The Ultimate Wintertime
Chicken-Keeping Preparation Checklist!
Below, you will see a checklist for wintertime preparation. Click on the blue box for a bit more of an explanation as to the importance of each item or other information on the topic. The links in each section give even further detail for your own consideration about what to do with your flock. Anything with *red asterisks* is highly debated and included only due to how commonly it's mentioned in the months leading up to and within winter, not as advocacy of that particular method.
Feeding and Watering
DietDouble check that your feed is appropriate for your flock.
A well-balanced diet will help your birds maintain weight and keep themselves warm when the temperatures drop. Especially during molt, you may want to switch to a higher protein feed or supplement your birds’ feed with extra protein, particularly animal protein. If your feed is a complete, balanced ration that is appropriate for your birds’ ages, however, it should be fine for year-round use, no need to change it seasonally!
Feeding Chickens - An Introductory Guide
‘Hot’ Foods ***Get some corn or scratch grains to give your flock before roost time on bitter cold nights.
Certain foods are supposed to help chickens warm themselves via the processes of digestion. The actual application of this and whether or not it works is hotly debated (no pun intended ), but as long as you aren’t feeding more than about a few handfuls per day (depending on how many birds you have, aiming for around a tablespoon or two per bird at the most), it shouldn’t hurt them. Just don’t forget the grit!
Feeding hot foods in the sense of foods like oatmeal should be limited, especially on particularly cold days, as this can lead to a couple issues, namely the steam from the hot food freezing on exposed combs and wattles and raising the likelihood of frostbite. Use common sense when it comes to this sort of treat!
Corn - A thread detailing both sides of the argument (Warning - it gets a bit heated!)
Supplementing GreensIf supplementing greens during the winter is something you want to do, start planning for that now.
Practice sprouting seeds or growing fodder a couple times to get the trick down before winter comes along. You can also soak alfalfa cubes for horses so that they break down into something ‘peckable’ for the birds to eat as a treat. Simply soaking grains and tossing them around is also a nice treat, as it adds some water to their diet when water may be harder to access. Keep in mind that anything other than balanced feed should be given in moderation and only as enrichment in the wintertime, and remember to offer grit alongside these treats!
Best Seeds for Fodder
Creating Your Own Fodder System
Keeping Water AvailableHave plans for making sure your birds have access to water in freezing temps.
If your coop has electricity, the easiest way to do this is by providing a heated water dish of some kind. Make sure that this dish won’t be a cause of frostbite by covering it somehow so that birds won’t fall into the water if they’re flying around, but are able to drink from it otherwise. Heated nipple waterers work well for this job as well. If you don’t already have something like this set up, start preparing it NOW so that it’s ready and you can check for leaks before winter sets in!
If there isn’t any power to your coop, consider investing in adding electricity before the cold weather comes. If this is simply not an option, plan for checking water at least twice a day to break ice and allow the birds to drink. Water is essential year-round, no matter the conditions!
Heated Waterer Opinions
Drafts and VentilationCheck your coop over for drafts and make sure you have adequate winter ventilation.
You can check for drafts by feeling for air movement or using a tissue, paper streamer, or even a downy feather to see where air is moving. Drafts should not be allowed to persist where chickens will be sheltering from the cold, and especially not where chickens will be sleeping overnight. If drafts are detected in these areas, use feed bags to cover cracks and other openings or create a baffle to block air movement.
However, ventilation should still be maintained to make sure the coop is a healthy environment for your birds. Ventilation in the wintertime should be above the birds’ heads so that wind isn’t blowing across them. You can also accomplish excellent ventilation by simply blocking the windward walls and leaving open vents or windows on the walls opposite from where the wind will be hitting the coop.
One Easy Way to Add Draft-Free Ventilation
Space and CrowdingMake sure you are able to provide adequate snow-free space for the number of chickens you have.
Chickens tend not to like to walk in snow, especially deep snow, and so you want to make sure your coop and run provide plenty of space for them to move around without having to walk through snow. The 4 square foot rule in the coop is a baseline, but many (including myself) have found that this number doesn’t work well in wintertime when birds are snowed in and start getting stir-crazy. A covered or otherwise blocked run or portion of the run can help to give the birds more space if they don’t want to go out in the snow (see the below image for an example). How much space you’ll need will depend on your setup (ex. how many places birds can fly up onto to get away from one another) and the number of birds you intend to keep within that space.
Alternatively, you could add plastic sheeting to all walls of the run, providing you leave open a few inches at the top of each wall for ventilation.
How Much Room do Chickens Need?
Coop SecurityCheck over your coop to make sure there are no weak points for predators or openings that might allow mice or rats to enter.
Wintertime will make predators and pests especially desperate, and a chicken coop is an easy source of food—if you allow for any points of entry! Check over the walls of your coop for any signs of loss of integrity, including chewing or warping. Check all of your vents to make sure that the wire covering hasn’t been damaged or pushed against. Check under nest boxes, along walls, or in storage areas for signs of mouse nests or droppings. Secure anything up that seems in the least bit weakened.
Keeping the Flock Safe from Predators
Dealing with Rats and Mice
BeddingMake sure your coop bedding is clean and dry, and, where applicable, deepen it for better insulation and something for your birds to snuggle down into on cold days.
What type of bedding is best, you ask? I don’t believe there is a completely wrong answer to that question. There are many materials that are used, and each has its champions. Do a bit if research and experimentation to find what works best for your flock AND what’s readily accessible in your area.
Bedding Part 1 (Materials) and Part 2 (Maintenance)
Deep Litter Method
Coop Bedding and Waste Management
Wellness CheckCheck over your birds or observe the flock behavior for signs of sickness or parasites, and treat as needed.
Winter is a hard time for a bird to be sick, and burning up energy fighting off illness or parasites instead of putting that energy to maintenance functions in cold weather can lead to death. A quick checkup for signs of sickness, injury, or infestation is a good idea to make sure your birds are in top shape going into winter. Check their eyes and nostrils to see that they’re clear, check their vent area and under their wings for signs of external parasites, and check their feet for injury or bumblefoot. Have a fecal float test done (by your vet, mail-in lab, or even by yourself if you know what to do) on some birds to determine if you need to treat your flock for internal parasites as well.
Merck's Physical Examination of Backyard Poultry
Poultry Health (Emergencies, Diseases, Treatments, Medicine, Suggestions) (Warning, some graphic pictures!)
Lice and Mites - Prevention and Treatments
Internal Parasites - Parasitic Worms in Chickens (Warning, graphic pictures!)
Coop HygieneMake sure your coop is clean before winter sets in.
A clean coop will be a healthier coop in the wintertime! Clean out and refresh your nest box material, clean and dust vent openings, scrape dried droppings off of walls and perches, and / or fluff up the clean bedding that's already down in your coop.
Winter Dust Bath AccessLook into the materials to keep a dust bath available all winter.
Having a dust bath available can help to prevent external parasites when birds are cooped up away from the snow and in close contact with one another. It also gives your birds a little something to do for enrichment during those long spells where they might be snowed in. A dust bath can be anything from an old tire or kiddie pool to a box built or bought specifically for the purpose. Fill it with dirt from around your property or buy sand, potting soil (without fertilizer!), peat moss, compost, etc. to fill it with. It might be a good idea to buy or store extra dust bath fill as well, in case your birds kick a lot of it out and it gets lost in your coop bedding.
Dust Bathing - Why, Where, and How?
Flock AssessmentConsider rearranging or downsizing your flock before winter for the comfort of the birds and ease of care.
Downsizing is a tough task for many, but if your space is limited and there’s simply no way to build onto your coop, it may be your only choice. Birds can be sold or given away, or even processed for the freezer to feed your family.
If you have multiple coops and some birds are being pushed around in some of them, it’s best to get them somewhere where they won’t be bullied away from food and water during the wintertime. Rearranging them now gives you the opportunity to better observe the new flock dynamic before the weather becomes prohibitive. Obviously, bullies can be rehomed or processed as well.
Making the Tough Calls - Difficult but Essential
Chicken Bully-Chicken Victim - A Two-Sided Issue
Temperature Extremes ***Consider recent winters’ patterns of temperature fluctuations and plan for the possibility of intervening.
Generally speaking, as long as there isn’t a large temperature swing leading to this low, chickens are fine down to -20° F (-29° C) without intervention, but this may vary from flock to flock, and some may choose to intervene sooner than that low. Adding heat just to take the edge off, or even moving your flock to a better insulated or warmer outbuilding are two possible options of intervening in temperature extremes. Be aware of the possibility for power outages and have a backup plan if you intend to provide heat all winter!
Winter Coop Temperatures
Cold Weather Advisory - A Detailed Look at the Question of Supplemental Heat
Egg Production ***Decide now what you want to do to encourage egg production in the wintertime, if anything, and how you plan to implement that plan.
Unless your birds are under a year old (and sometimes even when they’re that age), chickens typically molt in the fall and stop laying eggs for the winter. Supplemental lighting has been shown to keep egg production up and restart production earlier than natural lighting. Some prefer to let nature take its course and let their hens take a rest, but others rely on the productivity of their egg-layers, and so lighting is one option to maintain some production.
Winter Egg Laying
Tools, Supplies, and Other Considerations
Egg StorageConsider stockpiling and freezing or otherwise storing extra eggs for personal use during egg shortages.
Chickens typically molt in the fall and stop laying. You may have more eggs than you’ll ever know what to do with in late summer and early fall, but come winter, you may end up staring longingly at your empty egg basket, wishing for the days when you could cook with those delicious, home-raised eggs any time you pleased. Frozen eggs typically don’t hold up well for things like sunny side up or scrambled eggs, but work well for baking and other recipes that call for eggs in them.
What to do with Your Extra Eggs - About halfway down discusses methods for freezing eggs
Locate ToolsCheck to make sure all of the necessary tools, such as snow shovels, are where you can find them when needed.
Nobody wants to wake up to two feet of snow outside their door with no clue where the snow shovel has vanished to! Yeah, that's all I have to say here.
Protect YourselfMake sure you know where all YOUR winter gear is so that you’re ready to tackle the cold in order to care for your birds.
Consider getting boredom busters around for when the flock is snowed in.In particular, a good winter coat, waterproof insulated boots, and set of gloves make wintertime chicken care that much easier. When temperatures reach extreme lows, a hat, mask, or scarf and a set of coveralls in addition will make tackling the winter cold a breeze. Make sure you take care of yourself so that you can take care of your birds!
Prepare Boredom Busters
Boredom can lead to bullying, feather pecking, and even cannibalism! Making sure your flock has plenty to do will help prevent this from happening. Enrichment can be as simple as gathering autumn leaves for the birds to scratch in or as complicated as building or buying a chicken-specific jungle gym!
Boredom Busters - Toys for Chickens
Busting Wintertime Flock Boredom
Quick Reference / Copy and Paste Checklist:
- Double check that your feed is well balanced and appropriate for your flock (research and consider corn or scratch as a boost and fodder or sprouts as a supplement / enrichment)
- Plan for keeping liquid water available in freezing temps
- Check for coop drafts
- Make sure coop ventilation is adequate for wintertime
- Make sure coop is of adequate size for flock size (consider downsizing if not); cover and add some wind blocking to the run for extra space
- Double check predator-proofing and tightness against mice and rats
- Make sure bedding is clean and dry, and deepen it where applicable
- Check over birds for signs of illness, injury, or parasites
- Clean coop vents, roosts, and nest boxes
- Consider providing a winter dust bath
- Make plans in case of extreme lows and power outages
- Consider supplementing light for egg production
- Locate all the tools and gear you'll need for the winter (snow shovel, gloves, coat, etc.)
- Consider freezing eggs while in ample supply
- Consider preparing boredom busters for mid-winter
Other good reading on the topic:
Cold Weather Poultry Housing and Care
Winter Chicken Keeping
Prevent and Treat Frostbite in Chickens
Frostbite Prevention and Treatment (Warning, graphic pictures!)
Fire Safety in the Coop and Barn and Outlet Types for Fire Safety in Your Coop - Please read these before heating or running electricity to your coop!
Did I forget something important that’s on your winter preparation checklist? Feel free to comment or send me a private message if you think that something essential has been overlooked!