How to Care for Chickens In Winter: 22 Simple (But Essential) Tips

by | Aug 25, 2020 | Latest, Livestock, Sustainable Living | 0 comments

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Figuring out how to care for chickens in winter can flummox inexperienced chicken keepers, but these 22 simple tips will help you make sure your chickens are warm, happy, and healthy all winter, even in snow and frost.

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.

chickens in winter

1. Don’t Let the Chicken’s 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. 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 heated drink base. Just make sure you buy a good one that doesn’t overheat, like this one from Harris, designed for metal or plastic chicken waterers. Cheaper alternatives can get too hot and risk burning your hens or setting fire to your coop. Another option is to use a poultry nipple waterer setup with a heating system.

2. Give Your Chickens Extra (HEALTHY) Food/Treats In Winter

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 and 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. Spread some sprouted grains over a hay bale out in the run, or give them some extra scratch shortly before dusk. Now, you could buy a poultry block, but, in my opinion, they are over-priced and usually full of filler, and often stuff that’s bad for your hens. So why not make your own? There’s a great tutorial for making your own Flock Blocks here. They’re better for your chickens and cost way less!

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 sand’s 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.

caring for chickens

7. Insulate the Chicken Coop to Effectively Winterize It

Now you’ve got the coop nicely ventilated at the top, it’s time to insulate the rest. You need to winterize your chicken coop effectively, and insulating it is an essential part of that process.

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 overnight.

However you choose to insulate when you’re winterizing your chicken coop, just make sure to stay alert for any damage to the insulation. Eating insulation of any kind is not good for your chickens, but they are naughty and often love to destroy inappropriate stuff, particularly if you don’t keep them entertained.

8. Install Flat Roosting Poles to Avoid Frostbite on Chicken Feet

Chicnes roosting on flat polesA 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. I like to keep some Green Goo for animals at-hand all the time, as it’s suitable for all animals and soothes as variety of minor ailments. 

You can also apply a layer of petroleum jelly (Amazon’s own-brand purchased in bulk is great value) to wattles and combs to protect against frostbite in very cold weather. This is particularly important in breeds with larger wattles and combs.

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 good 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.

Chickens 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. (Notice that I’m not including product link here because I haven’t found a chicken coop heater that I trust).

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.

winter chickens

20. Use Deep Litter in the Chicken Coop

The deep litter method is a permaculture practice that lets you manage chicken litter sustainably and helps keep the coop warm through the winter. It’s basically composting the poop and littler in layers, right in the coop, and you only clean it out fully once or twice a year. Start with a nice thick layer of wood shavings (this is the “brown matter” in regular composting, and the chicken poop is the green). Then just keep adding layers of wood shavings as the poop builds up. You don’t need to turn it or anything – your chickens aerate it for you as they scratch. And the poop won’t hurt them. In fact, there are beneficial microbes in the litter.

If you build up the deep litter through summer and fall, by winter, you have a nice, deep bed of insulating littler that also releases warmth into the coop all winter, as it continues to compost down. Then, when spring rolls around, you’ve got some seriously nutrient-rich compost just waiting to be added to your vegetable patch.

21. Supplement Light If You Want Your Chickens to Lay In Winter

Depending on your climate and the length of your days, your chickens may continue to lay a few eggs in the winter, but egg production will definitely drop. You can encourage them to keep laying by adding an artificial daylight source for a few hours per day. 

I do not do this, and I’d strongly encourage you not to, too. Seasons are natural, and all living things have their own cycles associated with the seasons, and using artificial light disrupts this cycle. It can also stress your chickens and shorted their egg-laying life. So why am I adding this as a tip when I don’t condone it myself? Because it’s a common practice that many people jump into without considering the consequences, so I wanted to make you think whether a few extra eggs during the shortest days of winter is really worth it. For me, it’s not. If my girls don’t lay much in winter, then we just have fewer eggs. They really do make up for it the rest of the year!

And, if you want to make sure you do still get a reasonable number of eggs in winter, make sure your flock contains a few Buff Orpingtons. As long as they’re healthy, those girls tend to lay no matter the weather or the hours of sunlight! You can find an overview of Buff Orpingtons, and get the lowdown on the other best chicken breeds for egg-laying here

22. 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.

FAQs

What temperature is too cold for chickens?

Chickens are generally pretty hardy birds and winter-hardy breeds can easily withstand temperatures of -20F for short periods inside the coop. However, if you’ve followed the tips here, it’s unlikely that, even in very harsh winters, that coop temperatures would get that low.

Do chickens eat more in winter?

Yes, chickens eat more in winter because they burn more energy to keep themselves warm. Therefore, they need to consume more food, so make sure you provide plenty of extra healthy food and treats.

What should I feed chickens in winter?

You should feed chickens a super healthy diet all year round. In winter, you can add more protein and carbs as they can more easily convert these into energy for warmth and for egg-laying. Offer mealworms, cracked corn, cooked lentils or beans, or warm oatmeal with dried fruits all make delicious protein-rich snacks for chickens in winter. Just be sensible and only give these things in moderation, as fat chickens are not healthy.

Should you insulate a chicken coop?

Yes, in most cases. If you regularly experience frosts (or very hot summers), you should insulate your chicken coop. Just make sure you don’t have exposed insulation inside the coop, or I guarantee your girls will destroy it and possibly make themselves very ill. Try installing good quality insulation, then covering it with plyboard so the chickens can’t get to it.

Do chickens need heat in the winter?

No. Or at least, very rarely. If you’ve properly winterized your chicken coop, you shouldn’t need to add a heat source. I’d actually strongly advise against adding a heat source as, aside from the obvious fire hazards, it can cause more problems than it solves. Temperature shock – which is when a chicken experiences a sudden change in temperature (such as moving from a warm coop to a bitterly cold run) can kill chickens. Additionally, a heat source can exacerbate moisture problems and accelerate the growth of mold and fungi.

Katy Willis

Written by Katy Willis

Katy is a life-long homesteader and home herbalist. She is passionate about living naturally, growing food, keeping livestock, foraging, and making and using herbal remedies. She's been writing and editing professionally for over a decade, and she's been living green her entire life. She firmly believes that every small green change we make has a huge impact. Making greener choices is better for your bank balance, your health, and the planet.

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