Often we think that we have winterized correctly for normal winter temperatures. But often in January the temperature can dip below zero which leaves us scrambling for additional tricks to get us through a couple of days of rough weather.
The first thing to do is observe you chickens. A chicken that is feeling stressed from the cold will look cold. It will be huddled up and not moving much. It may be standing on one leg trying to keep the other leg warm under its feathers. This may be the time to take action.
Chickens are designed to self regulate body heat. Their feathers hold in the warm air around their bodies. There is a lot of heat inside of a coop just from the number of living, breathing chickens in it. The more chickens you have, the warmer your coop will become.
Your coop probably has some insulation in it already. A coop should be designed for the kind of weather you live in. Insulation can be built in or added later. Coops built with a double layer wall will trap air between the layers or, you can us conventional insulation covered with plywood to keep the chickens from pecking at it.
Last minute insulation ideas are things that you can place either inside your coop or outside. Straw bales can be placed around the outside of the coop as well as inside the coop to block drafts. Straw is a warm bedding because it holds the warm air inside the shaft of the stem. Use it sprinkled on the floor of the coop or outside sprinkled on the run. It will keep their feet warmer than on just plain pea rock.
I use square pieces of reflective insulation to block the pop door at night after I shut the main door. This helps to block drafts at the floor level. Remove the square in the morning or leave it on extra cold days where you don’t want them to go outside. I also stuff old pillow cases with old t-shirts and put those in the pop hole area to cut off drafts.
A coop should provide shelter from wind, wet weather and cold drafts along the floor. The north sides and west sides need extra protection. Wrap clear tarps around the fencing in your run to use as a wind break and to keep snow out of your run. Information on how to do this can be found here. Silkies do not like to walk on snow and won’t leave the coop until it is shoveled off of their run.
Ventilation is very important. Keep the wet out (snow/rain) but remember, water vapor needs to escape. Do not keep the coop air-tight. I leave my windows open all year long. When it is below zero, I will shut them halfway but I probably shouldn’t. Ventilation is air that moves freely in and out of the coop. Drafts are air currents that blow directly on the chickens both on the floor and on their roosts. You want to eliminate drafts but you want as much ventilation as you can. Trapped water vapor will make things damp in your coop. If you see frost on your walls and on your doors inside the coop, then you need to increase your ventilation.
Your birds will increase the amount of food that they eat in below zero temps. You need to keep their food bowls filled and keep the food inside the coop where they can find it easily. Cracked corn is your friend in below zero temps. It will keep your bird warm. When it is really cold I give them cracked corn before going to bed so that their crop is full all night. I cook eggs every morning to feed back to the silkies. Warm, cooked oatmeal will warm up their insides and help them in low temperatures.
You will need to have a way to keep your water from freezing up. I use heated bases and put a galvanized metal 2 gallon waterer on top. Information on Heated Water Bases is here. Other people use a heated dog dish for their water. I worry about the silkies beards becoming wet with an open dish like that. I like to put vitamins and electrolytes in their water when it becomes cold to help perk them up.
I change my chicken’s bedding fairly often, but when the temp is below zero I begin to use the deep litter method. I keep adding more and more pine shaving bedding to their pen. I kick it around with my boot every morning so that it does not become compacted. You want it nice and fluffy. Do not try and clean or change bedding when it is below zero. Just keep adding more to the mix. You want it as dry as possible in the pen. Remove large chunks of poo when possible. You will need to gather eggs more often as well or they will freeze and crack.
If you see a bird that is clearly weak or sick you will need to separate it from the rest of the flock. You can crate it in a dog crate in your laundry room or garage. You will need to wait for warmer temperatures to introduce the bird back to the flock as they will have to be acclimated to outside life.
I use heat lamps as a last resort. I do not like to use them as they can be a fire hazard and are expensive to run. I will turn them on if the temperature is -10 degrees or colder. You need to factor wind chill in there as well especially if you have drafts you can’t block out. If you want to read more about heat lamps, look here. Some people like to use Sweeter Heaters instead of heat lamps because they can be safer and less expensive to use. They will not be as warm as a heat lamp will be. Other flat panel heaters include Cozy Products which is similar. Make sure you have a back up plan in case the power goes out. A portable generator is a good thing to have on hand. Birds will not be able to handle extreme changes in temperature and may it may prove deadly.
Frostbite can occur especially on feet, combs and wattles. Silkies have small combs and wattles so usually frostbite is not a problem in those spots. However, frostbite on feet can happen to silkies. If you have other breeds of birds you may want to use some Waxlene on their combs and wattles to protect them.
Remember that you need to dress appropriately in order to do your chicken chores in these cold temperatures. I wear Carhartt gear because it is very warm. Their products are made for people who have to work outdoors. Start with insulated bib overhauls. Add some Carhartt winter boots and your feet will stay very warm. A warm winter jacket and a hat that covers your neck. Dont forget warm gloves as my fingers are the first thing to get cold and warm socks for my toes that also get very cold.
Ultimately, it is your decision on what steps to take for your birds. There are some days where I don’t even open the pop doors to the run because I think that it is too cold. If you want more information on winterizing your coop check out Tips for winterizing your chicken run and How to Winterize a chicken coop built from a Kit.