ducks when it comes to sudden temperature changes. Living in an unseasonably warm chicken coop, followed by a sudden cold snap if the electricity fails or a bulb goes out, has led to the unfortunate early demise of many a chicken. They’re a fire hazard. I know. I just said it wasn’t the only reason, not that it wasn’t a good one. It’s a pretty great reason, actually. You don’t think a coop or barn fire can possibly happen to you. You’ve mounted your lamp very securely, you conscientiously keep it clean and free of dust, you make sure there’s no loose straw or shavings nearby. You just don’t believe it can happen to you. But neither did the families who suffered through these Thanksgiving Day coop fires , or this family who lost most of their birds (but click here for a sweet video of paramedics giving a surviving rooster oxygen!) There’s also this fire in Michigan, as well as this one, and this one, all from just within the last month. The danger is so very real, my friends, and much more common than I realized until I started doing a little research. They don’t need it. If your chickens are silkies, or a similarly sensitive breed, or you live in Alaska, then we can talk – you’re in different territory there, and you’re going to want a more permanently insulated and safely-heated solution for your feathered friends. But for most backyard chickens, supplemental heat is truly unnecessary, when their needs are well provided for. These are some measures that we do take, to make sure our girls (and their faithful rooster, Ragnar), stay hale and hearty all season long:
- We use the deep litter method. A quick google search will bring up more information than you can possibly read about this – but I think Leigh over at Natural Chicken Keeping does a great (and concise!) job of describing the method here. Do keep in mind that this isn’t a “fix it and forget it” kind of setup. Like a garden, that wonderful deep layer you’re building in the bottom of your coop takes tending. Don’t let it get stale, damp, and dank. Faithfully keep stirring it up and adding to it as needed.
- We selected breeds suitable for our climate. Our colorful flock is a mixed assortment of Icelandic landrace chickens, and heritage breeds like New Hampshire Reds, Gold and Silver Laced Wyandottes, and Barred Rocks. They’re all well-suited to our Maine climate, with its cold (and sometimes so-very-long) winters.
- They have continual access to high-quality food and clean water. In any season, chickens need continual access to good fresh water. In the winter, it’s an utter necessity. Chickens need to eat more in winter to keep their body heat up, and that means they’re going to go through water faster than usual. We find that a heated waterer is a very worthwhile investment in keeping the girls healthy. This one works well for the setup we’ve created, but many setups really call for a hanging waterer, and this one would work well. Making sure they have plenty of high-quality feed is important too, and a little scratch is fine. But don’t let yourself get talked into giving high-fat treats like suet or sunflower seeds – contrary to a lot of bad information out there, they don’t need this extra fat to keep warm, and it does lead to fatty liver disease – an insidious, painful disease that’s shortening the lives of countless beloved pet chickens. (Can you tell I feel strongly about this one? I’ll be dedicating an entire post to it soon!)
- They’re allowed to adjust naturally with the change in season. Because they never get a lamp, even during what feels to us like a sudden shift from winter to fall – their bodies naturally get a chance to adapt and prepare for the cold winter. By the time my thermometer is reading -6 like it did this morning, they’re well geared up for the chill. (All of the photos in this post were taken when it was -2 by the way!)
- They have lots to keep them occupied, so they don’t get “cabin-fever”. Some of the girls are more reluctant than others to venture out into the white cold stuff. Especially for those little homebodies that spend a lot of winter hours in the coop, it’s helpful to have a few boredom busters to keep them feeling happy and content. The ever-awesome Chicken Chick has an excellent list of boredom busters – enough to keep a flock happy even through our longest of long Maine winters. But let’s hope that won’t be the case this year, shall we?