This topic is one that often isn't thought about much. Many people believe that care in the winter is easier than in the summer. It is actually quite the opposite. Poultry really require more hands on care in the cold weather than in the hot weather.
One of the most common mistakes in the winter is that flocks are often sealed up in tight buildings with no access to the outdoors. This is absolutely the worse thing you can do for the health of your flock. While it may make us humans feel better to see that our flocks are inside where it is warm and dry, it is very unhealthy for your birds. Birds produce ALOT of moisture and heat on their own. When there is no air movement inside your coop, all that moisture and heat builds up and creates condensation inside the coop which can be a death sentence for the birds living inside. The ammonia levels also build up inside closed coops. While we might not be able to smell it right away - the birds do, and they breathe in those toxic ammonia levels and it can damage their lungs.
Another common mistake is providing heat for your birds in the winter. Birds are actually very well insulated from the cold air by having feathers. They are able to fluff out their feathers and trap the warm air created from their body. This is sufficient enough to keep your birds warm. If you ever watch poultry at night in the winter - they fluff up, sit close together, and tuck their heads inside their feathers or under their wing to keep their head frost free during sleep. It really is unnecessary to heat your coop.
The biggest danger with heat lamps is the risk of fire. I have seen post after post on different forums where people have advocated heat lamps and say that they secure them in 4 different places so that there is no way that they can fall and catch bedding on fire. While their securing may in fact keep the actual lamp from falling - it does not prevent the bulb from falling out. What happens with these cheaply made heat lamps is that when run for extended periods - the heat produced while eventually cause the actual bulb glass to become disconnected from welds that secure it to the part that screws into the lamp. So then the hot bulb falls out and falls directly onto your nice and dry bedding and likely catches on fire. Chicken coops that are kept appropriately dry will catch fire and become engulfed and burn to the ground before you even know that anything is wrong. Any birds inside will be dead from smoke inhalation long before you see any smoke or flames.
The only time I will provide any type of heat for my poultry is when the daytime temperature does not exceed 10 degrees or if the wind is coming hard out of the north and it's consistently below 20 degrees during the day (This may not apply to you if you don't live on top of a ridge like we do). This doesn't happen too often in KY, but it doesn't happen. When I do provide heat, I take an extra large dog kennel suitable for airline use and hang a Sweeter Heater inside of it. I then cover the kennel with a blanket to help keep the heat in. Sweeter Heaters provide heat directly underneath them and have absolutely no risk of fire. If a bird has gotten too cold, or a comb starts to freeze - the bird can choose to go inside the kennel and warm up and get their blood circulating properly again. This doesn't heat the whole coop, only the area inside of the dog kennel.
The best advice I can give to keep your birds comfortable in their coop is to make sure that your coop is built good - is draft free, but well ventilated. I didn't build our coop - it was a building that was here when we purchased the property. It was originally built as a chicken coop though. The birds absolutely love this coop more than any coop I have ever had. I don't know why - it's an eyesore (even though it looks better since we painted it). It's mismatched in all the materials. But they still love it. Unfortunately the main large door faces the north. Most of the year, this works to our benefit and becomes a place a refuge from the sun in the summer. In the winter when a lot of the winds come straight out of the north - it creates a problem because those cold, harsh north winds go directly into the coop. Cold winds like that can be a death sentence for your poultry. They have to be able to get out of the wind. We solved this problem by cutting a large "pop" door on the south side of the coop. So when the north winds blow, we close the main door and open the south door. Everyone is happy and the coop is once again a draft free refuge. I should note for those that have been here and seen the coop in the backyard - you probably noticed the large window on the west side of the chicken coop. In the summer time - this is completely open. As winter approaches - we have a clear plastic type roofing material that we use to "close" this window. This allows the winter sun in the coop, but blocks all winds from coming inside.
Even today as we gather with our families on this Thanksgiving - there's 2 inches of snow on the ground and a chilly 19 degrees here. The north coop door is open halfway (about 4 feet - its a large door). The birds are free to come and go as they please. About half are outside and the rest are inside.
Water is another concern that is almost more important in the winter than in the summer (Almost!). In the winter when its consistently below freezing, I typically use rubber bowls (found in the livestock section at your farm store usually). I fill these with water about 2-3 times a day - this will vary depending on how many birds you have. Ours go through about 10 gallons a day in the winter because of the amount of birds we have. I don't usually use my plastic waterers because they will freeze and crack. The rubber bowls won't crack and if the water freezes in them you can just turn them over and step on them to get the ice to come out. Now - if the temps are really low and the rubber ones are freezing faster than the birds can drink (which does happen!) - I use heated dog bowls. I have 2 of them and when the temps are so cold that I'm using them - I typically have to go outside 5-6 times a day to make sure they are filled with water. They don't hold much in comparison to how many birds we have here. Now if you only have 20 birds - you probably would only need to fill one once a day. It's easy for me to do this because I'm here on the farm almost all the time in the winter. It's not practical for everyone and I know that.
I also keep their feed totally free choice during the cold weather. If there is snow on the ground, I usually have alfalfa hay for them to munch on and provide daily "treats" such as cabbage and other produce that they like to eat. Several times a week I will make a large (ok very large) - batch of oatmeal and mix in whatever I have an excess of in the freezer or pantry. I've done sweet corn, peas, blueberries, pasta - just to name a few. Sometimes I scramble some eggs and mix it in too.
That's all I have time for today. If I think of more - maybe I'll make a part 2. If you have questions - feel free to leave a comment and I'll answer or just make it part of part 2.
Have a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving. Enjoy every minute with your family.
Rising Phoenix Farm
14093 Madison Pike
Morning View, KY 41063