Winter Chicken Keeping

Keeping chickens safe and healthy over the colder months is a big concern for their keepers as winter and the extreme weather conditions...
  1. sumi
    Keeping chickens over winter

    Pic by thomasboyle

    Keeping chickens safe and healthy over the colder months is a big concern for their keepers as winter and the extreme weather conditions experienced in certain parts of the world can cause problems such as frostbite and in some cases losses of birds. Here are some things you can do to get your flock through winter safely:

    Provide protection from adverse weather conditions

    If possible and weather permits your flock should be allowed as much "outside time" as possible. Most chickens will be perfectly happy running around in the snow, they don't have to spent the colder months cooped up. Whether in a covered run, or free ranging, it is important that they have adequate shelter where they can hide from snow storms and wind though, if allowed outside. As seen in the pic above, member thomasboyle uses clear shower curtains wrapped around his run to keep snow out and act as a wind break, while still allowing the sun to warm the area during the day. Clear contractor's plastic will work just as well. You can also stack straw bales as an excellent wind break for the run and stacked around the coop it will help shelter and insulate it if the weather is particularly harsh.

    Coop insulation

    Whether or not to insulate is a hotly debated topic here, with no clear or definite answer. Keep in mind that chickens over the age of 6-7 weeks do come with build-in insulation, in the form of a well designed feather blanket that helps them regulate their body heat. Some less cold hardy breeds may benefit from extra protection against extreme colds, but most hardy breeds will do fine in well built, properly ventilated coops and will not need insulation or extra heat, unless the winter is extremely harsh. Here are some more information and opinions on the topic:

    Heating the coop

    Personally, I am not a fan of supplemented heat, unless it's for small chicks, molting or sick birds. Honestly, in most cases the chickens really do not need it. They are designed to live outdoors in all seasons and have done so for many years. One potential problem with supplemented heat is: what if the power goes out? Chickens will have a problem acclimatising to the drop from toasty warm to freezing temperatures if they lose their heat source suddenly and this can cause a range of health problems.

    Then there is the risk of coop fires which should be taken into account when considering this option. Many chicken keepers have tragically lost their flocks due to coop fires started by faulty electrics, or knocked over heat lamps. If you feel you have to provide some extra heating, for the reasons I listed above or others, be very careful and follow the guidelines listed in this article on fire safety in the coop and barn. You can help keep the coop comfortable for your flock by spreading a nice layer of straw around for them. This will act as insulation and also give them something to do.

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    Pics by Bogtown Chick
    Coop ventilation

    This is a probably the most important factor when it comes to kitting out and designing your winter coop. Adequate ventilation is vital! Good ventilation helps keep the moisture levels in the coop down, which will in turn reduce, or eliminate the risk of frostbite. A good tip from the old-timers: If the windows of the coop have frost stuck on the inside windows you need to provide more ventilation. Aim to provide as much ventilation as needed without making the coop draughty. For more on coop ventilation I highly recommend this excellent article on the topic.

    Frostbite prevention

    Certain breeds are more susceptible to frostbite, for example the large comb breeds like Leghorns, while smaller pea comb breeds have a lesser risk, but all chickens, regardless of breed, are susceptible! To reduce or eliminate the risks of frostbite:
    - Keep the bedding in the coop as dry as possible and the humidity levels in the coop low, first of all by ensuring adequate ventilation (see above). Do not leave waterers inside the coop overnight as they will add to the overall humidity. Prevent water spillage as much as possible and clean and dry up the area, removing any damp bedding, if it does occur.
    - Provide wide roosting bars (2x4 inch planks with the 4 inch side up is recommended), so that the chickens can tuck their feet in when sleeping. Discourage sleeping on the floor of the coop, especially on damp bedding.

    Pic by Sally8

    Feeding and watering your flock

    Chickens who normally free range will miss and welcome some extra greens in the colder winter months when foraging is out of the question. Spinach, kale and chard in moderate amounts will be appreciated, as well as spouts. If they don't have access to soil, make sure they have adequate grit available during this time! Some flock owners supplement their chickens' diet with treats such as BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds), some provide snacks (and entertainment) in the coop in the form of homemade flock blocks, hanging cabbages, or apples in the coop. Do practice moderation when feeding snacks and extras and make sure it's never more than 10% of the flock's total feed intake. Chickens will need some extra energy to help them stay warm in winter, but do not go overboard with feeding, especially corn, which could be scattered around the run, giving them something to scratch and look for, but it needs to be fed in moderate amounts only.

    Keeping the chickens' water from freezing during the colder days and nights can be a challenge. BYC members have come up with some great ideas to work around this problem. Here are some discussions and tips: (Article on how to make your own)

    Pic by hinkjc

    Egglaying in winter

    Most hens need at least 14 hours of light per day to keep them in production and will slow down, or stop laying completely, once the short winter days set in. For this reason many chicken owners artificially extend their days by providing electric light in the coop. The light need not be very bright, just enough to read a newspaper by, and if provided should be turned on in the mornings, so as to not interfere with their normal roosting behaviour.

    Keep in mind that though it's lovely to have fresh eggs year round, there are serious downsides to providing artificial light during winter to keep them producing at a high rate. It has been linked to reproductive cancers in hens and that by forcing them to continue laying without a break over winter, you could be severely shortening their lives.

    Some further recommended reading:

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  1. rngrbill
    I have a 2 - 2.5 gal bucket from the grocery store bakery (frosting or glaze come in these) with nipple waterers on the bottom. My 7.5 watt heater only raises the temp 5 degrees I often find an Ice layer at the top of the water that will melt during the day. The buckets are covered with the cord going through a hole on top.
  2. RezChamp
    I dislike heating water unless it's in a completely sealed container.
    Otherwise water vapor gets into the coop/loft environment.
    My birds create enough humidity for me to continue innovating warmth/humidity"lesser" environment.
    I use a regular incandescent lightbulb in a metal drum or pail underneath the coop/loft. My coop/loft is off the ground enough to deter skunks and such from overwintering under there but low enough that (ei)bears wouldn't be attracted to den there neither. Just over 2 feet so I have plenty of room to crawl around under there.
    3 layers of cheap plastic tarp has more insulative quality than plywood. So, my skirting, which is removable, thus reducing rot(morelike stops it completely), in summer and installs with a T50 staple gun within 1/2hr for colder weather. Althought there is moisture under there it isnt that much and it does not add to the humidity level of the coop/lofts.
    At -50*C we gota execise our ingenuity and not be too hesitant to be innovative/creative.......
    OR be willing to buy new breeding stock every spring. lol
  3. RezChamp
    Warm air rises, CO2 sinks. CO2 is heavier than oxygen, thusly colder.
    I vent at bottom.
  4. rfeyer
    To add - we have 18 chickens and 3 7.5 wk peeps currently. The Peep and Broodie enclosure has a 3 cup heated dog/ cat water bowl which did not freeze (but I do not remember the wattage of it).
  5. rfeyer
    We also live in Upstate NY - currently about 10 degrees. We are happy with that, since last week was brutal.
    I constructed 2 7gal water buckets with horizontal nipples, internally one aquarium water circulator and one 25W aquarium submersible heater each. Having a temp proble record temps hourly, the temp of the water never went below 42 until last week, had minus 10 degrees with minus 35 wind chill. Water nipple stopped moving and outside and top portions of water froze. Purchased 2 100W heaters which I am currently waiting for and will install those next.
  6. rngrbill
    Not sure about a "cookie tin heater" but I picked up a couple of 7.5 watt aquarium heaters that I have connected to a thermo block outlet from TSC. It turns them on when the temp falls to about 35 and off at about 40 - 45 external air temp. never had a problem even in New England.
  7. Kluk-Kluk
    Oh, another comment. I had my husband make me a cookie tin heater in the fall because last winter was BRUTAL in upstate NY, and I had to go to the coop with warm water several times a day to melt the ice in the water bucket. That cookie tin heater is WONDERFUL! There is never any ice, even when it's been in the single digits at night (outside - not sure how cold inside, but the coop is not heated). Between the cookie tin heater and a timer on the lights now - wow, my life as a chicken mom is so much easier!
  8. Kluk-Kluk
    How very interesting, Fernyfern, about the straw. I have straw on the floor of the coop, and my girls get very excited when I turn the straw and especially when I add more. They run in and peck and scratch at it, looking for treats. I think the reaction is based on what they're used to. Mine have always had straw so they like it.
  9. RezChamp
    Good article. I'm always open to new and/or more info on any # of subjects.
    Thank you.

    All said however, where I live insulation is a must as is artificial heating. Also, ventilation must be minimal and strategically place in regards to direction, location and cover at site. As well the direction the coop faces needs to be considered.
    No use insulating and venting when -50*C((-60*F) and colder)with 50-75Km/hr winds(blowing miniature ice razors)that we get from time to time blows in replacing all the artificially heated(to about+10or15*C)inside air.
  10. Brookliner
    I have bantams and the temperature here was -1 deg here last night. I use 6 mil contractors plastic to wrap my runs in the winter I leave 4" open at the top of one side for air. I have one coop that is insulated 8'x8'x10 on one side and 6' one the other side the eves are all open protected with hardware cloth. 2 other uninsulated coops that are smaller. All are open to their runs 24/7. I have poop trays with PDZ which neutralizes the ammonia and keeps the moisture down. I give them scratch an hour before roost time. I bring in any chicken to my garage coop if they are late molting and give them extra protein (mealworms) to help feather regrowth. They all seem to do fine in the cold.
  11. birdman55
    great article
  12. Bogtown Chick
    I am just seeing this now Sumi. Great article. Thank you!
  13. Fernyfern
    Me again...I raked most of the straw up and took it out of their coop this week, and they are obviously much happier. They run around now instead of huddling under their henhouse, and respond to visitors by coming over to the fence to see what's happening and beg for treats, instead of acting withdrawn and uninterested. During the Time of the Straw in the Coop, they were clearly unhappy! Funny how a change from what they are used to can bring about unexpected results.
  14. Mountain Peeps
  15. Fernyfern
    Hello, after reading this article, which sounded great, I seem to have made our flock very unhappy...I took the suggestion of putting a bale of straw in the coop, which they could then tear apart and spread around. The idea is something fun to do while adding a layer of insulation to the coop, which is of course, dirt. Our chickens seem to dislike this greatly. They huddle under the chicken house where the earth is still bare, and hardly like to scratch or even walk in the straw covered areas. They did spread it around some, but mainly they seem to avoid walking on it. I think I am going to have to go rake it all up.
  16. girlybirds
    I moved the girls into the garage last night, when I let them out into the yard, one went
    directly into the old coop to lay. Does anyone know if they will eventually lay in the new coop?
    I do not plan on heating the coop, is the garage good enough protection from the elements, they
    have a coop in the garage with deep litter, sand and pine shavings?? Thanks
  17. Bunnyla
    many great ideas from other chicken raisers... many thanks for great tips and what you do. love the wind breaker idea with shower curtains, and the water back in at night. I did read about vasoline on combs, waddles before as well to help prevent frost bite. love the extra hay bales and straw around coop too. thanks again.. this will be my 1st winter with my chickens.
  18. RLBourgeois
    Excellent article and advice...thanks!
  19. rngrbill
    Eggselant article. I use a 7watt aquarium heater in the bottom of my 2.5 gal waterer that has nipples on the bottom and snow fence around the run.
  20. Ankhdad
    Like these 'to the point' articles. Thank you!
    This is our first year/winter with the girls, but after reading a few of these articles, I think we are going to be in good shape. I like the idea of the plastic wrapped around the run.
  21. ruthraf
    Thanks for all the great tips!! This is our first winter with our chickens.
  22. rfeyer
    Excellent article and just in time! I agree with rachel9947-did not think of removing the waterer as mine is the horizontal nipple kind, but, of course it will emit humidity still from the filling ports. TYVM!
  23. rachel9947
    Great article! I will remove the drinker from the shed when it gets cold. We put a thin layer of vaseline on the combs when it is cold. The chucks enjoy this, and it stops the comb drying out or getting too cold. Obviously this is only possible if you only have a small pet flock.

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