While it’s true that chickens are comparatively low maintenance as livestock, they do have a whole host of basic needs and requirements, and when you’re caring for chickens in winter, whether you have extreme, harsh conditions or fairly mild winters, our tips will help ensure your flock remains in top condition. Depending on the breed of your chickens and the average winter temperature, if you provide proper winter chicken care, you may still get a reasonable amount of fresh eggs throughout the cold months, too.
1. Don’t Let the Water Freeze
This is possibly the most important tip on the list. Whatever you do, don’t let your chickens’ water freeze. If your chickens don’t have access to fresh water, they cannot properly digest their food, they can’t regulate their body temperature properly, and egg production will drop. While chickens are fairly resilient creatures, without water, even for short periods, their health deteriorates quickly in cold weather, and, aside from ill health and increased risk of death and frostbite, egg production drops fast and takes weeks to recover.
One particularly simple, inexpensive, and effective solution is to create a cookie tin heater like this one by The Chicken Chick. It’ll cost you a few dollars if you don’t already have the items, but it’ll save you having to chip ice out of the waterers several times a day. Or you can buy a ready-made reasonably inexpensive 12-watt heater designed for metal or plastic chicken waterers. Another option is to use a poultry nipple waterer system like the Chicken Fountain with a heating system.
2. Give Your Chickens Extra Food
Yes, I said give your chickens extra food – but don’t go crazy. Avoid high-fat, high-energy treats like fat balls. The truth is, chickens simply don’t need a lot of extra fat to last through the winter. Keep your chickens healthy, don’t encourage obesity and all the associated health problems by feeding them up with huge amounts of fatty treats. Instead, give the occasional healthy snack as a kind of novelty entertainment. Remember, your flock likes to be entertained. So hang up a cabbage and let your ladies attack it with gusto. Pop in a Flock Block, spread some sprouted grains over a hay bale out in the run, or give them some extra scratch shortly before dusk.
3. Use Dropping Boards
Yep. Delightful boards of poop. Chicken waste is mostly water. 85 percent liquid, in fact, so leaving a lot of poop in the chicken coop significantly increases the amount of moisture, which in turn puts your chickens at risk of all kinds of problems – including respiratory infections, diseases from the presence of mold and fungus, and frostbite. So, use dropping boards. They really aren’t fancy. Just boards that sit in the coop, preferably under the roosts, where your chickens can happily poop all night long. Cover the boards with vinyl for easy cleaning – and make sure they are easy to remove. Then, simply take the boards out and scrape them down each morning and replace them. I’m sure you know how awesome chicken poop is as a natural fertilizer, so take your daily bucket of chicken poop and add it to your compost pile for the richest, most nutritious compost next spring.
4. Use Sand for Chicken Litter
Remember: In winter, moisture is the enemy. Using sand as chicken litter is one of the best winter chicken care tips you can make use of. Moisture evaporates far faster from sand than from other types of poultry bedding. Because sand wicks away moisture and lets it evaporate rapidly, the litter stays drier and healthier. Plus, because of sands natural properties and high thermal mass, it retains more warmth and acts as a healthy insulator. The sand helps to stop rapid temperature changes, as it cools very slowly, helping to ensure the health of your chickens.
5. Check for Condensation on the Coop Windows
Moisture. If you add excessive moisture in the coop to the cold temperatures of winter, your chickens can end up with frostbite and respiratory infections. Take a look at the windows of your coop – particularly first thing in the morning after your flock has been hunkered inside for the night. If you spot condensation on the windows, there is too much moisture and not enough proper ventilation. Speaking of…
6. Provide Proper Ventilation
Your chickens need fresh air inside the coop and moisture and ammonia have to escape – otherwise you’re putting the health of your flock at serious risk. I’ll go into more detail on this topic in a separate post, but here are the basics.
You want to create airflow, but you need to do so without causing drafts, and you need to keep the air in the roost area reasonably warm and still. Sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. Provide ventilation in the form of windows or vents as high as possible on all four sides of the coop.
Will hot air escape through the vents because hot air rises?
Yes, it will, but that’s not actually a bad thing. The hottest air carries the most moisture, so as it escapes through the vents, this heated air carries away large amounts of moisture, too, which is precisely what you want.
If you’re worried about the flow of cold air around the roosting area, install a roost hood above the roost, which is basically polystyrene insulation sheets and, if you find those naughty hens peck at the styrofoam, cover it with duct tape. This keeps a pocket of still, warmer air over your roosting birds, so they have to expend less energy to maintain their body heat.
7. Insulate the Chicken Coop
Now you’ve got the coop nicely ventilated at the top, it’s time to insulate the rest. Remember, airflow is essential, but you need to eliminate drafts in the rest of the coop, as drafty chickens are cold chickens, and the risk of ill health, poor egg production, and frostbite rises.
Obviously, you’re not going to seal up your vents, but you do need to fill in any other gaps, like those around windows, as these will draw heat away from your chickens. Insulation to retain radiant heat is another important addition to the winter chicken coop. But, chickens being chickens, unless you hide it – or put it on the outside of the coop, they will eat the insulation. Because what could be more fun when you’re a chicken? So hide it away in tough plastic feed bags or similar so those chooks cannot get their little beaks into it.
You can insulate exposed coop walls against wind with tough plastic sheeting on the exterior – but remember not to block off the ventilation. An even better solution, if your run is in the right place, is to cover the walls of your chicken run instead of the coop. This creates a warmer run for day time use, acts as a windbreak, and creates a large area of warmer air that will dissipate slowly, helping to keep the coop warmer over night.
8. Install Flat Roosting Poles
A common winter chicken care problem is feet. Chickens can get frostbitten feet, and it’s painful and unpleasant, and can lead to other problems. To stave off frostbite and keep chicken tootsies warm, install flat, wide roosting poles for the winter. This lets the chickens hunker down properly and warm their feet with their bodies.
9. Insulate Your Egg Boxes
Even if you don’t have the coldest winters, it’s a good idea to at least put an extra deep layer of straw in your egg boxes. If winters are particularly cold, seriously consider putting your egg boxes on the inside of the coop – perhaps underneath the droppings boards under the roosts. Or, if this doesn’t work with your setup, you’ll want to install sheets of insulation, then cover them with plywood or similar to prevent pecking.
10. Cover Run Floors With Sand
Sand has excellent insulating properties, so in really cold weather, or in wet weather, covering the floor of the run with a generous layer of sand helps to stave off frostbitten feet, prevents too much moisture, and keeps your flock warmer. Plus it gives them something to have a good scratch in.
11. Don’t Put Hay or Straw Bales in the Coop
This is a common mistake that results in ill chickens. Yes, hay and straw have good insulating properties – but putting bales in the coop is a recipe for disaster. Mold and fungus will rapidly develop in straw and hay bales in the warmish, damp conditions inside a coop. In turn, this can cause respiratory infections, including pneumonia. Egg production will likely drop, and you’ll have some costly vet bills. In a worst case scenario, you can even lose your entire flock.
12. Don’t Immediately Wash Muddy Eggs
Even if you have loads of sand or other litter on the coop and run floors, your chickens will undoubtedly traipse mud into the nest boxes on their feet and feathers, where at least some will transfer to the eggs. But we don’t mind muddy eggs. At least you know they’re fresh. Don’t be tempted to gather the eggs and immediately wash off the mud. If you do, you’ll wash off the bloom, which is what keeps the eggs fresh. Instead, only wash the eggs, if you must, right before you crack them open.
13. Provide Entertainment
Keep your chickens entertained – and not just with extra food. Chickens get bored – particularly in winter. A bit like children. Bad weather and children are never a good combination. They get bored. They get increasingly restless and annoying. They drive you mad. Well, chickens get bored too. And they take it out on one another. Chickens that don’t have enough stimulation end up displaying aggressive behavior including feather plucking and cannibalism.
So, you need to give them something to excite their curiosity and stimulate their brains. Add extra dust bathing areas, random logs, pots full of soil, anything that’s safe and that makes an interesting, stimulating novelty.
14. Deep Clean the Chicken Coop and Run
Before winter sets in, preferably in mid to late autumn, take literally everything that isn’t permanently fixed and clean it. Thoroughly. The inside and outside of the coop, the run, and everything that belongs inside the coop or run needs a thorough deep clean. It’s the best way to ensure there aren’t any potential sources of mold or fungus that could cause ill health. It’s also a great way of properly assessing the coop and run for damage that needs repairing before the cold weather arrives.
15. Clear the Snow
If your run doesn’t have a roof, even if it’s just a heavy plastic sheet, it’s a good idea to get one. Chickens, as a general rule, are not huge fans of wading through snow. If it’s not possible, or if your chickens have access to a pasture or similar free-ranging area, clear the snow for them. Obviously you don’t need to get out the snow shovel or blower and clear the entire pasture, but clearing a generous patch and a pathway to the coop lets them venture outside to stave off boredom if they want to.
16. Protect From Frostbite
If you follow the other tips here – particularly those that involve proper ventilation, insulation, draft prevention, installing wide, flat roosts, and ridding the coop of moisture, you shouldn’t have too many issues with frostbite. However, if winters are particularly harsh in your area or you’ve chosen breeds that aren’t terribly winter-hardy, your flock may still need a little extra help to stave off frostbite. If you experience particularly cold winters, are struggling to control moisture, or have breeds with large wattles and combs, or you’re just concerned about your chickens getting frostbitten, you can apply a layer of softened coconut oil or the ever-popular Green Goo from Sierra Sage Herbs.
Remember, though, that you’re only using this to help prevent frostbite in chickens. If they’ve already got frostbite, don’t touch the affected areas, as you can cause more pain and damage. While there is a lot of god information out there about treating frostbite in chickens, it’s mixed in with a huge amount of bad information, so it’s best to consult a trusted professional.
17. Avoid Chicken Sweaters for Healthy Birds
Chicken sweaters are evil. The thing about chicken sweaters – they don’t really have any benefits for a healthy bird. They might make you feel better because you think you’re doing something to keep your birds warm, but they have no real benefits for your chickens. They are restrictive, potentially dangerous, prevent normal behavior, cleaning, and bathing, and just don’t offer anything positive. Plus, chickens do not need sweaters. They generate lots of body heat and trap it close to their bodies by ruffling up their feathers – which they cannot do if you stuff them in sweaters. And, if you’ve followed the other advice here, your chickens will stay toasty warm. So get rid of the sweaters. If you’ve got chickens in molt, bring them inside – a dog crate or generous pen enclosure in a warm garage or basement is perfect. If you put a molting bird in a chicken sweater, you’ve got all the other negatives, plus the sweater pulls and rubs against their sensitive pin feathers, causing real discomfort. The same goes for recovering battery hens – bring them inside or, if absolutely necessary, provide a safe heat source in the coop.
18. Don’t Overheat Your Chickens
Chickens don’t like being too hot, and it’s not good for them. Your birds will acclimate to the seasonal weather and temperature changes, whatever the climate you live in. As mentioned above, chickens generate a lot of body heat and, if the coop is draught-free, well-ventilated, and properly insulated, the heat your birds generate will be enough to keep the coop perfectly warm, even if it’s well below freezing outside. If you add a heater, you run the risk of the coop being excessively warm. Then, your birds can suffer from temperature shock as they move from a hot coop to a cold run. Similarly, if you’ve got a heater but don’t have emergency power for it, if there’s a power outage, there’s a high chance your birds will die from temperature shock as the temperature drops rapidly.
19. Avoid Heat Lamps
If you absolutely can’t be convinced that your chickens need extra warmth, or if you’re in an area with extreme winters, make sure you at least get a safe heater. Avoid anything that generates a lot of intense heat, like a halogen bulb or incandescent bulb heater. Do not, under any circumstances use a brooder heat lamp. Avoid all bulbs and heaters of this type, as even if you use guards and take safety precautions, they aren’t truly safe. Think about it – even if the chickens can’t knock into the heat source, it only takes one feather to float past your guards, and the coop and all your birds will go up in flames.
Choose a flat panel radiant heater with an accurate thermostat. If you absolutely must use a heater, only use it to raise the temperature by a few degrees – literally three or four degrees. If the coop feels warm to you, it’s most likely too warm.
20. Check on Your Flock Frequently
This, I hope, is a no-brainer. But it’s still an important one – check on your chickens. Regularly. Multiple times throughout the day. Make sure water is still liquid, food is plentiful, the heat source, if present, is working correctly, and the coop is adequately ventilated and that there’s no sudden breaks or damage. Check your birds are looking happy and in good health. Be sensible – check your flock multiple times a day, and if for any reason you can’t do it yourself, get a neighbor or friend to do it for you. Don’t just take the “Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine for a day or two” attitude. Your chickens need you.
***This article doesn’t pertain to winter chick care. Youngsters cannot properly regulate their own temperature and need specific care to help them through their first winter. Check out the Chicken Chick’s article about baby chick care for more information***