Help planning winter coop design. What do chickens need in winter?

Discussion in 'Coop & Run - Design, Construction, & Maintenance' started by sarahsunshine, Jul 31, 2013.

  1. sarahsunshine

    sarahsunshine Songster

    Jul 10, 2013
    Alberta, Canada
    We need to make a winter chicken coop, and we live in Central Alberta. We have COLD weather, frequently getting a couple weeks straight of high -25C(-15f), and -40C/f (doesn’t matter!).

    This last summer we got 7 layers and 5 more female ‘broilers’ that look to actually be white leghorns and have been staying out at the piece of land we’ve just bought. Come August/September we will be moving back to the city, and we want to bring our chickens with us (undercover – they aren’t allowed in town). We have a shed in our back yard (8’x10’ about?) that we would like to convert to a winter chicken coop. It looks like this (not ours but same size):


    What are the most important things to know? I messed up on the first round construction for the 7 layers (not enough roosting space). Now I need to think about enough roosting and nest boxes for 12 chickens (5 will be about 3 months old in September, and joining the other 7 that are currently laying). So in designing my coop/run, I need:

    Items to include in our plans – winter coop for 12 chickens:
    - 10-12’ of roosting space
    - Minimum 10-20sqft of indoor coop space (1-2sqft/chicken, but more since they will probably be spending more time inside)
    - Minimum 3 nest boxes
    - Minimum 48-60sqft outdoor run (4-5sqft/chicken - probably on the smaller side since in the summer they have a bigger run at the ‘farm’, and this will likely only be used for the winter).
    - Heat lights (how to do this without making it a fire hazard?)/ day lights – what wattage and what type of light regime do they need to allow moulting properly and enough rest for laying? Our layers are 5 ratty-looking two year old leghorns and 2 nine-month old ISA Browns – we may cull a few old leghorns for soup)
    - Insulation (r-14 enough? How much body heat do the chickens produce on their own?)
    - We will use the deep litter method since that will help create heat, and requires less work!
    - How high do roosts need to be?

    What I’m thinking is that I should make a larger coop, with a roosting area inside that can be closed. The reason I’m thinking that is that if the ladies are only roosting they don’t need much space, and they could keep a smaller area warm themselves rather than over-heat with power. Then when we come feed them in the morning we can let them out of the roost, and they will have an indoor and outdoor run. We could feed scraps in the outdoor run since it’s easier to clean up!

    Considering our cold weather, how much of the run should be open to the elements? The only way we can set it up is so that the hardware cloth would be aiming NW – right where all our weather comes from. Perhaps we should make a cover so when we have going to have a big storm they will not have lots of snow blow into their run?

    The only predators we need to worry about are red squirrels, dogs and cats (our own dog and neighbour’s dog!!!).

    Incidentally, I could see this shed/run turning into a future chick hatchery/nursery. What types of things do I need to know about chick needs? How dense should they be? How much space do you need for 100 2wk broilers?

    What are the chances of any of our hens going broody and how do I try (if I want them to take care of some chicks?) Maybe I should make a coop for 20 chickens instead of 12… LOL!

    Where do I find about about ventilation needs?
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2013
  2. Going Quackers

    Going Quackers Crowing

    May 24, 2011
    On, Canada
    Do you not have raccoons? those are a big problem, especially in urban areas. As for the coop, well mine has natural insulation from using smart board for the walls but otherwise i don't have any added, ventilation is important. I never use a heat lamp, mine wintered just fine, i do have a heated bowl for water however.

    My coop has a 2x6 as a roost this enables them to cover their feet on cold days. While i do have a run, it's only sort of covered on the top.. i am fortunate it's positioned by huge cedar trees which act as a block for all types of weather. Tarps covering the sides is always an inexpensive and simple solution to bad weather too.

    Most days my ladies went out, mind you if we had a super brutal day they stayed in and we offered greens and so forth to fight boredom. That's a key ensuring your birds aren't crowded so if they must stay in your not promoting discord among the flock.

    I do not practice a deep litter method, i actually bed with flax.
  3. sarahsunshine

    sarahsunshine Songster

    Jul 10, 2013
    Alberta, Canada
    Actually, we are too far north for raccoons! They are very tough to deal with. If the back yard wasn't fenced, then coyotes would be a problem, but the dogs deal with that.
  4. 4 the Birds

    4 the Birds Songster

    Oct 15, 2010
    Westfield, Indiana
    Your numbers are off. An 8 x 10 shed is 800 sf and you want to build a 10 to 20 sf coop in town "undercover" where chickens are not allowed? The 8 x 10 will covert to a nice coop. Unless the new neighbors are fine with chickens and chicken sounds, I would rethink having chickens. Leghorns are great egg producers but not a good choice in cold climates. The COOP link at the top of the page has a lot of good information to set-up the new coop. Good ventilation is essential without cold drafty wind and blowing snow in the coop. Good Luck!
  5. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner Free Ranging

    Feb 2, 2009
    Southeast Louisiana
    Pat’s Big Ol' Ventilation Page

    Pat’s Cold Coop (winter design) page:

    Pat’s Big Ol' Mud Page (fixing muddy runs):

    I’ll throw in the muddy run article just because it’s so good. These were written by a lady in Ontario so maybe they’ll have some credibility with you. I’ve worked in that type of winter but never kept chickens in it.

    Here’s a thread that might interest you. There is a discussion on fire at the end.

    The dangers of not enough ventilation are frostbite from the moisture and ammonia from the poop. They’ll still generate some moisture from their breathing but if the poop is frozen solid, it will not let off moisture or ammonia. Your big danger from that is when it thaws. Since ammonia is lighter than air, an opening above their heads will take care of the ammonia danger. To get rid of the lighter than air ammonia, it doesn’t have to be too big. Your biggest risk for frostbite is probably going to be when you are bouncing back and forth from freezing and thawing.

    Chickens carry their own insulation around with them. It’s called down. Your weather is really severe but think real hard about providing heat. It’s not just the fire danger but does your electricity ever go out? If the heat source ever went away, wouldn’t it be nice if they were acclimated to cold weather instead of being used to a tropical climate?

    As for light and molting, if you can read a newspaper in there it can prevent molting and keep them laying. They should molt and be feathered back out in the fall before the days get really short and the weather turns bitterly cold but that don’t always do as they should. If you do decide to provide heat, I’d suggest a radiator type device, not a light source. Your problem with heat will probably be more to keep water thawed than providing the chickens heat.

    Roost height. Make them as low as you reasonable can yet higher than anything you don’t want them roosting in or on, like nests. Install your nests then make the roosts about a foot higher. There are several reasons to not make them ridiculously high, though they can handle much higher roosts than is often believed on this forum. In your climate you want to be able to provide ventilation over their heads when they are roosting. The higher the roosts, the more clear coop space they need to be able to fly down without bumping into walls, nests, feeders, something. Reasons like that.

    My advice is to always make it bigger than you think you need. The tighter you pack them the more risk of behavioral problems you might need to deal with, the less flexibility you have in managing them, and the harder you have to work. I don’t believe in magic numbers for much of anything to do with chickens. We keep them in so many different conditions and situations that we are all unique. With your climate I’d suggest erring on the side of providing too much space, not trying to squeeze them in.

    This is really going to make this a long long post but I’ll copy something I wrote a few years ago on space needs. Some things won’t apply to you but I think it might help you. Good luck!

    I don’t believe in magic numbers for chickens. We keep them in so many different conditions, in different climates, with different flock make-ups, and use so many different management techniques that no one magic number will cover us all. Some of the things that make up the space requirement are, in my opinion:

    1. Personal space for the birds. They have different personalities and different individual requirements. Some are very possessive of personal space and some can share. Each flock has its own dynamics.

    2. Access to feeder and waterer.

    3. Being able to put the feeder and waterer where they will not poop in it when they roost.

    4. Roost space. They not only need to have enough room to sleep on the roost, they need to have enough room for them to spread their wings and fly to the roost and to sort out who gets to sleep next to whom and who gets the prime spots once they get on the roost. When they get on, they may jump from some midway support or fly directly to the roost, but either way, they like to spread their wings. And some chickens seem to enjoy blocking the entry points if there are limits. And when they get off, mine tend to want to fly down, not jump to a halfway point. They need room to fly down without bumping into feeders, waterers, nesting boxes, or a wall.

    5. Poop load. The larger area they have the less often you have to actively manage the poop. They poop a lot while on the roost so you may have to give that area special consideration, but mucking out the entire coop can be backbreaking work plus you have to have some place to put all that bedding and poop. In my opinion, totally cleaning out the coop is something that needs to happen as seldom as possible.

    6. How often are they able to get out of the coop? The more they are confined to the coop, the larger the personal space needs to be. The normal recommendation on this forum is 4 square feet per full sized chicken with a minimum of 10 square feet of run per bird. This additional requirement outside is sometimes not mentioned. How often they are allowed out of the coop may depend on a lot more than just weather. Your work schedule, when you are able to turn them loose, what time of day you open the pop door to let them out or lock them up at night, all this and more enters into the equation. The 4 square feet recommendation assumes they will spend extended time in the coop and not be able to get in the run. What that extended time can safely be depends on a lot of different factor so there is no one correct length of time for everyone.

    7. Do you feed and water in the coop or outside. The more they are outside, the less pressure on the size of the coop.

    8. The size of the chicken. Bantams require less room than full sized chickens. This has to be tempered by breed and the individual personalities. Some bantams can be more protective of personal space than others, but this is also true of full sized breeds. Young chicks need less space than mature adults.

    9. The breed of the chicken. Some handle confinement better than others.

    10. The number of chickens. The greater the number of chickens, the more personal space they can have if the square foot per chicken stays constant. Let me explain. Assume each chicken occupies 1 square foot of space. If you have two chickens and 4 square feet per chicken, the two chickens occupy 2 square feet, which leaves 6 square feet for them to explore. If you have ten chickens with 4 square feet per chicken, each chicken has 30 unoccupied square feet to explore. A greater number also can give more space to position the feeders and waterers properly in relation to the roosts and provide access. In general the more chickens you have the less space per chicken you need. You are more likely to get in trouble with 4 square feet per chicken if you have very few chickens.

    11. What is your flock make-up? A flock with more than one rooster may be more peaceful if it has more space. I don't want to start the argument about number or roosters here as I know more than one rooster can often peacefully coexist with a flock, but I firmly believe more space helps.

    12. What is the maximum number of chickens you will have. Consider hatching chicks or bringing in replacements. Look down the road a bit.

    13. Do you want a broody to raise chicks with the flock? A broody needs sufficient room to work with or you risk problems from other chickens.

    14. The more space you have, the easier it is to integrate chickens. Chickens have developed a way to live together in a flock. It’s called the pecking order. But establishing that pecking order can be pretty violent. One method they use to take most of the danger out of establishing the pecking order is that the weaker runs away from the stronger when there is a confrontation or they just a void the stronger to start with. They need room to run away and avoid.

    15. The more space you have the more flexibility you have dealing with problems.

    I'm sure I am missing several components, but the point I'm trying to make is that we all have different conditions. There is no magic number that suits us all. The 4 square feet in a coop with 10 square feet in the run is a good rule of thumb that most of the time will keep us out of trouble, but not always. People starting out with no experience with chickens need a starting point. The 4 and 10 is a good starting point. For a lot of us it is more than they could possibly squeak by with but I do believe that more is better both in the coop and in the run.

    There are also people that have no trouble with a lot less space. If the coop is used only for sleeping and maybe some nest boxes, you can get by with less. But there has to be additional space available when they are awake. If you commit to giving them that space whenever they are awake, you don’t sleep in any mornings and you have to find someone to let them out at the crack of dawn if you are away for a while.

    It doesn’t matter if the space is in the coop, coop and run, or they free range and sleep in trees. It’s total space that counts, not just coop size in isolation.
  6. aoxa

    aoxa Crowing


    8x10 foot coop is plenty for 12 chickens. Minimums for square foot per bird should absolutely not be 1-2 square feet each. Minimum 4, but the more the better.

    Please don't use a heat lamp in winter. Extremely high risk of fire...

    You do not want to go through what we did..

    I did not heat any of my grown birds last winter and had no insulation. The chicks were heated, which overloaded the extension cords and caused a fire. So if you absolutely feel the risk is worth their comfort, just don't use a heat lamp with an extension cord.

    My Red Sex Links (very much like your ISA browns) made it through winter no problem on the East Coast of Canada.

    We don't get highs as cold as you guys out west, but we did have a few weeks that were extreme.

    I only had to cull one chicken who wasn't handling the cold well. I don't want that in my flock. I want chickens who can take the cold.

  7. sarahsunshine

    sarahsunshine Songster

    Jul 10, 2013
    Alberta, Canada
    We have the leghorns already.. we wouldn't choose to have them over other breeds, but that's what we have, and since we have them, we will do our best to deal with them! We just might have some leggy stew... I would love to replace them as we go with breeds better suited to our climate.

    Yes, we definitely have to talk to the neighbours, but we are hoping that they don't complain too much, especially with the occasional egg! Plus, chickens are not very loud. If we do have an issue, we will have to cull, and take the best couple out to a friend in the country. Not the worst thing to happen.

    As for our shed/coop, I will need to provide light, but not with a heat lamp. I will probably try to find some solar light strings, and LED lights that do not provide heat. Our neghbour is an electrician, as is a friend who frequently stays at our house, so I will have them check out any power going out there. I would love to make it passive solar (with a window), but there is a fence on the south side of the shed, and the sun is so low in the winter that it would just make the coop colder. We only get about 6-7 hours of daylight anyway!

    Ridgerunner - Thank you so much for all the info and links. A lot ot read through, but I will get through it and apply it. I am a zoologist, and those numbers (1-2sf, 4-5sf that I found online just don't make sense to me when I see the chickens in there. Just like you say, there is so much more to think about. Vertical space, I think, is one. Some breeds of chickens really like to perch and be high, while others rarely leave the ground. I'm glad I built our first coop with a little flexibility so I can move perches around to make the chickens happiest, make sure they had room to stretch their wings and move around. In the future, if I am to make an A-frame coop, it will only be for broilers who fly very little...

    aoxa - I read your story yesterday and it jus broke my heart. I am sorry for your losses, and look forward to seeing the progress on your new barn. I promise to be careful with power!

    Judging by out climate, and the fact that we have leghorns that aren't very well feathered, I think I will insulate. I don't think the insulation will be enough to keep the chickens featherless (it rarely gets above freezing, or even close to it for 2-3 months). It will just keep the worst of the cold out. I have a remote thermometer, so I will keep that inside just to monitor.

    I wil also be sure to have adequate ventilation! Need to go research that!

    Goal: Happy Chickens!
  8. aoxa

    aoxa Crowing

    My barn is now complete :)

    We have a room that is completely heated for the chicks so I can use the EcoGlow brooders. They won't heat properly unless the room is 50F or 10C. The heater we chose was recommended by the fire marshall.

    If you wanted to heat the room to just above freezing after insulating (ADEQUATE VENTILATION) you have to consider how often you lose power, and what you would do in case of a power outage, because the chickens would not be acclimated to the cold.

    I have insulated my barn. It is more fire safe that way. Windows are my ventilation, and I will keep them open, even in the dead of winter.


    If you could guarantee that your power wouldn't go out for more than a few hours, and that your heating set up was fire safe - I would have no problem with that. They don't need it, but doesn't mean you can't do it.

    You will be surprised how warm a barn will stay with insulation and their body heat.
  9. sarahsunshine

    sarahsunshine Songster

    Jul 10, 2013
    Alberta, Canada
    Good looking Barn!!! Very nice! I hope you didn't go too far over-budget! It looked ilke it was right on schedule on the last photos I saw. What it a difficult process (other than emotionally), or did it go smoothely with good contractors?

    We are in the city (Edmonton) and can garantee that the power won't go out very often, or for long. It did go out for 3-4 hours once last year when a vehicle crashed into a power box, but that was it!

    I don't think I'm going to plan for a heater except for a 100w bulb on those very coldest winter nights (we made a cold frame last year and that's how it was heated - insulated with 1 100W bulb). I'm all for heating with body heat and insulating (with ventilation). I am thinking I could do something like a ceiling that drops down around a roosting area, and the flow of air would go under the roost (low on intake), and out above. I could make more ventilation for the sides, but in cold, cold weather the heat from the chicken body heat would go up and stay high in the roost, and the excess heat would draw air and fumes out of the shed creating ventilation. I also could insulate the "air in" flow (make a wooden duct) so that air heats up a little before it comes in the coop. When it's not as cold (daytime, most of the year), more vents would be open in the side of the shed.

    My biggest limitions are that there is no place to put an effective window, and there is no thermal mass to store heat short of bringing in a big water barrel that the floor won't support. There are fences on the East and South side that are 6' high, and a door on the west side. They will just have to get light from going out into the run, and the LED lights I have on timer. Wish I could do better, but hopefully this is only a 1 year thing!
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2013

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