While getting a chicken coop heater is very important come wintertime, proper ventilation is a coop requirement year-round. Since chickens eliminate a lot of dust and ammonia, you will need to regularly allow fresh air in to prevent lung infections and respiratory diseases from affecting your birds.
Taking care of your girls
While raising chickens has become quite the trend lately, many people seem to get into this without properly informing themselves as to what it takes to raise healthy and happy birds. It’s not enough to simply allow them to free-range and toss some feed over a fence!
However, do it properly and the benefits you will get from this are amazing. Since they spend most of the day pecking away, chickens have great eyesight and can act as guardians for your backyard against some pesky invaders.
Furthermore, the freshness of the eggs you will be getting from them will be unmatched as you really can’t compare them to what you can buy from the store.
While your birds do indeed have quite a lot of needs to be happy, there is one that stands tall and proud above the others: the coop’s ventilation.
Why is this a big deal?
Because chickens are amazing producers of moisture, ammonia, and heat, ventilation plays an essential part in their coop life since you absolutely need to get rid of that smell.
First of all, proper ventilation removes dampness and humidity from the coop. These birds generate scary amounts of water vapor, mostly through breathing out as we all do (this is why a mirror fogs when you breathe on it).
Another way in which they do this is by pooping since chickens do not urinate so all the water that they have to eliminate comes out through their excrements. Therefore, they process a lot more water than you might think and all this process tends to make the coop a very humid place to live in.
High relative humidity, especially for owners who live in areas with cooler temperatures, can make chickens more susceptible to respiratory diseases and even increase the chance of frostbite. Don’t be fooled, as these birds can withstand considerable cold without frostbite if the air is dry. If the air is clammy, though, that’s a different ball game.
Thorough ventilation removes ammonia fumes from the coop which can be downright dangerous for your birds. The truth is that unless you sit there all the time, ready to just whisk away each plop of poo the moment it comes out of the chicken, there will be some ammonia being released into the shelter’s atmosphere.
The problem is that it does not take that much of this substance to cause subclinical damage to the tissues of the bird’s respiratory tract. Therefore, improper cleaning of the coop and a strong concentration of ammonia will make your birds extremely vulnerable to any respiratory bugs that might be found around the environment.
A rule of thumb for this would be to take a sniff every time you enter the coop in the morning. If your human nose can feel ammonia then it’s probably already enough of it to be harmful to lung tissues.
Keep it cool
Last but not least, ventilation also keeps the coop from getting too hot in the summer, which can be a real issue. The bodies of these birds are adapted to perform at their peak below 75 degrees. Anything over 90 will be enough to cause them to have real problems, suffer heat stress and, especially for larger-bodied, heavier-feathered breeds, even die sometimes.
With proper ventilation, you will at least keep your coop from getting hotter than the outside air so you will at least guarantee your girls have comfortable nights during the summer.
Oh, and by the way, you do need ventilation even in cold weather. Even in northern-your-feet-freeze-if-you-step-outside kind of weather, you’ll still want some openings in your coop. True, there may be a night now and then when it’s so cold that you close everything down, but look at those things like the exception, rather than the rule.
Types of ventilation
Since it is important to know just what you are up against and what you have to do, let’s take a look at the different types of ventilation that you can use.
Passive (natural) ventilation means that you have some openings that allow the air to flow through with no help from you or the power grid, just the natural action of the wind completing the process that enables the tendency of warm air to rise.
Passive ventilation is everything that means an open window, a louvered gable-end vent, a ventilation slot, that sort of thing.
Furthermore, this is obviously the easiest but also the cheapest, safest, and most foolproof method for most of the backyard coops to be properly ventilated. Go ahead and use it with impunity.
Wind turbine ventilation
This method of ventilation means those spinning turbine things, about the size of a basketball, mounted on a building’s roof. When the wind does its thing and blows, the blades spin and they suck the air out of the coop.
While this method can move a good amount of air, keep in mind that it only works if the wind is blowing. When it stops, you’ll be left with a smallish hole in your coop’s roof.
Active (mechanical) ventilation is when we use an electric device like a fan, generally plugged-in although you will see some solar-powered units here and there. This allows more effective air movement while making smaller holes in the walls of your coop, but with several important drawbacks as well.
You should really get a fan that is designed for dusty and outdoorsy environments such as a barn or workshop, but that will cost you more. However, a house fan will clog very quickly with dust and stop working or die altogether, since chickens are notorious for the dust baths that they take.
Also, it’s quite obvious that if your power supply fails, so does your coop air quality. For those owners who use solar units that is even more true since, you know, they only work when the sun is actually shining on them. This might be an inconvenience since opening the door a couple of times a day to walk in and out of the coop does not really count as ventilation.
How much ventilation do I need?
The best answer here is probably ‘as much as you can muster’, or even slightly more than that. If you choose to go for the simple choice of passive ventilation, do it as much as you can build because it’s better to have more than you need than to need more than you have.
This is especially true since ‘needing more than you have’ in this case will amount to a trip out back with a nice saw to hack big ugly holes in your nice, trimmed coop in the depths of December. Discretion is the better part of valor and ventilation for chickens coops is as good an example as any.
If summer heat is not a big problem where you live, you’ll probably be fine with some like 1 square foot of vent opening per chicken or, if this does not work for you, calculate it with 1 square foot of vent opening per 10 square feet of floor area.
In a hot area, summertime is going to demand more than that and you may have to splurge out and have one of the walls be totally hardware cloth. If you have a smaller number of chickens when compared to the size of your coop or if you live in a very dry area, you’ll get along with less ventilation.
Ventilation vs drafts
While ventilation, understood as air exchange, is necessary and good, drafts are not so good if we define them as cold air aimed directly at your chicken. Remember, this is cool weather we’re talking about here, not the pleasant cooling breeze on a wonderful August day.
Small ‘air leak’ gaps can cause condensation and frost, which will nullify not only the value of what ventilation you have but quite possibly the value of your entire coop.
Ventilation that you’ll be using in cool or cold weather should be high up above chicken level so that it does not bother them, ideally protected from rain and wind to some degree by roof overhangs.