Tips for what you should and shouldn’t do to keeping your chickens safe and comfortable all winter long.
I often get asked lots of questions about caring for chickens. This time of year as people start planning for the cold months ahead, the number one question is: “How do you deal with chickens and winter?” Today I am going to share a few tips I have learned over the years to get you ready for the frigid temperatures. Even though we’re only nearing the beginning of autumn, in some climates cold weather is already here, and even if it is still warm where you are…chance are the cold will be here before you know it.
What You Don’t Need
Sweaters. Just Don’t.
First, of all, chickens do not need sweaters. Come on now. I know those chicken pictures on Pinterest look cute, but do you seriously think your chicken needs this? Does this chicken look like it appreciates this ridiculous sweater? Be honest.
Chickens are birds, and birds have feathers. Their feathers protect their bodies from inclement weather. One of the things a chicken (or any bird) will do is puff out their feathers to create air spaces within their feathers. Those air pockets are insulation and let the feathers dry. Think about a down comforter. There’s a reason all of those fluffy feathers are so warm. Putting a sweater on a chicken interferes with their ability to “poof out” their feathers.
Besides being counterproductive insulation, a sweater will get wet and dirty. Fast.
Anyone that has ever been outside in cold temperatures knows, that the worst thing that could happen in cold weather is to get wet. It is better to strip down and work in frigid temps with barely any clothing, than it is to start sweating under all that winter gear. In cold temperatures, Wet = Danger. Why would you wrap your poor chicken in a cold, wet blanket and think it would make them happy. Would you be happy if you were hypothermic?
There are often two camps when it comes to heaters in the chicken coop. Some people swear by them and couldn’t imagine chickens going through winter without a heater in their coop. I understand that people feel that way, but here’s why I and many others don’t want a heater in the coop.
Your coop is filled with kindling. Think about it. The floor is covered with dry, easily flammable material: wood shavings, dry straw or hay. Not to mention the walls and structure are probably built of wood. All it takes is one spark, the heater falling over, a piece of wood or straw getting tossed against the bulb… and you have a recipe for disaster. Not only could your coop and flock be destroyed, but depending upon your location and layout…you could potentially lose a barn or worse. If the fire spread to your home you are looking at total devastation. In my eyes (an that of many chicken owners) it is not worth the risk.
That said, if you were insistent upon putting heat in your coop, there is only one kind of heater that I personally would even consider using. I would use a radiant panel heater, similar to the style of brooder that I use for my chicks.
Along with the heaters in the coop, some people will add supplemental lighting inside their chicken coops. They do this for a couple reasons: first, they use it as a heat source (which as I have stated above can be extraordinarily dangerous) and second they use it for egg production. Chickens will often slow down in their egg production in the winter both because of reduced light, and also because of their body using energy to stay warm. I don’t use supplemental lighting. Instead, I will address below what I do…do.
Here’s What You Can Do
One of the most important things I have found, is to have a good, thick layer of bedding in your coop. That thick bedding insulates the floor of your coop. Now I have a linoleum floors in my coops, rather than an earth floor. If you have an earth floor, you could do the “deep bed method.” The deep bed method is where you essentially create a compost in the floor of your chicken coop. As the compost “cooks” it puts off heat and warms the coop. To do this, you have to have a very good layer of bedding, such as wood shavings that are about a foot thick. To keep the bedding (compost) turned, you can toss some corn, oyster shell or other dry goody your chickens will want to scratch and look for. They’ll keep it turned and mixed for you, so that you don’t end up with a big, stinky pancake of chicken poop on the floor. Deep bedding is only changed out a couple times a year and many people like using this system. Because the bedding is turned continually, the composting process keeps the chicken manure from smelling.
As I stated earlier, I do not have an earth floor in my coop (though it isn’t actually necessary for deep bed, but it is a great idea) and my coops are not designed in a way that could accommodate it. I use straw for the bedding in my coops and change it one weekly or bi-weekly depending upon what our weather has been like. In the winter months, I’ll put twice as much as I do in the summer, to create that extra layer of insulation.
Another vital part of keeping chickens warm in the winter, goes right along with why sweaters are such a bad idea. You need adequate ventilation in your coop so that it can stay dry. Don’t seal your coop up so tight that it traps moisture inside. Even in the coldest temperatures, I open the shutters on my coop windows all day long to allow air flow inside the coop. Wet coops lead to stinky coops and cold chickens. I only close the shutters at night as a predator safety measure.
Let Them Out
I have been asked more than once, if I keep the chickens closed up in their coop when the weather gets bad, drops below a certain temperature or if it snows. Nope. I never leave my chickens locked up. Letting the chickens out in the winter lets them get the vital sunlight that they need. I don’t use supplemental lighting for egg production, simply because my chickens still get out in the day time. They get plenty of light. Yes, their production may slow down a little, but this past winter I saw no drop at all in the egg numbers I got each day.
“What about snow?”
Yes, I let them out even if there is snow. Now some breeds of chicken are great with winter weather, and don’t mind snow at all…breeds like Icelandic chickens. But most chickens don’t like the snow and don’t care to put their feet on it. They may even be afraid of it if they don’t see it often, like chickens that live here in Alabama. In the instance that we get snow, it’s straw to the rescue. Bring a bale of straw out to your coop and scatter it out on the ground, giving them something familiar to step out onto. Not only will that ease their fears, but it will insulate those first few steps and not shock their feet.
Give them Shelter
Our chickens not only have two coops to choose from, but out in their pasture, there are several A-frame shelters that they can go underneath. They are made from screwing two wood pallets together. I have several out there and most of them are also covered with tarps. These shelters give the chickens a place to run into hide from hawks, but also give them shelter from rain and wind.
At night, we do close the shutters on our coop windows to give the chickens a draft-free place to sleep, sheltered from winter weather. But during the day those shutters are opened back up for ventilation.
Cold Weather Combs & Wattles
When purchasing your chickens, something you may want to keep in mind, is whether they were bred for heat or cold tolerance. Chickens with large combs & wattles often don’t do well in the cold because those large combs & wattles are prone to frost bite. A chicken with a “rose comb” and smaller wattles would be more suited for cold climates. That said, some chicken owners will coat their chickens’ combs & wattles with petroleum jelly or other protective “balm.” This is to help prevent frost bite. Frost bite looks bad, but most chickens are no worse for the wear when it comes to it.
A Chicken Greenhouse
Something else you can do to give your chickens a way to warm up, is by making a “sun room” of sorts for them. You can do this by simply propping some old windows or a glass door on top of some cinder blocks. The sun will come through the glass and create a warm space underneath. You can also make a mini green house from a cattle panel or PVC pipe and cover it with clear plastic, forming another type of greenhouse for them to warm up in.
On very cold days, my chickens will often congregate on the south side of our larger coop. The sun beats against the side of the coop, making that whole area warmer. I’ll see the chickens laying on the ground sunning themselves or dusting there.
Inside your chicken coop, you want to make sure that there is enough roost space for the chickens to all get up there to sleep. Chickens like to sleep side-by-side at night. They do this to prop one another up and feel safe at night while they sleep. They also do this in the winter to stay warm. Just like you like to snuggle with your honey, your your pup likes to curl on your lap in the cold weather, chickens do the same thing.
Unless your chickens are of a breed that like to dwell on the ground, most chickens like to sleep up high at night. This keeps them safe from predators. You’ve heard the phrase “sitting duck.” Well, chickens sleep very hard and are very vulnerable at night. Their being up high protects them. If your roost is filled and there are chickens sleeping on the floor of your coop, you don’t have enough space for them all.
Nutrition | Protein
In cold weather, your body burns more calories to stay warm, and this is no different for a chicken. Our chickens are pastured, and though they have lots to scratch and eat during the day, winter brings a scarcity to the things that would give them what they need. They don’t find the bugs and other things that they do in the summer. Providing your chickens with a good, rounded diet is important any time of year, but you will want to increase the protein in particular in the winter months.
A few ways for your chickens to get extra protein in the winter:
- Table scraps – including meat scraps
- Give them scrambled eggs
- Black Oil Sunflower Seeds. We give these to our chickens year round. In the summer, we give it to them a couple times a week. In the winter, I toss a big handful in their feed every morning.
Another thing about nutrition and winter for your chickens is to make sure they don’t go to bed hungry. Give your chickens a little extra feed in the late afternoon, and especially give them some corn. If your chickens will eat it, whole corn is better because the kernel is intact. But my chickens are picky and don’t like whole dry corn. I give them extra cracked corn in the afternoons, because I want to make sure that they have a full crop when they are headed to bed at night. Remember, calories = heat. If the chickens have a full crop, they have the fuel that their bodies need to stay warm all night long.
Don’t forget to make sure your chickens have clean water – not ice – in the winter. Depending upon where you live, you may want to invest in heated waterers. Here in northern Alabama, while we do have frigid temperatures on occasion, the winters are generally mild enough that those are not needed. I use the black rubber feed pans for my chickens. What I love about them is that because they are black, they absorb sunlight. Because they are thick rubber, they don’t conduct cold as easily. Those two factors keep the water from freezing as quickly. Also — I fill the tubs with hot tap water when it is winter. It slows down the freezing process and provides them with drinking water longer. In the mornings when I come out and the water is frozen, a quick lift and drop on the ground breaks the ice right out and doesn’t damage the pan. Standard gravity fed plastic waterers can freeze and break from the expanding ice. Metal ones can freeze solid and be a pain to thaw out. This is something I don’t have to worry about.
In very cold spells, I do have to go out a couple times during the day to give them fresh water. That’s just the way it is. But like I said, cold snaps like that don’t generally last long here, so it isn’t that big of a burden.
Follow these simple principles, and you will have happy, healthy chickens all winter long.
Have a great winter chicken tip? Share in the comments!