A seasoned chicken keeper from New England shares her tips for keeping chickens in winter and how to make your flock thrive.
Buff Orpington rooster and hen in snow-covered farm field in front of an old out-building in Higganum, Connecticut.
Suddenly, it’s getting darker earlier, temperatures are beginning to dip, and the flock is starting to molt. Luckily for chickens, they are incredibly adaptable. Chickens are not mammals like us. They are birds. Because of this, their bodies’ interpret weather differently than we do. It is important when selecting flocks that we consider their hardiness in the winter climate. For New Englanders, this means keeping cold hardy breeds. Think of cold hardy breeds like wild birds that do not migrate to warmer climates during the winter. Like the wild birds, they stay put and overwinter. With proper care and management, over-wintering your chickens can be a success with a little bit of planning and proper preparation.
Chickens prepare themselves for winter by going through a molt each fall. If more than a year old, chickens will molt each fall to replace their body’s feathers with new ones. Like all birds, they rely on their feathers to keep warm. You might notice that some chickens have milder molts than others, and some chickens seem to lose all of their feathers at once.
The molt is very systematic. The feather loss begins at the top of their heads, then progresses to the chest, back, wings and finally the tail. Fall molts can start as early as August or as late as November. Every chicken molts on his or her own schedule during the fall. As your flock is molting, you may see a decrease in egg production or a complete halt. This is because feathers and eggs are predominantly protein. To help ease the stress of molting on their flock, some chicken keepers like to add vitamins and electrolytes to the water and supplement the chickens’ diets with protein-rich feed and treats during this time. There are also several commercial products on the market to add to their feed during molting. Dried mealworms and sunflower seeds are another great source of protein and make the perfect molting treats.
Tip: If you clip your chicken’s flight feathers to keep them in your yard, you will need to do it again after they molt. Those feathers will return anew.
When you start out raising chickens, two of the most important things to decide are where you will build your coop and how many chickens it will house. Consider caring for the flock during all four seasons, but especially winter (and summer). How accessible is the coop? How far away from the house is the coop? Will it be difficult to reach the flock in a snowstorm? It is also important to consider coop size. During periods of nice weather, chickens use their coop for really two reasons. The first is to sleep and the other to lay their eggs. Most chickens prefer to spend most of their days outside in the fresh air exploring. However, chickens will retreat to the coop during times of harsh weather, rainy days and snowy ones too. It is a good idea to allow 4 square feet of floor space per chicken in harsher climates. This way if the chickens must remain coop-bound by their choice or yours they have plenty of room and you can avoid overcrowding.
It is easy to prepare the chicken coop for winter. The most important thing during winter is that the coop provides shelter from the elements and is kept dry. Excess humidity in the chicken coop can kill your flock. It is also important that the coop is not drafty but has adequate ventilation to deal with moisture and the ammonia gases from the chicken droppings. Adding a shed vent in the eaves of your coop easily solves these issues.
Some people like to increase the depth of their flock’s bedding during winter. Whether you use pine shavings or straw, double up the depth. Some also switch to a deep litter method of chicken waste management during the winter. This method is a great way to generate heat from the composting process in the coop for your flock all winter long. When using the deep litter method, be sure to regularly add clean litter to prevent moisture issues in the coop.
Roosting space is also important. Each chicken should have about 18 inches of space on the roost. Wooden roosts are a must. Avoid using metal roosts in the coop. The metal will conduct the cold. The flock will “snuggle” together on the roosts during the night and even sometimes during the day.
Adding a roof or covering the run is also a good idea. Some flocks do not like to venture out into the snow. It is also not easy to shovel out the run in cases where over a foot of snow has fallen during a storm. Wrapping the run’s walls with clear plastic tarps is a good idea. This keeps parts of the run unexposed to the elements and provides a place for your flock to venture outside, scratch in the dirt, and even take regular dust baths to help battle mites and lice.
Tip: Wrap the run in plastic so it can still be opened or rolled up on nice sunny winter days. You can plan ahead and unroll the plastic prior to the next storm.
Late each fall, I also like to give the coop a good deep cleaning before winter. In my case, the next regular cleaning will not take place until a warm day during the late winter or spring. A shop vacuum works great to reach those nooks and crannies and remove the chicken “dust.” Another reason for a fall coop cleaning is to break the life cycles of chicken mites, lice and fleas before heading into winter.
Lastly, check your coop for possible entry points for predators and opportunistic rodents. Repair the coop and inspect your locks prior to winter.
As you do your research, you will quickly discover that adding a supplemental heat source to your coop is often hotly debated. I do not heat my coop for a few reasons. The first reason is the risk of a chicken coop fire. Every season, there are multiple chicken keepers who lose their flock and coop to fire all because of an artificial heat source.
I purchased cold hardy breeds that should be able to withstand cold weather. Here in the Northeast, we frequently have severe winter storms accompanied by power outages for days. Chickens become acclimated to their environment. This includes a heated coop. If we were to lose power, the chickens would lose the heat source in their coop. By forcing the flock to acclimate rapidly to an unheated environment, it can lead to stress and death.
So how can you keep them warm? Add extra bedding. Insulate the chicken coop when building it. Close the coop pop door at night. Surround the exterior of the coop with hay bales. Don’t make a coop too big for a very small flock. Give them a treat like cracked corn or scratch before they go to roost at night. This helps to boost their metabolism so they can generate heat and eggs as they sleep. Also, ample ventilation, lots of fresh water, and plenty of food are good things to provide year-round.
During the winter months, it is important to realize that chickens generate body heat with their metabolisms. During the winter, chickens eat approximately a quarter to half a pound of food per day. This helps them to generate heat, lay eggs, and remain healthy. Therefore, it is important that you select a good quality commercial food for your flock. It’s also important to remember that your flock should not be getting more that 10 percent of their diet from non-chicken feed. Sometimes, flock owners like to add vitamins and electrolytes to their flock’s drinking supply once a week when the flock does not have access to free ranging on green grass. Although not necessary, it can be beneficial to supplement for any nutritional deficiencies.
During the winter months, it is not uncommon for the flock’s hens to decrease the amount of eggs that they are laying or to stop completely. This is normal.
Hens and pullets require approximately 14 hours of light to stimulate egg laying. Sometimes, chicken keepers choose to stimulate winter egg laying with an artificial light source. Others allow their hens to winter naturally. Adding a window to the coop that faces the east can be helpful to allow early morning light to enter the coop. You can also add artificial lighting on a timer. Each morning, schedule the lights to come on in the wee hours of the morning.
If your flock does continue to lay eggs, it is important that you harvest the eggs more frequently in the winter especially in freezing temperatures. Eggs are not immune to freezing in the nesting boxes. Frozen eggs will crack the shells. If this happens, you will want to dispose of the egg. It is not safe to eat frozen cracked eggs as bacteria and other organisms are likely to have entered the egg.
One benefit of not supplementing winter light is that it will allow your chickens’ reproductive systems to recharge, and the laying life of the hen can increase, among other benefits.
Tip: If using artificial light, schedule artificial lights to come on in the morning verses staying on later in the evening. When the lights go out at night, the flock is suddenly left in the dark, when a mere moment earlier they were exploring the coop like chickens do. They can have difficulty finding the roosts and be prone to injuries trying to find their way in complete darkness.
Frozen waterers are the pits. Unfortunately, they are something that every chicken keeper living in a cold climate has to deal with. Chickens require a continuous supply of clean drinking water for their health. This means that frozen waterers need to be thawed multiple times per day when those temperatures drop. Sometimes, keeping the waterer in the coop will delay it’s freezing.
If you are using regular waterers, I might suggest purchasing two or three. Keep the extra ones in your home or garage ready to go. Simply replace the waterer in the coop with a fresh one. Bring in the frozen waterer and allow it to thaw and rotate them out a few times during the day. This rotational method works nicely.
You can also purchase heated bases that waterers perch upon to keep them thawed or even waterers that have a heated base already incorporated into them. Some people use heated dog bowls and others have become quite inventive by making their own heaters from cinder blocks, terra cotta pots and even cookie tins.
Tip: Spending the extra money for the heated chicken waterer was one of my best investments as a chicken keeper. I caved after three years of thawing frozen waterers.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, chickens can experience frostbite on their combs, wattles, toes and feet. To prevent frostbite, be sure to keep the coop environment dry and humidity free. Be sure to provide adequate ventilation to help remove moisture from the chicken’s breathing and droppings in the winter. Make sure all chickens are sleeping on the roosts. Do not let your flock sleep on the floor or in the nesting boxes. Sleeping on the roosts allows the chickens’ feathers to cover their legs, feet and toes keeping them warm and protected from the cold winter air. To prevent frostbite, you can rub some Vaseline on your chicken’s combs and wattles just before nightfall.
If frostbite does occur, leave it alone. The tissue will turn black and die. The chicken’s body will naturally heal. However, to prevent further damage of healthy tissue, apply a thin coat of Vaseline.
During the winter months, you might notice that predators are more prevalent. As the leaves are vacant from the trees and the lush green woodlands turn to dormant leaf-free underbrush, food sources become scarcer for chicken loving animals such as coyotes, fox, raccoons, opossum, birds of prey and more. As predators become desperate especially during late winter, they become even bolder, especially if they have young to feed. Be sure your locks are predator proof and that you lock your flock into the coop each night. Also, avoid using chicken wire on your run. Chicken wire was designed to keep chickens in but not predators out. Half-inch hardware cloth is a much better and stronger choice. Also, add a 3-foot wide hardware cloth apron around the run buried 2 inches into the ground. This will deter digging predators too.
Tip: Just set the timer. Automatic coop doors are great helpers at locking up the flock at night and opening them up in the morning.
Some flocks enjoy free-ranging outside even in the snow. It is not uncommon to find chicken keepers shoveling out paths just for the flock when deep snow falls. To encourage cautious chickens to venture into the snow, spread out some straw and toss some scratch on the ground.
Sometimes, in sub-zero temperatures or during blizzards, it is unsafe for the flock to venture out. This is why chicken keepers in cold climates usually build sizeable coops for the flock. Just because they are inside doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from a hanging cabbage on a string (chicken piñata) or a flock block.
Tip: Boredom and lack of space when confined can become an issue with the flock and it can lead to bullying and pecking of feathers and one another.
As winter approaches, I hope that you find some of these tips helpful when it comes to tending to your flock. With a little bit of preparation, tending to chickens in the winter can be just as rewarding as it is during the warmer seasons of spring and summer.
Melissa Caughey, who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, teaches classes in gardening and introductory chicken-keeping. She also is a regular presenter at our Mother Earth News Fairs around the country.
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