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Backyard chickens are so fun to have! So many people now have them as pets, and stress about how to care for their chickens in the winter. I have talked to so many “chicken tenders” about what chickens need and what they don’t
need, and today I want to share my best tips on winter chicken care.
One thing to keep in mind, is that chickens have been around for tens of thousands of years, much longer than we have been caring for them. So they don’t need as much intervention as we all tend to believe!
Winter housing for chickens
Chickens need a coop year round, even if they free-range. They need shelter from the wind and rain, and they need a proper roost to sleep on. Your chicken coop should have a roof, 4 sides, and a door. It is helpful if the door is big enough for you to walk in through, for cleaning and gathering eggs. But the door should have a smaller opening for them to go in and out through. Think of a doggie door in a regular house door.
If you have the funds available, an automatic chicken door opener is a nice feature. That way, you have the ability to lock them securely overnight in their coop, away from predators, without possibly forgetting to let your chickens out in the morning!
Your chicken coop doesn’t necessarily have to be insulated, but if you have severe, very cold winters, it can be a nice touch. Wood, in my opinion, is the best material for the coop to be made of. It helps hold in more heat, and you can whitewash it or paint it, and make it as cute as you want. Metal stays too cold, doesn’t insulate, and is not the coziest, though it can be easier to clean.
Another way to help add some insulation to the coop without actually installing insulation, is to line the outside of the coop with bales of straw. Straw is a very good insulator, and will help hold in more heat.
Ventilation in the chicken coop is very important for winter chicken care. While you don’t want drafts, you do need a way for some air to escape. When chickens breathe, their body naturally expels some moisture. Any kind moisture in the coop can lead to frostbite if not allowed to escape. The coop also needs a way to get rid of undesirable air. Ammonia fumes from chicken poop can build up and pollute the air in the coop. This isn’t good for your chickens’ respiratory systems! Holes or vents placed lower in the coop can cause drafts and make your chickens cold. Ventilation holes or vents should be placed up high, above where the chickens roost. This will allow the ammonia fumes to escape, since they are lighter than the air.
Winter chicken bedding is always a controversial subject. I, however, always, ALWAYS recommend the deep litter method! I use it year round. It is the easiest, most labor-saving bedding option for backyard chickens. It’s also pretty
cheap! For my deep litter, I use mostly pine shavings. It takes roughly 2 “bricks” of fine pine shavings to get a good base for my 6′ by 6′ coop. I buy it at Tractor Supply for about $5. This will shrink and settle after some time.
You want your deep bedding to be 8-10 inches deep in the winter. Don’t remove the chicken poop. It gets mixed in, to aid in the decomposition that adds a little bit of heat to the coop. Every couple weeks to a month, I add another “brick” of pine shavings and and use a pitchfork to turn the new shavings in with the old.
In the fall, while preparing the homestead for winter, I like to add some dried leaves and clippings from the last couple lawn mowings into the deep bedding. This adds more “green” particles that also helps with decomposition. Deep litter is basically starting a pile of compost inside your chicken coop. If you know anything about composting, you know that it generates heat. That heat, when enclosed inside the coop, adds heat to keep your chickens a little bit warmer. A coop that uses deep litter usually stays at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside air. If you want to read more about the benefits of deep litter, you can read my post here.
Wind is harder on chickens than just cold. If your chickens are wet at all, wind will give them a serious chill. I suggest, if possible, to put plastic around the chicken run for your winter chicken care. Clear plastic is best, as it will allow the chickens to see through it, and let the sun shine in.
Covering the top is also beneficial to protect from rain and snow. If the run is uncovered, it can become a truly yucky, muddy mess! I have found that in order to properly cover the top, it needs to be angled like a regular roof. If you put plastic or wood over the run horizontally, the rain and/or snow will pool up on it and cause it to sag. For the roof, use some wire or wood secured at an angle, then plastic. This will allow precipitation to run off, and not damage the wood or cause the plastic to sag inward and break.
Feeding chickens in winter
I don’t usually feed my chickens any differently in the wintertime. They get a balanced layer feed, with 18% protein, and occasional kitchen scraps. If my chickens are molting, which they usually do in late fall, I give them extra protein through some black oil sunflower seeds, meat scraps, mealworms, or even dry cat food. The protein boost helps them bounce back from molt sooner, by allowing them to focus the energy from their food into making new feathers.
Many people ferment their chicken feed. Fermenting can be a little more difficult in the winter, as you need to keep the feed warm throughout the fermenting process. But it still can be done, especially if you have a garage or something similar that can keep it warm. Fermenting actually frees up the nutrients in the feed so it’s more readily available. It adds more bulk to the feed, and can actually cut down on feed costs. People who ferment their feed usually report having nearly a 50% reduction in amount of feed they have to give their chickens. I personally haven’t done chicken feed fermenting, although it is definitely on my to-do list. With close to 50 chickens, reducing chicken feed costs is a must!
Watering chickens in winter
Watering chickens in winter can be a little tricky if you get a lot of below-freezing temperatures. Chickens need free access to unfrozen water at all times, except at night. While some people put their chickens’ waterers inside the coop to keep it warmer in hopes that it won’t freeze, I don’t recommend this practice in winter chicken care. Waterers inside the coop can leak and get the bedding really wet, which then gets really cold. Waterers placed inside also add extra humidity, which can actually lead to frostbite in your chickens. It’s best to keep your chickens’ waterers outside.
You have a couple options to help keep your chickens’ waterers from freezing. I find the best option, if you have access to power nearby, is to buy heated dog bowls. These will keep the water unfrozen, and even a little warm. Chickens really appreciate this when it’s cold!
Another good option for waterers is the shallow, rubber feed buckets or bowls that can be bought at any farm store. The black helps absorb some of the sun’s rays in order to keep it slightly warmer. The water will likely still freeze, but if the bowl is rubber, you can easily flex it and dump the ice out so you can refill throughout the day with fresh (maybe even warm) water.
There is also heated chicken waterer bases that you can buy. It really just depends on your budget, and your access to power.
Keeping your chickens laying in winter
Most chickens will slow down on their egg laying through the winter. There can be many factors that affect this, but the biggest contributing factor is less sunlight. This is because in nature, before human intervention, chickens were designed to lay eggs to hatch their own babies. When the winter comes, there is shorter periods of natural sunlight. This signals to chickens that it is not a hospitable time to raise chicks. So, naturally, their body clocks turn off the egg laying.
Supplemental lighting is another touchy subject with winter chicken care. People who keep chickens as pets, without caring about their egg laying, believe that their chickens deserve a break from all the egg laying. It is thought that this break will allow the chickens to lay for more years, rather than having them lay all year long. Those of us who keep chickens more specifically for the eggs, typically want their chickens to lay all year without these natural breaks. While this may shorten their egg-laying life span, if that’s why you keep chickens, you need them to produce eggs!
Chickens need at least 12 hours of light per day in order to lay eggs, while 14 to 16 is even better. If you want your chickens to lay eggs during the winter, you need to give them supplemental lighting. You will need access to power to the coop, and a regular 40 watt bulb. “Daylight” style light bulbs are the best, as it gives them full spectrum lighting. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use heat lamps inside your coop! More on this later.
Get a timer from the hardware store for your winter chicken care. Timers are pretty cheap, unless you want a digital timer with all the “bells and whistles”! A timer will allow you to hook up to your light source, and will turn it on and off at certain times. I suggest adding about a half hour every week, starting in the fall, until you have reached the optimal 14-16 hours of light. With my very cheap timer, I set it to turn on a few hours before sunrise, and turn off shortly after sunrise. Then in the evening, it will turn on again after sunset, and turn off a few hours later. In the dead of winter, I usually end up with about 3 hours of run time before, and 3 hours of run time after natural daylight.
Do my chickens need heat in the winter?
This is the never-ending question for most new chicken keepers! In short, no, they don’t need additional heat. Chickens have been around for over 10,000 years, long before humans ever decided to keep them. Most are pretty
hardy, as they are equipped with thick down under their feathers. Chickens fluff up their feathers when they are cold, to allow air pockets around them that their body heat can warm up. And when they sleep, they usually huddle together to combine their body heat.
One caveat, though, is that you should keep your climate in mind when choosing your chickens. Some chicken breeds do better in extreme cold or extreme heat than others. Chickens with big combs and wattles typically do better in warmer climates, as there is more exposed skin to allow for heat to escape. These big combs and wattles are more susceptible to frostbite, though, so they usually do better in warmer climates. Chickens with small combs and wattles are usually better in extreme cold, since there is less exposed skin to worry about frostbite. Some cold-hardy chicken breeds include Orpingtons, Silkies, Australorps, and Wyandottes.
As I mentioned above, if you use the deep litter method in your coop, it will provide some heat and comfort to the coop. The decomposition of the chicken waste, pine shavings or straw, and other green materials adds a considerable amount of heat. A regular compost pile can reach up to 130 degrees! Don’t expect anywhere near that in the coop, as it is usually lacking the amount of moisture required to get to that level, but you will get some heat. Typically, a coop with a good deep litter buildup will stay at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside air. If you have the coop pretty air-tight (but with ventilation), coupled with deep litter, your chickens will stay pretty comfortable.
Should I use a heat lamp for my chickens?
I mentioned before that you should NEVER use a heat lamp inside your coop, and here is why. Heat lamps pose a serious fire hazard when placed around dry material, such as pine or straw bedding. If your chickens happen to knock down the heat lamp, it will nearly inevitably start a fire. Even if the heat lamp is secured very tightly, where nothing will knock it down, the bulbs can sometimes explode and send sparks everywhere, which will also start a fire.
Another issue with heat lamps, is caused by power failures. If your chickens are used to having a heat lamp in their coop, they will get accustomed to it, and won’t be used to the cold. If there is an unexpected power outage, your chickens can freeze to death with the sudden change in temperature. Adult chickens simply don’t need a heat lamp inside their coop, and it can actually cause more harm than good.
Preventing frostbite in winter chicken care
Chickens with large combs and wattles can be prone to frostbite. There are a few ways that you can help prevent this issue with proper winter chicken care. As mentioned above, don’t put your chickens’ waterer inside the coop. Water
can get splashed or spilled into the bedding, which will make it very cold. It also adds humidity to the air, which, in extreme cold, can lead to frostbite in your chickens.
Roosts should be flat, not rounded, as is common for other birds. Chickens don’t wrap their feet around their roost bars. They like to have their feet flat on the roost. When it gets cold, they can simply lay on their feet and legs if the roost is flat. Having a flat roost is an important part of preventing frostbite. I suggest a 2X6 as a roost bar, with the 6 inch wide side facing up. This will give your chickens enough room to comfortably roost flat-footed, with their feathers nicely tucked around their feet. This is a huge thing in preventing frostbite on chicken feet.
Treating frostbite in chickens
If your chickens appear to be getting frostbite (exposed skin is redder than normal, feels hot to the touch, and there is limited mobility), you can put an oil-based salve on them. Vaseline is very frequently used, though I believe Bag Balm is better, since it has healing properties as well. If you make your own salves, you can make a herbal salve for frostbite in chickens.
If that isn’t working, or the frostbite is too severe, you will need to bring the chicken inside to warm them up. Start by putting the exposed skin in lukewarm water, and warm the water up gradually. But don’t put her right back outside! She will likely need to be inside for a few days to ensure the frostbite is healed enough.
How cold is too cold for chickens?
This is a very broad question that is difficult to answer. It depends on the types of chickens, the quality of the coop, and too many other factors to mention. My chickens have done wonderfully in our climate, which gets down to nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit pretty frequently. But I have heard of chickens freezing to death in warmer temperatures than that.
Wind and rain are worse for chickens than downright cold. Make sure you do your due diligence with winter chicken care. Provide wind blocks in the run, insulate as much as possible, protect from the elements, and your chickens will survive and even thrive this winter!
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