Topic of the week - Winter chicken keeping

Discussion in 'Managing Your Flock' started by sumi, Nov 20, 2016.

  1. sumi

    sumi Égalité Staff Member

    Jun 28, 2011
    Rep of Ireland
    There are so many aspects to consider when it comes to winter chicken keeping and so many things we can do to make sure our flocks are safe, comfortable and happy. This week I would like to hear you all's tips, thoughts and suggestions on all things winter chicken keeping. For example:

    - Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold?
    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?
    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc.
    - How to keep their water from freezing.
    - How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.

    Anything else you'd like to add.

    For a complete list of our Topic of the Week threads, see here:
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2017
  2. aart

    aart Chicken Juggler! Premium Member

    Nov 27, 2012
    SW Michigan
    My Coop
    - Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold?
    Heat lamps are a huge fire risk. Birds are wearing 'down coats' so keep themselves warm. Wear all your winter gear inside your house and see if you think they need heat, chickens can't take their 'coats' off. If power goes out it could be devastating(possibly fatally) for them to go thru that drastic temp change. Only in extreme situations, sustained (24/7 for weeks on end) temps of below -10F would necessitate some added moderate a safe way, like a sweeter heater.

    A 'tight' coop is another fallacy, ventilation is way more important than trying to 'hold their heat' in the coop. Ventilation allows ammonia laden moist air to escape the coop, for healthier birds. Keeping the coop as dry as possible will keep them 'warmer' and reduce the risk of frostbite.

    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?
    I don't do anything other than good dry coop environment and wide flat roosts to help feet stay covered with belly feathers better. I get some comb and wattle frostbite, both mild (graying) and severe(black and swollen) every year, nipple drinking drips and noshing the snow banks<rolleyes> are the main causes. I keep my hands off of it, messing with compromised tissue is an invitation to infection, and it heals up on it's own. I keep a close eye on it tho, but never had any get infected and need treatment.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation:
    I have great ventilation as my coop is in a large shed with a clerestory roof that was here when I bought the place, so 3 open eaves covered with 1/2'" hardware cloth. I do throw up some cardboard baffles to keep wind and blown snow from landing on the coop/roost area.
    Ventilation is a huge topic that can be confusing and highly varied depending on coop in question.
    This is a great video showing some air flow scenarios,
    tho the roost in that coop is way to close to the ceiling.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - insulation:
    I believe insulation is maybe effective for hot environments(to slow summer heat gain) than cold ones.Again ventilation makes heating and insulation mostly moot. Adding insulation presents more problems than it solves IMO...chickens love to eat it so it must be covered, adding expense to coop construction, enclosed insulated walls can offer a wonderful habitat for rodents and other pests.
    Tho the shed my coop is in, raised 2-3' off ground, has an insulated floor which could help some and I have lots of dry pine shavings (3-6") on floor that they like to nestle down into to lounge on very cold days.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - moisture management:
    My main moisture management is to remove feces from poop boards every other day, use a closed waterer to prevent evaporation from adding to the mix, and total annual change out to fresh pine shavings in the fall. I live in a very humid environment....and again with good ventilation keeping humidity in coop lower than outside is impossible.

    - How to keep their water from freezing.
    This has worked very well for me...don't think Ill ever use anything else.
    Just carry out a gallon of warm water to top off every day.

    - How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    Gather often...which I can do as I am a mostly retired homebody.
    RonP has a solution I admire, but don't wish to install due to a limited power source:

    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.
    Space, lots of it. This is where coops kept small with validations of 'they only sleep and lay in there' can bite you in the butt, unless you have a large very well protected run. My run is 95% open mesh, so my large coop serves well during storms and bitter windy cold that can keep them hanging out in the coop for days on end. Lots of open floor space and the 3 poop boards provide extra 'floor space' for birds to get their 'space' during cabin fever scenarios. I'll toss out some BOSS, scratch grains, pans of kitchen scraps, or a flake of hay on the coop floor for 'amusement', 'distraction', 'enrichment'. Especially when it's bitter cold I'll use these devices to check mobility.
    7 people like this.
  3. I run heat in my Coop all winter....It is never that warm inside....The last reading yesterday was 3 Celsius....Outside with windchill it was -8 Celsius.....It keeps my water from freezing...I use sand in my Coop to eliminate most of the moisture....I always open the pop door in the winter so they can get outside to the run if they choose to?
    I free range on good days...Meaning no wind....If it is snowing out, they still free range daily.....I toss a flake of Alfalfa hay for them to peck through...I add some scratch to it and they get busy searching.......I never change feed when its cold out.....I put up construction grade plastic to the run to block out the wind and snow....only on one or two sides...

    It really all depends on a persons location and your personal preference on how you manage your flock....

  4. wamtazlady

    wamtazlady Chillin' With My Peeps

    Jul 18, 2013
    Kalispell MT
    - Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold?
    I don't use additional heat and live in northern Montana. The girls seem to do just find. It got down to -12 F which is -24 C last winter without a problem. Never even had any frostbite. As first year pullets they laid like champs all winter as in 10 eggs a day from 13 pullets so they must have been happy.

    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?\
    I have plenty of ventilation in my coop. Also use 2 by 4's with the 4 inch side up to let the chickens keep their feet warm.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc.
    I have lots of ventilation up high and the roosts down low. The birds don't have a breeze blowing on them. Due to my roosts being so low, I can't have poop boards. Once a month I just clean under the roosts and replace the wood shavings. I like to keep a deep layer of wood shavings in the coop for winter, about 4-6 inches. There is no insulation in the coop. The run is surrounded on 3 sides by clear plastic and the top is covered by a tarp. The open end is away from the wind. The girls go outside in all kinds of weather. I keep their food and water outside in the run to encourage them to get out of the coop and move around.

    - How to keep their water from freezing.
    I use a semi clear 10 gallon plastic tote, horizontal nipples, and a stock tank heater rated for use in plastic. It kept the girls in water down to -12 last winter and was a week between fillings. Neighbors saw how well it worked and are also changing over to that system. To help me out I also had the outside faucet changed to a frost free one this summer. That way I can hook one of those shrinking hoses to it and water the chickens and geese. When I'm done I 'll remove the hose, put it in a tote, and take it inside. No hauling water for me this winter.

    - How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    Collect them a few times a day when it's really cold outside. Also keep a deeper layer of wood shavings in the nests in winter.

    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.
    Mine are never confined to the coop. However, there are wood shavings in the run and I'll toss some corn down. That way they get to scratch for their goodies. This year I also have straw in. Planning on throwing some straw over the snow so they come out of their run to play. Got a few bales of hay. Hoping they will enjoy looking through it for seeds and whatever. A few times during the winter I'll put a bale of wood shavings in their run. They get the fun of spreading them out.

    I also have the area where the birds are kept surrounded by 400 foot in circumference electric poultry netting. Once they were used to the snow they had all that area to safely roam during the day. Of course it was February before they dared to venture out on the snow. Hopefully they'll be braver this winter if I toss the straw over the snow.
    2 people like this.
  5. Blooie

    Blooie Team Spina Bifida Premium Member

    Feb 25, 2014
    Northwestern Wyoming
    My Coop
    - Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold?
    Nope. I provide no additional heat. Anyone who knows me knows that even if I did, a heat lamp is the last choice I'd ever make. I don't even use them for chicks I'm raising in their outside brooder during our "balmy" Wyoming springs, when temps are often still in the teens and twenties, with 60 mph winds and sideways blowing snow! We have many days and nights with temps in the sub-zero range. The first year I had chickens it was in the upper 60s and lower 70s for weeks and then it plummeted to 17 below zero in 30 hours. Yeah, that kind of make-your-boogers- feel-like-broken-glass cold. So I haven't found that "too cold" temperature yet. I can't improve on the feather-and-down coat they are already wearing, and their body heat is right where it needs to be - trapped next to their bodies. In winter, with the days being so much shorter, they spend more time roosting in the longer night hours. That equates to more time sharing their body heat as they sit tight together.

    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?
    Nice, wide roosts for them lets them hunker down and keeps their feet warm. As for combs and wattles, keeping them and their surroundings dry is the key. Dry, dry, dry!! Humidity is the enemy in winter, not the cold. That humidity comes from many sources and it settles on combs and wattles and that contributes more to frostbite than anything. And keeping them out of strong drafts is important. If it's windy enough to ruffle their feathers, the body heat that's trapped against them can escape, much like you'd experience if the zipper broke on your expensive feather/down coat. That lost heat is hard to regenerate if the feathers just keep blowing around on them.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc.
    We ventilate our coop AND run. The coop has operable windows on all sides except the north, where we have a vent that's about 8 inches wide and almost 3 feet long. We can slip a cover over that if the bad weather is coming in from that side, and since that's the side where most of it comes from, it just makes sense. Everything on the downward side of the incoming storms is left open all the time. We have a gable vent on the east side, and a mobile home exhaust fan designed for older mobiles. Ken wired that in such a way that we can keep it open but not running, open and running, or closed off completely. It's been in there for a couple of years and I can honestly say it's never been closed off completely, but it's nice to have the option. That's on the east side, right above the people door and just over from the big gable vent. Their pop door into the run is open 24/7. They enter the coop via a little wooden framed tunnel, and that tunnel blocks direct winds from going into the coop at floor level but does allow for fresh air to come in. Directly across from that is another vent at floor level. We used home heating type floor registers up high on every wall, and those we can open or close, again depending on weather conditions. I think that unless you are fortunate enough to have Woods or similar coop, flexibility to allow for changing weather while keeping things as open as possible is essential. That ventilation IS your moisture management. Moisture laden, stale air leaves the coop and is replaced with clean, dry air.

    Insulating the coop is up to the individual owner. I don't. I was adamant that I was going to, but wiser heads than mine prevailed and I'm grateful. Insulation is designed to be a barrier between a heated space and the ambient air. If the coop isn't heated, what are you trapping inside? Well, humidity, for one thing. The building doesn't "breathe" if it's wrapped and plugged to within an inch of its life! Chickens love to peck at insulation so you have to cover it with something. Guess what you've created? Another air exchange barrier and a freeway for rodents inside the walls. So no thanks - my chickens do just fine without it.

    Our run is a hoop run, and in winter we cover it with clear, reinforced greenhouse type plastic. It works great, but the first year we did it we goofed big time and sealed that run up tight. Oops - we had condensation literally running down the inside of the plastic in the run, and if we bumped the top we got "rained" on. So we modified it, leaving the south side as a separate piece that we can roll up or down like a reversed window shade. The north side has a sizable gap in the top right above the people door, and the west and east sides are not rolled tight to the ground but stop a few inches above the level of the litter on the run floor. It works very well to keep them dry and out of the strong winds while allowing them a big place to get out of the coop. They are in there from sunup until time to go to bed! And they like a little outside time too, even in the snow!

    - How to keep their water from freezing.
    We bought a small tank heater safe for plastic and put it in the water. The waterer is a 5 gallon bucket with horizontal nipples. The first year we did that, the nipples still froze every time our temperatures were around that -12 degree mark. So when we'd get up in the morning, while the coffee was brewing Ken and I would put on our winter togs and grab the heat gun, which we used to thaw the nipples. We were going out to do morning chores anyway, and it just took a few extra minutes. We found out that what was happening was little drips left over from them drinking would sit in the tiny cup part, freeze, then more would get added and freeze, and by the end of the day the ice in them had pushed against the metal trigger, which held it open and let more water ooze out and freeze. We had icicles running from the nipples to the floor of the coop and spreading out like a skating pond. Not good. So we moved the water out to the run on the south side where the solar was strongest, and made a new waterer with the nipples located up higher on the bucket. Someone here had used a point-and-shoot thermometer and found that the water near the middle and close to the top was warmer than the water at the bottom of the bucket, so that made sense to us. We also had the original waterer on big bricks that were hollow inside so cold air was flowing all the way around and under the bucket. Solid bricks were also used to replace the hollow ones. And taking the water out of the coop is the best way to keep from adding humidity to the coop anyway. We haven't had a problem one since.

    - How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    Deep nesting material and gathering them often.

    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.
    Mine are never "confined". They can access their huge run and the sunshine that pours in through the south side anytime they want. But they do need boredom busters. I use those commercial wire suet cages and fill them with homemade suet once week or so. Commercial suet works well too. I hang a few of them all over the run so they have to work to get the goodies out. The extra fat is good for them in winter anyway, so why not challenge them a little to access it? In summer I stuff them with melon, cut up apples - just about anything that won't slip right through the cage. They have a big log in the run. It's hollow, and it's place cut side down. They are always finding bits of missed scratch in the bark, and little bugs and such underneath. There are also two roosts in there - one swings and the other doesn't. They are placed in a long "V" shape and they go from one leg of the V to the other, balancing and bumping each other off much like lambs do when they play "King of the Mountain". They also bask in the sunshine there. I found two wrought iron shelves and wedged and wired them into the corners. They not only stabilize the hoop somewhat, they also give them a place to get up and survey their domain. And of course the people door to the run is open a lot during winter and out they go, even in the snow. I have some that hang back and are not going out there not now not nohow, but others run all over the place.

    Deep litter in the run allows them to still "dust bathe". In the past I'd toss half a bale of straw in there and let them rip it apart, but I don't do that very often anymore. Straw is hollow and can harbor mites, plus it just doesn't break down the way plain old leaves do. I do use straw in the outside brooder pen for chicks because of it's superior insulating properties (it's still cold here when I get my chick order) and that does make it's way into the litter mix, but I can deal with a little bit - just not the quantity I had in there the first year. Now I just dump a big bag of leaves in the middle of the run once in awhile and let them have at it. They aerate the litter by scratching in it, it replenishes the litter, and keeps them very entertained. They also burrow into the litter when temps are harsh - mine do it all the time. They hollow out little spaces in the litter and then lay down in them, quite contentedly and instinctively letting their body heat warm the spot they've chosen. I put my hand in one of those hollows when one of the girls got up.....nice!!

    All things taken equally, you HAVE to consider your comfort level when overwintering chickens. Are you comfortable with letting them function and thrive with their own natural protection and ability to see to their own basic needs? Are you willing to go out there yourself and open and close ventilation as the conditions warrant? Can you get power to your coop safely? (hubby is an electrician so that part was easy for me) Have you built a facility that functions as well in winter as it does in summer, with few twice annual modifications? What does your budget and your location allow? Winterizing isn't difficult.
    2 people like this.
  6. lazy gardener

    lazy gardener Flock Master

    Nov 7, 2012
    Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold? Usually not. However, I believe that because birds CAN survive without any supplemental heat, that does not mean that it is always in their best interest to go without heat. I often hear it said that people have been keeping chickens in frigid climates long before there was electricity. Agreed. However, In those days, and under most circumstances poultry was kept in a barn situation, with other livestock animals. The birds often had free range in the barn, reaping the benefit of deep stable litter, the heat put out by large farm animals, even the heat put out by a mow full of hay in storage. Compare that to the tiny little urban flock kept in a little doll house coop with out enough height to allow for deep litter, or enough space over the perches to vent off the moisture laden air from the bird's respiration. During 2 of last 3 winters, I did supply some extra heat when the temp was staying below 0*F for days and nights on end. But, based the application of heat solely on the bird's behavior. If they were acting normal, moving around and eating normally, they did not get heat. BUT, if they were not moving around, standing in a huddle, not even eating as much as they normally did, I gave them some heat for a few hours. This in form of flower pot heater the first year in smaller coop, and the second year in the form of a red heat lamp that was secured in 3 methods, and checked daily for function, and dusted before turning it on each time.

    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet? Has not been an issue. Keep the litter dry.

    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc. Coop is 10 x 12, (3) 2 x 2.5' thermopane windows, 8' strip soffit vents on each side, 8 x 16" gable vents, 24 x 15" floor level vent, full glass thermopane people door, and pop door. I have found that using dry leaves is by far the best litter option in the coop and run. Does not seem to generate ammonia the way shavings do. As the winter progresses, I increase depth of their bedding, often tossing out some scratch, especially under the perches to encourage them to flip the litter. A bale of hay goes a long way towards breaking winter doldrums. During the very cold days and at night, I close the windows, but open at least one of them up if the temp gets above 20* to help ventilate the coop. On a warmish day, I may also open the people door for a nice big air exchange. I think winter stocking density is often overlooked. There is a fine line between having too many birds (which increases stress) and not enough birds (which makes it more difficult for the flock to generate enough heat to stay warm).

    - How to keep their water from freezing. 5 qt. heated dog bowl. I set a gallon jug full of water in the middle of the dog bowl. This creates a "moat" of water. The jug stays thawed, so effectively, there is about 7 qts of liquid water available for easily topping off the moat when I go out at mid day to collect eggs/check birds. The jug also serves the purpose of keeping them from walking through the water (increased frost bite risk) and helps keep them from dragging their wattles through the water.

    - How to keep their eggs from freezing. Gather often. Keep their nests well lined with hay. It is helpful to line the base of the nest with cardboard. Less problem with frozen eggs if the nest box is inside the coop instead of the "sidecar" style. My in coop boxes still have outside access door, but stay warmer, being part of the coop footprint.

    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc. Multi-level and out of sight areas to hang out. Easily accomplished in a larger coop with a few strategically placed hay bales. When vegetation in the yard becomes unavailable, I will start sprouting grains. Just picked up 50# of wheat. Will add sun flower seeds, field corn, millet, lentils. I sprout in 1 qt mason jars, and also sprout for my own needs. Sprouting keeps both my birds, and myself "happy and amused" during the winter. Hubby and I also recently finished building a "sun room" for the birds. It consists of an area that is about 8' x 10', covered with a green house tarp in the bird's run. Open on the west side, facing their pop door, and closed in on south and east side with tarp/clear plastic, closed in on north with pallets/plastic. For my own amusement, I have a CP green house with 2 growing beds. This lets me play in the soil, keep some fresh greens on the table throughout most of the winter. I expect the greens factory will shut down mid-December, and start back up late Feb.
  7. bobbi-j

    bobbi-j Flock Master Premium Member

    Mar 15, 2010
    On the MN prairie.
    Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold?
    We don't add heat, either. We're on the MN prairie and we do see -20's for at least a few days in the winter. I do close up the coop more when it's that cold, making sure the wind isn't getting in.

    How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?
    Hasn't been a problem since I learned about keeping the coop well ventilated. When I used to shut them up tight and keep a heat lamp in the coop, I'd see frostbitten wattles and combs quite often.

    How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc.
    Coop - I close the windows and pop door when it gets below zero. We have vented soffits, and the windows in both coops open into the coop from the top. I also keep the pop doors open when it's super cold.
    Run - I don't do anything with the run. Still working on that one. Both runs are 6' high, and 12x16. Looking into checking out Blooie's hoop run, though. That could be doable.

    How to keep their water from freezing.
    I also use a 5 qt. heated dog bowl. I like LG's idea of a water moat. I usually have chickens with pea combs and small wattles, but one of the cockerels I ended up with has some pretty big dangly wattles that I'm worried about.

    How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    Collect often.

    Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.
    A flake of alfalfa hay gives them something to scratch and peck at. They love those little leaves! I think if I can get a hoop run, that will also help keep them busy. I can throw stuff into the run for them to dig around for.
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2016
  8. Mrs. K

    Mrs. K Chicken Obsessed

    Nov 12, 2009
    western South Dakota
    Do adult birds need additional heat (heaters, heat lamps) or not and if so, when? I.e. when is it TOO cold? Adding heat is not an option for me, mine have easily come through -20 degrees, two years ago, I had a broody hen keep 4 chicks alive that were a week old. People worry about keeping birds warm, when instead they should worry about keeping birds dry. A dry bird can take cold weather. A wet one cannot. Old birds may die in very cold weather, but they could very well just be at the end of their life.
    - How do you prevent frostbite on your birds' combs and feet?
    Frostbite is a sign that your coop is NOT dry enough. You need more ventilation above their heads, and the birds need to be roosting so that their heads are 12-15 inches below the ceiling. Too close to the ceiling or walls, causes moisture to build up on the bird, making them cold and wet.
    - How to best kit out the coop (and run) for winter - ventilation, insulation, moisture management, etc.
    The coop should be tight against the prevailing wind, for me, the North and the west, and opened on the other sides. Wind protection is what the coop should provide, with ventilation to keep the air dry. Again, dryness is the concern, not insulation which people want to use to trap heat in. Once people (myself included when I started) start thinking insulation, they start thinking trapping heat, which in reality traps moisture.
    - How to keep their water from freezing.
    My water freezes. I use two black rubber bowls. Alternating days, I flip the frozen one down in the sunshine, and fill the empty one. Next day, yesterday's sun, usually has melted it enough the ice falls out, and fill that one, and flip the other. My birds will come immediately to the water and get a good drink, but do not seem to suffer from not having 24/7 water. I do usually feed fermented soaked grains, and sprouts as part of the winter ration.
    - How to keep their eggs from freezing.
    I don't, if it gets cold enough they freeze and often crack. I will wipe these egg shells off if dirty, place in a bowl in the fridge, and use for baking.
    - Keeping the flock happy and amused when they are confined to the coop by heavy snow, storms, etc.
    The pop up door is always open, chickens choice to come out, I have numerous hide outs, and protections spots from wind, snow in my run.
  9. junkman56

    junkman56 Chillin' With My Peeps

    I'm not sure if this is the right place for this question or not.

    We got between 6 & 8 inches of snow yesterday, This morning I went out to open the pop door to the run, and clean the poop hammock, and I seen a dusting of snow on the hammock, it had to blow in from the 24/7 vents at the top of the coop which are about 3+ feet above the roost. so I'm thinking that will be considered a draft on the roost. now any Ideas on how I can correct this problem. I was thinking on stapling some vinyl sheeting to the front of the overhang, The overhang sticks out about 16" and that should leave enough room behind the sheeting so it will still vent

    any ideas would be appreciated
    thank you

    two roost boards with poop hammock

    24/7 vents

    my setup for the winter/showing the overhang
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2016
  10. BlueRabbit44

    BlueRabbit44 New Egg

    Nov 21, 2016

BackYard Chickens is proudly sponsored by