Sunday, November 16, 2008

Winter Coop Considerations

I found this excellent article on keeping chickens warm in the winter. Please read it carefully as it debunks many old beliefs about keeping our girls warm in the winter.

Robert Plamondon's Poultry & Rural Living Newsletter, Mid-November Bonus Issue

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Chicken Coop or Chicken Dungeon?

If you want to see something scary, just search for "chicken coop" on YouTube and look at the chicken houses so proudly displayed by their owners. As you watch, ask yourself, "Don't these things have any ventilation at all?" Because they don't! Close the doors and hatches, and they're about as well-ventilated as a coffin.

Here, check it out for yourself.

What could be the point of confining chickens to an airless cubicle? Two reasons are usually given, neither of which make much sense:

  1. To protect the chickens from drafts.
  2. To keep the chickens warm.

Protection from Drafts

Do chickens need to be protected from drafts? Why?

Before about 1875, few people knew that disease was caused by microbes. In fact, it was common knowledge that fresh air caused disease! (Indoor air, on the other hand, was safe.) Drafts caused colds, swamp air caused malaria, and so on. So when people talk about "protecting chickens from drafts," they're repeating a superstition that was discredited over a hundred years ago.

Realistically, adult chickens are very resistant to cold, and if you give them the opportunity to stay mostly dry and mostly out of the wind, they will do just fine. Chickens roosting in pine trees through New England winters tend to be at least as healthy as their brethren in chicken houses. Totally open chicken houses, with a roof but no walls other than chicken wire (and no way for the chickens to get out of the wind), were used in the Fifties as far north as Oregon with good results. Winter egg production fell whenever daytime highs were much below freezing, but (according to experiments done by the Oregon Experiment Station) such hens were at least as healthy as the control group in conventional chicken houses. In other words, total confinement is at least as unhealthy as total exposure. The middle ground, as usual, is worth a good hard look.

(I'll have to post the Experiment Station bulletins on open housing to my Web site sometime. They make interesting reading.)

Can You Keep Chickens Warm in an Unheated Coop?

The other reason for eliminating all ventilation from a chicken coop is to keep it warm. Does this work? Can an unheated shed be kept warm just by eliminating ventilation? Of course not!

Chickens put out a significant amount of body heat, but they also put out a lot of moisture through respiration and manure. This is a package deal; you can't have the heat without the moisture. If you shut in your flock to retain the heat, you get a great deal of dampness and ammonia, both of which are bad for the birds. Chickens get frostbite on their combs and wattles in a damp house if temperatures fall below freezing, but they are much more resistant to this in a dry house. A damp house is also filthy, smelly house. It promotes disease. And the ammonia generated by the manure is a poison gas that irritates the chickens' lungs and can bind them in high concentrations.

The usual way of controlling dampness is through ventilation. You allow at least as much ventilation as is needed to keep the dampness low and the air quality high, and give up on trying to control the temperature. Roof insulation also helps control dampness, or, at the very least, prevents condensation from forming on the ceiling and dripping onto the chickens.

Open-Front Housing

The open-air revolution started around 1900 with the idea that fresh air was good and dampness was bad, while low temperatures inside the chicken house were tolerable. This was a huge success. Starting around 1908, for example, the Oregon Experiment Station introduced houses with very large window openings that were never closed -- no glass, no shutters, no curtains. Just chicken wire. They immediately started setting all-time laying records in these houses. In fact, they noticed that many of their best-laying hens didn't roost in the back of the house with the others, but perched on the nest boxes near the front, where they got an extra helping of fresh air and weather. So a second version of the house, with even larger openings, was introduced. Similar results were obtained by virtually everyone who tried it, in all climates. Closed houses are unhealthy and unproductive in any climate: open houses are better.

Closed houses also promote disease transmission from bird to bird because there's no ventilation to dilute and remove airborne pathogens.

In the commercial poultry industry, open-front housing has been dominant ever since. Modern commercial chicken houses are so crowded that, with the addition of roof insulation and curtains to cover the openings in severe weather, the chickens' body heat alone can keep the inside temperature above freezing in cold weather, thus preventing the automatic watering system from failing and, if the juggling between air quality and warmth can be done successfully (which is not guaranteed even with computer-controlled curtains), can lead to higher yield. But none of this works with small flocks -- it takes a big flock in a big, crowded house.

With backyarders, fanciers, and other small-flock owners, though, the practical lessons of Twentieth-Century farming are constantly being forgotten. A generation or two separate the practical diversified farms of yesteryear from today's small-flock owners, and there's a simlar gulf between us and today's big industrialized operations. Too often this means that Nineteenth-Century superstitions sneak back in and mess everybody up.

I've certainly had good results with my own open housing, which has never caused the chickens to become ill even in dreadful weather. Heck, even hens who insist on roosting on the roofs of the houses stay healthy through freezing weather and continual Oregon rain. On the other hand, the idea of taking my happy free range chickens and shutting them into an unventilated box creeps me out.

When I realized how completely the concept of open-front winter housing has been forgotten (and how unhealthy many people's chicken houses are), I knew that I had to bring the concept back into vogue. After weighing the alternatives, I decided to republish the definitive book on the subject, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods. Dr. Woods was a poultry health expert who wrote this book after many years investigating open-front housing, and after many Experiment Stations had vindicated his conclusions. I would have liked to publish something a little more modern than this 1924 book, since it was written before plywood and corrugated sheet metal became the building materials of choice, but as far as I can tell, no such book has ever been written.

Other than the lack of up-to-date building materials, the information in this book can pretty much be cut out and pasted down. There's a lot more here than just house plans: he talks about all kinds of management issues. He also addresses every conceivable objection to open-front chicken houses.

I have posted Chapter 2 to my Web site. It's a detailed and compelling introduction to the topic. Check it out: I'm sure you'll find it interesting.

You Can Help Me Out

If you love a Norton Creek Press book, you can help me out by posting a brief review on Amazon.com. The customers at Amazon.com rely on reader reviews and tend to avoid titles that don't have any, and most of my titles don't have any. You can post a review whether you bought the book on Amazon or not, but you have to have an Amazon account.

Submitting a review is easy if you're already an Amazon.com customer, and even a couple of lines that mention one or two things you liked in the book will be helpful to other readers. Thanks!

You can use these links to go directly to the relevant book review page: Feeding Poultry, Genetics of the Fowl, Gold in the Grass, We Wanted a Farm, Ten Acres Enough, The Dollar Hen, Success With Baby Chicks, Through Dungeons Deep, The Dollar Hen.


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1 comment:

MessengerBoy said...

Thanks for this information. I live in an urban area and am just getting interested in raising chickens. I've trying to learn more about coops, because I'm going to have to build one. I live in the midwest (St. Louis area), so I am obviously wondering about cold weather. This is very interesting and compelling information.