Wintering Chickens in Iowa

Discussion in 'Managing Your Flock' started by Amanda Akin, Sep 15, 2015.

  1. Amanda Akin

    Amanda Akin New Egg

    Sep 15, 2015
    Anyone have tips for wintering chickens? This will be my first winter with chickens. What do you do for warmth? Do you still let them out to run around or keep them cooped? What do you recommend for keeping the water from freezing? Any extra feed or supplements due to frozen ground? TIA
  2. Ol Grey Mare

    Ol Grey Mare One egg shy of a full carton. ..... Premium Member

    Mar 9, 2014
    My Coop
    Welcome to BYC!
    What breed(s) are you keeping? Generally speaking, fully feathered birds of most breeds do not need anything for warmth besides an appropriate shelter to get into as desired so that their built in insulation and heating system can do their jobs. With the exception of a few breeds, they are quite cold hardy - actually better able to thrive in cold than heat.
    My flock is managed the same year-round .....they are given access to the run and allowed to decide for themselves when the weather is nice and they want to be out in it (when given the choice it is often surprising to people that the chickens' idea of too cold, nasty, windy, etc is quite different than the human's idea - with the birds choosing to go out in weather the human felt a need to confine them from). Cooping them up, imo, creates more problem than it can prevent.
    One thing to keep in mind is that winter is a time when ventilation is still just as important (or more so) than in summer. Human inclination is often to "shut up" the coop, to seal it tight -- this is actually the worst thing you could do for your birds.
    I don't worry about keeping the water from freezing - my coop is on the far side of our property and unwired, so there is no option for using any form of electric heater for the water. During the winter we simply provide fresh water to the flock at least 3 times during the day and they do just fine. If electric is available for your coop, there are many options for heating a water station -- a quick search here on BYC will give you more threads to read than you have time to read them.
  3. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner True BYC Addict

    Feb 2, 2009
    Northwest Arkansas
    Think back to last winter in Iowa. Did you see any wild birds around? How were they staying warm?

    Chickens don’t need to be kept warm in winter. With their down coats they can do a pretty good job of that themselves with just a bit of help. They trap tiny pockets of air in their down and feathers. These air pockets are what makes feathers such good insulators. As long as a breeze strong enough to ruffle those feathers and let the air pockets out doesn’t hit them they stay plenty warm. So your chickens need to be out of direct breezes strong enough to ruffle the feathers.

    Ventilation is pretty important too. Wild birds are not cooped up. Even if they are sheltering out of a strong wind they still have good ventilation around them. Some people think you need to close the chickens up pretty tightly in winter but not so at all. Chickens and other birds have fairly delicate respiratory systems. If you close them up tightly the air can get pretty foul from their poop. The poop creates ammonia as it breaks down. Ammonia is lighter than air and can really mess up their respiratory system. If the poop is frozen it will not break down and form ammonia but if it is not frozen solid, they need openings above their heads so the lighter-than-air ammonia can escape.

    The biggest danger from an enclosed coop is frostbite. The moisture from their breathing and their poop needs to escape or it can cause frostbite in temperatures below freezing. This is really where you need good ventilation. Their poop and their breath are warm, at least at first. Warm air rises and holds more moisture than cold air. Again openings above their heads really helps get this extra moisture out. It doesn’t take much of an opening to get the ammonia out, the moisture takes more. But if the openings are over their heads and a breeze develops between those openings, that breeze does not ruffle their feathers because it is over their heads.

    My winterizing the coop consists of closing a window below roost level and rely on the openings along the roof line for ventilation.

    They do need clean water. That might be your biggest challenge. If you have electricity out there you can get heated pet bowls, make a cookie tin heater, or maybe something else. I use black rubber bowls that I got at Tractor Supply. When the water freezes in them you just turn them over and bang them to get the ice out. The rubber won’t break. If the sun is shining that black rubber acts as a solar heater. One of those in the sun will stay thawed at a surprisingly low temperature but they are certainly going to be frozen solid in the morning. The sun doesn’t always shine either. It’s a bit of work but it works for me.

    I never leave mine locked in the coop. I give them the option to go out or stay in as they wish. As long as a strong cold wind is not blowing or the ground is not covered in snow they practically always choose to go out, even in sub-zero Fahrenheit weather. Usually they don’t like snow when they first see it but if snow stays on the ground for a few days they get used to it and will go out in it.

    You’ll see different people say they feed their chickens various things in winter to help them stay warm. That does absolutely no harm as long as you don’t get carried away with that stuff. Many people are convinced they need to feed something special for cold weather, corn is often mentioned, but many of us don’t feed extra like corn and our chickens still stay warm. How much it actually helps the chickens is debatable but if it makes you feel better it has value.

    Even in winter they need a balanced diet so don’t overdo the treats. Their regular feed provides a balanced diet and should be the main part of what they eat. They will not forage nearly as much when the ground is frozen or covered with snow so you need to see that they have plenty of chicken feed to eat. That’s basically it.

    Good luck! They really do handle cold pretty well on their own with just a bit of help.
    1 person likes this.
  4. TwoCrows

    TwoCrows Show me the way old friend Staff Member

    Mar 21, 2011
    New Mexico, USA
    My Coop
    Hello there and welcome to BYC! [​IMG]

    Chickens can tolerate some very cold temps, even temps below zero. It is never recommended to add heat to your coop unless you have very young, old or sick birds. They are designed with lots of feathers and down to keep them warm. However if it is going to get down to -15 or -20, you might add a small heat lamp to the roosting area just to bring up the temp a bit. My rule of thumb is, if it is going to get 30 degrees colder than the average over night low, then I will add heat at night only and then remove it when temps return to their normal over night lows. If you do use a heat lamp, permanently attach it to a wall or ceiling so it cannot fall down in the night and start a fire. No extension cords laying on bedding or anything like this.

    Good ventilation is EXTREMELY important to preventing frost bite. You will want about 3/4 to 1 square foot of vent space in your eaves per bird at all times. All the breathing and pooping moisture has to go somewhere. Without proper ventilation, it is going to rise and then fall back down on your birds as water or frost. Birds can withstand the coldest of temps if the air is dry. Use ventilation high above their heads, vents on opposing sides of your coop eaves...preferably one side of vents higher than the other to create a nice air flow in the lower side and out the upper side. Your birds roosting low to the floor. The moisture will rise into this positive air movement and get whisked away. If it is going to be really windy that night, you can block off 2/3rd of the lower venting to prevent the heat from being sucked away from the birds. And use a 2x4 for a roost bar, the 4 side up so they can cover their feet and toes with their breast feathers to prevent frost bitten toes. You can also use vaseline on combs if you start to see frost bite. Never close up your coop tightly. This will create bad air space and can cause all kinds of respiratory issues. Always keep that air moving!

    You can wrap an old towel around your roost bar. This will help to keep the feet warm. Birds loose heat through their feet. So warm feet mean warmer birds. I wrap mine sometime early December. I also cover my windows with clear plastic. That way I can open the windows in the coop but keep the winter winds from blowing in.

    Your birds should have the same outdoor time as they normally do in warmer temps or at least the opportunity to get outside. You can shovel the snow out of the way for them to get out and scratch around, but don't let them stand for long periods on snow as they can get frost bite on the feet. Provide places they can hop up off the snow.

    I use heated dog water bowls or heated water bases. It gets to be too much to haul water around every other hour when it is below freezing outside.

    Good luck this winter and stay warm! :)
    1 person likes this.
  5. Blooie

    Blooie Team Spina Bifida Premium Member

    Feb 25, 2014
    Northwestern Wyoming
    My Coop
    Holy smokes! Great responses! Yep, what they said! ___________^

    I also don't heat or insulate my coop, nor do I cover it or wrap it. Ventilation stays open as long as wind and snow aren't blowing right down on them. On nasty days I close the vent and window on the side the wind is coming from and on nice days (0 degrees with less than 10mph winds) the whole thing stays open. Their run is covered so they have a snow-free place to be outside, and they spend most of every day, no matter what the weather is doing, out in that run. Sunny days they get outside in the yard for some stretch time. They don't find much to forage in the snow, but they don't mind looking, either!

    I think one thing I'd add in addition to the excellent points already made about keeping chickens dry, ventilated and hydrated, is having a few boredom busters. Those short winter days and being cooped up on some days can lead to some behaviors usually associated with boredom....feather picking, that sort of thing. So I have a few things I do. I have 3 of those little metal suet feeder cages in their run. Some days I'll bring them in and stuff them as full as I possibly can with trimmings, leftovers, cut up apple chunks ow whatever is on hand and take them out and hang them up. They love it, it breaks the routine, and they have to work to get the goodies out of there. Plus it cleans out my breadbox and fridge! Teehee I also have a large half log that they climb all over and under in their run. In winter I toss a little scratch under it, around it and on top of it. Digging for every kernel keeps them entertained as well. But use common sense - these are treats, not their steady diet!

    Good luck! You'll find you probably have to do more to keep your driveway clear than you do to keep your chickens safe and comfortable. That's one thing I wish I could stress enough to's not about keeping them warm. They already do that better than we can. It's about keeping them comfortable.
  6. Ol Grey Mare

    Ol Grey Mare One egg shy of a full carton. ..... Premium Member

    Mar 9, 2014
    My Coop
    I meant to add, regarding snow in the run, some chickens don't mind snow under their feet (those I had growing up were in that category, other chickens won't step foot outside onto snow. current flock of prissy girls. .....rather than bothering with shoveling I just put a layer of hay or straw on fresh layers of snow. They know what's going on and follow me as each section is covered. In the spring,as the snow melts away, the layers of straw and hay just become part of the litter I keep in the run which keeps there from being a mud issue
  7. bobbi-j

    bobbi-j Flock Master Premium Member

    Mar 15, 2010
    On the MN prairie.
    Chicken-keeper from MN here, and I don't have much to add. Lots of good advice! My coops (more shed-like structures) are vented around the top - the one I am using this winter has vented soffits. I will also leave the pop door open if it's not too far below zero at night (I usually draw the line at -15 or so), and the windows tilt in to open at the top a couple of inches. Also open if it's not too far below zero. My chickens do not get wrapped roosts. As Ridgerunner pointed out, the wild birds don't have all this stuff, and they survive... My chickens don't like much snow. My run is not covered, so it does get snow in it, but DH does plow the driveway right past their coop, so I just let them out the people door instead of through the run. I have electricity in my coop, so I use a heated dog dish for water.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2015
  8. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner True BYC Addict

    Feb 2, 2009
    Northwest Arkansas

    I’ll show this just for fun. If it snows overnight the chickens are usually scared of it for a couple of days but may eventually go out and walk in it. This snow fell during the day while they were out. They never bothered going in.
  9. aart

    aart Chicken Juggler! Premium Member

    Nov 27, 2012
    SW Michigan
    My Coop
    I keep part of my run shoveled out, both for my access to the run itself and the outside of the pop door,
    and access to the mesh run roof(keep it from collapsing if/when the snow sticks-has happened, wasn't fun) and to give the birds some outside time.....
    ......but we get can 130 inches of snow, it can pile up fast.
    Most of mine won't walk on the snow at all, so I put down a thin layer of straw pretty regularly.

  10. nickel chick

    nickel chick Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 5, 2015
    My worry right now is that my chickens won't come out of the coop for food or water. I don't want to add water to the coop but I am worried about them not eating and drinking for a whole day. this our first snow and we are really getting hit here in northern Ill. Their run just has a small dusting but they still won't come out. Should I shoo them all out to feed and water. Or not worry about them.

BackYard Chickens is proudly sponsored by