Properly Caring for Chickens in Winter

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Fresh Eggs Daily is author Lisa Steeles guide to raising healthy chickens naturally, which includes feeding them a diet of herbs, flowers, and greens.
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Caring for chickens in winter does not need to be difficult, or expensive. Try the Deep Litter Method in winterizing your chicken coops to offer healthy heat to your cold-hardy breeds.

Learn to treat your flock to a diet rich in a variety of herbs, greens, and flowers with Fresh Eggs Daily (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013). Lisa Steele offers dozens of simple and intelligent tips for “going natural” that help you avoid common ailments that plague many backyard flocks. This excerpt from “In the Winter” gives advice on caring for chickens in winter, including an in-depth look at the Deep Litter Method.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Fresh Eggs Daily.

More Fresh Eggs Daily:

What to Feed Chickens in Winter       
DIY Chicken Scratch Wreath
Homemade Suet Block Recipe
Things to Know Before Building a Backyard Chicken Coop
Green Choices for Chicken Coop Bedding
Easy Green Tips for Refreshing and Cleaning a Chicken Coop

Caring For Chickens in Winter

Winter is approaching, and your chickens are ready to brave the elements with their brand new feathers. In the winter, they will fluff their feathers to trap warm air next to their bodies to help insulate themselves from the cold air. Chickens handle cold far better than heat, but that doesn’t mean they won’t appreciate a few creature comforts on those cold, blustery days. The most important thing in caring for chickens in winter is making sure that your coop is dry and draft-free, with good cross airflow and ventilation that is higher up than the roosts. Inadequate ventilation will lead to high moisture levels, which can contribute to both frostbite and respiratory issues. Frostbite is partially caused by damp conditions, so having good ventilation not only provides clean fresh air but helps prevent frostbite.

Roosts should be wide enough that your hens’ feet are flat when they roost and completely covered by their bodies from the top and the roosting board from underneath. This helps to prevent frostbite on their toes.

Cold-hardy Breeds

Chickens with larger bodies and smaller combs are more cold-hardy than smaller breeds with large combs. Some particularly cold-hardy breeds include Ameraucanas, Australorps, Barnevelders, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Brahmas, Buckeyes, Buff Orpingtons, Cochins, Dominiques, New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, Sussex, Welsummers and Wyandottes.

Although conventional wisdom says to apply a layer of ointment or salve (coconut oil, petroleum jelly, etc.) to your chickens’ larger combs on particularly cold nights, that is far easier said than actually done. Your chicken will hate it and immediately rub her coconut-oil-slathered comb on the ground, resulting in a dirt-covered, coconut oil- smeared comb. I say skip it and instead choose cold-hardy breeds, if you live in an exceptionally cold climate, and let your hens tuck their heads under their wing to sleep.

Winter Comfort in the Coop

Heat should not be necessary in your coop unless you have very young chickens, breeds that are not cold-hardy, or injured or sick chickens. Heating your coop doesn’t allow the chickens’ bodies to gradually adjust to the colder temperatures, and a power loss or other interruption in the heat flow could kill them, since they would not be used to the cold. You also run the risk of a coop fire if you use a heat lamp or other heat source there. Dry bedding plus a heat source, electricity and flighty chickens is not a good mix.

A better way to generate heat in your coop is to use the Deep Litter Method. It is an old-timers’ trick that allows manure and bedding to accumulate and decompose inside the coop all winter. Then in the spring, you clean the whole thing out and have beautiful compost for your spring garden.

The first few winters we raised chickens, I would trudge down in the snow and ice to clean out the coop every other week or so. I would remove all the straw bedding and replace it with new straw. The old soiled bedding would sit, partially frozen, in our compost pile until spring. I didn’t enjoy doing it; it didn’t seem practical and I knew there had to be a better way. So I tried the old-timers’ way — with deep litter.

Winter in the Run

Chickens don’t generally like to walk on snow. One way to entice them out on nice days is to put down some straw to make a path from the coop door to a sunny, sheltered spot of the run. Except on the most frigid days, it’s best to leave the coop door open and let the chickens decide if they want to go outside or not. They’ll be more likely to come out if you create a wind block in one corner of their run and set up some stumps, logs or branches (or even wooden pallets) as outdoor roosts to give them something to stand or perch on that’s up off the cold ground.

Avoiding Winter Boredom

Boredom can be a problem in the winter, when there aren’t weeds and grass to munch on, bugs to eat, butterflies to chase or dirt to bathe in — and there’s not much opportunity for them to sun themselves. Anything you can do to keep your chickens occupied can help prevent pecking and squabbling within the flock. Bored chickens are not happy chickens. Bored chickens tend to start pecking at each other and themselves, resulting in feather loss or worse. Once a flock sees blood, it can whip the chickens into a frenzy and they will sometimes actually kill flockmates — purely out of boredom and pecking order clashes. Boredom pecking is more likely to happen if your coop and run are too small and the chickens don’t have adequate space and can’t spend as much time outside during the cold months. Boredom can also lead to egg eating, which can be a tough habit to break once it starts.

Three fun chicken activities

• For their great entertainment, provide piles of straw, hay or leaves for your flock; and even better, toss in a handful of scratch or sunflower seeds.

• Hang a mirror in your coop or run. It will amuse your chickens more than you can imagine; although if you have a rooster, take care, because roosters will tend to attack the “newcomer.”

• On nice days, even when there’s snow on the ground, give your chickens a chance to bathe by providing them a temporary dust bath in a kiddie pool or other large container.

Doing these few small things for your chickens can help them get through the winter more easily – and will help them, and you, sleep better at night. 

The Deep Litter Method

This basically consists of turning over the soiled bedding, adding a new layer, and allowing the chicken droppings to decompose on the floor of the coop all winter. The decomposing process will create heat, keeping your coop warm naturally. As a further bonus, as in composting, beneficial microbes will start to grow. These microbes help control pathogens and prevent parasite eggs from developing, making your chickens less susceptible to diseases such as coccidiosis or mite infestations. Then in spring, all you do is just clean the whole thing out and dump it into your compost pile.

When using this method, you should use pine shavings as your bottom layer. Starting with the 6-inch layer of pine shavings on the floor, each morning I use a rake to turn over the litter so the soiled bedding from the night before ends up on the bottom. I continue doing that each day, adding straw (or more pine shavings) as needed to eventually build up to a 12-inch-deep layer. Nothing is removed, but rather turned over to expose new straw. (You can also use dry grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, or a combination.)

Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen. Mixing it with a source of carbon (either straw, shavings or dry leaves) will balance the mixture and hasten the rate of decomposition. It is important that your composting material contain oxygen, which means turning is crucial. Fortunately, the hens will help you with that part, especially if you get in the habit of tossing some scratch into the coop for them before bedtime. When they wake up in the morning, they will learn to sift through the litter to find the scratch you left the night before. The turning and introduction of oxygen will also reduce an unhealthy buildup of ammonia fumes. If done correctly, your coop shouldn’t smell of ammonia or manure.

After just a few weeks, the droppings, shavings and straw will start to decompose and you will end up with a fine dirt on the bottom. Continue in this manner all winter. When spring arrives, you’re ready to add great compost to your pile.

Some caveats before you start:

• Your coop must have good ventilation. If you smell even a hint of ammonia, you need to clean the entire coop out, put down a new layer of shavings and start over. Ammonia fumes can cause eye and sinus irritation in your flock. Note: Diatomaceous earth should not be used in conjunction with the Deep Litter Method; it will kill the good microbes and it isn’t beneficial to have in your composted soil since it can kill “good” bugs.

• The Deep Litter Method is not appropriate during the warmer months since it does generate quite a bit of heat in the coop, which you only want in the winter.

Reprinted with permission from Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Chicks…Naturally by Lisa Steele and published by St. Lynn’s Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Fresh Eggs Daily.

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