Keeping Chickens Healthy in the Cold Weather

Reader Contribution by Leigh Schilling Edwards
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It’s cold – and I do mean COLD in many areas of the United States and Canada right now, and over and over again people are asking about what measures need to be taken to protect their chickens though this arctic insanity.

The answer I give over and over is simply, “not too much.”

As humans we tend to humanize our critters, saying to ourselves, “If it’s too cold for me, it must be too cold for my _______ (insert type of livestock here).” Too often we fail to note the massive physical differences and coping styles of our furry or feathery wards, and ourselves.

Put quite frankly, as homo sapiens we are physically one of the most bizarre and unlikely protectorates of the animal kingdom. While other animals have been granted a wide array of survival skills, instincts and automatic seasonal wardrobe changes, our own biggest asset is intelligence. And as great as intelligence is, intelligence alone does little to keep us warm in a hostile environment.

So – what do you need to do for your chickens? The following advice is for flocks of fully feathered, mature and healthy birds:

1. Ventilation. Ventilation is of utmost importance when the temperatures drop into the “Oh sweet Mary and Joseph it’s COLD,” range. Do NOT close up all the windows and vents – you need to leave something open.

Open vents in this cold? Have I lost my marbles?

Yes – I believe my last marble was lost some time ago by my children, but that has little to do with this particular blog post.

The reason ventilation is so important is to avoid frostbite. Yes – avoid frostbite. You see, any living critter that breathes will release moisture into the air and if that moisture can not escape, it becomes a problem.

A visual example of this is the defrost setting in your car or truck. On a cold or wet day, what happens if you forget to put the defrost setting on? Your windshield fogs up. This is caused when the heat and moisture you are emitting when you breathe condenses on the colder surface of the windshield.

Same thing happens in your barn or chicken coop. Think of those windows or vents under the eaves as your coop’s defroster. These vents allow the moisture to escape. If the moisture can’t escape, it will condense on the warm, exposed comb and wattles of your chickens … and freeze there. This causes frostbite.

Frostbite = Bad. Ventilation = Good.

2. Dodge the draft. You want your ventilation to be above the level of your birds because moisture rises. You want to let the moisture escape, but you do not want open windows or vents at the same level as your birds. This is the wind chill factor thing at play. When it is frigid outside, that wind just intensifies the “oh-my-land-I’m-miserably-uncomfortable” factor in a big way.

If your birds are housed in a structure with a lot of gaps in the walls, consider creating a wind-block at roost level by stapling or nailing up some empty feed bags, tarps or plastic on the inside walls of the coop. Don’t worry too much about the areas below or above where your birds roost, but make sure the roost area itself is well protected from drafts.

3. Water. You need to find a way to provide your flock with water a few times a day. In the coldest climates this may mean bringing fresh water out to your flock at least two or three times each day. Other methods include wrapping heat tape around a waterer, chicken-size freeze-resistant solar water troughs, heated dog bowls, and so-on. If you choose to use electricity in or around your coop, I can not stress enough that precautions need to be taken to avoid a fire hazard!

One note I need to add on the water thing is that if the temperatures will be in the negative digits, be sure your birds can’t step or fall into the water. Water can flash-freeze on a bird’s extremities and cause instant frostbite in these temperatures. You can help avoid this kind of situation by placing rocks in the bottom of the water dish. This will serve two purposes; it will prevent birds from getting into the water, and the rocks will also help maintain heat in a heated bowl.


So what about young, ill or frail birds?
Obviously the very young, very old and the infirm flock members will be at the highest risk of succumbing to the cold.

Do not rely on a heat lamp in the barn to keep sensitive birds or chicks warm enough in sub-zero temperatures. First, heat lamps are the No. 1 cause of coop fires. It is very risky to have a heat lamp in areas filled with dust and flammable bedding materials.

Second, with temperatures going well below zero, a heat lamp will not be able to create an ambient temperature high enough to keep young chicks or frail birds warm enough. Chicks especially need to be relocated to a room that has its own heat source or that is capable of maintaining a high enough ambient temperature to prevent hypothermia.

That said, chicks under a broody hen should be OK as long as they can not accidentally become separated from mom – say by falling out of a raised nest box.

And … that’s pretty much it. As a chicken keeper, do what you can to protect them from frostbite, drafts, dehydration and fire, and from there – well, just understand they are very well equipped to manage in cold temperatures. Chickens have been around for thousands of years, and in that time it has been necessary for them to acclimate to all kinds of weather extremes.

Lastly, understand chickens that are prone to heart failure are more likely to die during extreme cold snaps. If you take the above precautions and still find that a bird has passed away on an extremely cold night, it’s not your fault. It was just a matter of time for that particular bird.

And with that, stay intelligent and keep your human selves warm this week!

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