Keeping chickens is a great and rewarding hobby. But while chickens are relatively resilient birds overall, winter can present special challenges.
You can minimize risk and discomfort for your chickens by winterizing their coop and adjusting their feed as needed. In this article, learn exactly what steps to take to protect chickens in winter.
Understand the Main Goal of Winter Chicken Care
he main goal is to make sure your chickens stay warm, dry and safe through the winter season.
You may need to take additional winter precautions based on these specifics:
- Your housing and setup.
- The age and breed of your chickens.
- Your local climate, including snowfall, humidity and temperature.
Can Chickens Cope in Snow?
Some keepers will say that chickens cope very well with cold. Others will say chickens struggle when it gets cold out. How well a given flock deals with winter depends on the variables mentioned in the previous section here.
But what is true regardless of breed or age is that chickens struggle more with sudden temperature fluctuations. Some geographic areas experience more of this type of fluctuation than others.
A particular recipe for discomfort and potential injury is when humidity collides with cold. This can cause frostbite to unprotected areas like the wattle, comb, legs and feet.
Another fact that most keepers attest to is that most chickens do not particularly like walking around in the snow. They may venture out if they get too hungry or bored, but it can cause extra stress that weakens their immune system.
How to Prepare Your Coop for Winter
The most common newbie keeper mistake is to over-insulate and over-heat the chicken enclosure.
Believe it or not, this mistake is the number one cause of two preventable health issues: frostbite and lung damage.
The former arises with the buildup of humidity. The latter is caused by ammonia off-gassing from accumulated chicken droppings.
But how can you keep your chickens warm and well ventilated without dealing with humidity and ammonia buildup?
1. Minimize drafts inside the enclosure.
The key is to minimize drafts that may directly blow onto your chickens.
To do this, first identify the key areas where wind enters – typically under and over doors and through wall cracks and apertures – but this may vary depending on your setup.
Seal these areas so your chickens will not have to deal with direct cold air drafts.
Here, you may be wondering where the ventilation will come from once you seal up windows, doorways and wall cracks.
The ventilation comes from higher up near the roof. Because this air will not blow directly onto your chickens, it is a much safer way to allow for constant air circulation and ventilation.
2. Waterproof the floor and roof of the enclosure.
Many a first-time keeper has discovered only after winter sets in that their enclosure roofing and flooring is not nearly so waterproof as they had hoped for.
Any significant alterations can potentially damage existing waterproofing, so it is smart to tend to this before winter arrives.
3. Keep your chicken bedding clean and dry.
Tackling the buildup of ammonia gas is made easy by simply changing out the bedding more frequently while your chickens must remain inside the enclosure.
Remove any wet or soiled bedding material at least daily if not more frequently. Add in extra bedding for insulation.
As a side benefit, keeping the bedding clean and dry reduces the threat of winter mould caused by humidity and messy chickens drinking.
4. Change out your chicken water drinker.
Speaking of messy chickens drinking, the best way to keep your chickens from splashing water out of their drinking bowl is to choose a low-splash drinker system.
5. Provide in-coop entertainment for your chickens.
Although climate change is creating uncertainty and more than a few weather surprises in many parts of the world today, you know best how long and/or severe the winter season may be in your local area.
Chickens are intelligent birds that crave activities and enrichment. A bored chicken may create their own fun in some not-so-safe ways, including picking fights with other flock members and egg eating.
Whenever possible on mild days, allow your chickens out to get some air and stretch their legs. But when weather requires them to stay inside for safety, be sure you plan some fun things to keep them busy.
Ideas may include any or all of the following:
– Adding something new and novel inside the enclosure (such as a mirror, bucket, ladder, swing, hanging basket, etc) every day.
– Providing a dry in-coop area where your flock can scratch and forage around.
– Installing extra perches on the outside walls so they can be outside without having to deal with wet or snow.
– Put out some objects to stand on, such as logs, benches, chairs or sturdy boxes.
– Bring in piles of leaf litter or hay and sprinkle in some cracked corn or mealworms to encourage foraging.
– Set up an area for dust bathing inside the enclosure.
– Spend some quality time with your chickens.
– Put in some chicken-safe potted plants or green leafy forage they can peck on.
Do Chickens Need Extra Heat in Winter?
One of the biggest areas of misunderstanding among chicken keepers is the topic of heat.
Do chickens need extra heat in winter? If yes, what is the safest method to offer this?
The number one thing to lock in your brain is that heat lamps are a no-no. They represent a serious fire risk – practically everything inside the enclosure, from feathers to bedding, is nearly guaranteed to catch fire if contact occurs.
You really don’t want to add heat lamps inside your chicken enclosure.
What you can do is capture and direct natural sunlight to create a sun lamp.
You can also add chicken-safe, non-heat-output artificial lighting, which we will talk about more in the next section here.
Understanding how a chicken’s metabolism works in conjunction with flock living can help you understand the best way to keep your chickens warm in the winter without heat lamps.
While some breeds of chicken are more cold-hardy than others, all chickens have a fairly high metabolic rate. And all those layers of feathers are great at capturing and retaining body heat.
Chickens naturally cluster together when extra warmth is needed, which further amplifies the impact of all that retained body heat. This also takes care of lower exposed areas like the legs and feet for many breeds.
So the only real areas of concern are the combs and wattles. For these areas, a judicious application of petroleum jellies is an easy and economical way to prevent frostbite.
Do Hens Lay Eggs in Winter?
Since chickens lay based on light cycles, when daylight hours dwindle, laying typically slows or ceases.
You can keep your chickens laying by adding a chicken-safe, non-heat-producing light source on a timer. Be sure to collect the eggs promptly to avoid attracting pests or predators.
However, you may want to consider simply giving your chickens the winter off to restore, rest, repair and replenish for the spring.
With these handy tips in-hand, you will be able to successfully prepare for every aspect of your chickens’ needs during the winter season.