There is nothing quite as amusing as seeing a chicken come out of the coop on that first cold and snowy morning of the year. More often than not, the flock will rush out the door only to turn tail and rush right back in again.
It can be tempting to keep your hens inside of the coop all winter where it’s warm and dry, but fresh air is just as important, if not more so, even in those very cold months.
It’s true that some chicken breeds are hardier than others, but luckily, there are a few things you can do to protect your entire flock when those temperatures drop down to the single digits.
Setting Up a Chicken Coop for Winter
Step #1: Do a through clean out in the fall.
Remove all the bedding, sweep out the cobwebs, wipe down, and sterilize the coop. By cleaning out your coop, you will remove any soiled dirt and parasites so you can start the winter season fresh. Watch my video to see this step by step.
As you are cleaning, look for any holes or cracks in the coop, repairing as you find them. This will not only keep drafts out of the coop, but any nasty predators as well. Remember, it’s not just our chickens that want shelter from the cold but also mice, rats, weasels, and other unwanted guests—guests looking for a free meal by eating your chicken’s feed, their eggs, or even the chickens themselves. Stop them now by plugging up even the smallest of openings.
Don’t be tempted to skip the small holes. You would be surprised at what a mouse can squeeze through!
Step #2: Apply an extra layer of insulation to the inside.
Your chicken coop does not need to be fully insulated for the winter, but there are things you can do to protect your flock from frostbite.
We like to put straw bales around the inside of the coop placed snuggly up against the wall. This applies an extra layer of insulation and gives the hens a way to get up off of the ground. A chicken’s feet are very vulnerable to frostbite, so it’s important to give them protection both inside and outside of the coop. If you are short on space, you can turn the bales sideways so they take up less room.
Bonus tip: In the spring, you can reuse your straw bales as vegetable garden containers. As the chickens perch on the bales, their debris helps to compost down the insides creating the perfect growing environment. Strawbale gardening is a great way to grow crazy big and beautiful vegetables.
Step #3: Check for ventilation.
There is a difference between drafts and ventilation and knowing that can save your chicken’s life. Drafts are from cracks found in the structure of the coop that are normally located near the floor where your hen’s delicate feet are. Ventilation is more often found at the top of the coop and works to clean out the air inside keeping dust particles down. This type of airflow is incredibly important for preventing lung issues that can come up in a flock during the winter. If your coop has vents, be sure they are clean and free of dust and debris.
Step #4: Use good bedding and keep it thick.
What you choose to use in your coop will all depend on where you live and the type of floor you have. Since we house our chickens in a shed with a wooden floor, I have found that wood shavings work the best to keep the smell and wetness down. We also like to use the deep litter method where we live and find it really helps insulate the coop.
The deep litter method simply means allowing bedding to build up over the winter creating a barrier between your chicken’s feet and the frigid ground. Rather than remove soiled bedding from your coop routinely, you instead add a fresh layer on top. This keeps the smell and dust down and the debris covered.
Heads up: If you choose to use the deep litter method in your coop, please know that your spring clean out will be a bigger chore than what you may be used to. Sitting all winter causes the bedding to turn into what feels like concrete and requires a good strong back to remove. Yes, a downside to using this method, but for us, it’s worth it since it keeps the coop warmer for our flock.
Step #5: Chicken nesting boxes.
Keeping fresh hay or bedding inside your nesting boxes helps to create a cozy environment for your chickens. I like to use 2nd cut hay that is leftover from my goats. Each day, I take a bag of this soft and sweet smelling hay out and replenish the boxes. Not only does this keep the chickens toasty, it helps to prevent the eggs from freezing as well.
Step #6: Have a good solid roost.
On really cold nights, your chickens will snuggle up close to stay warm. Have a roost that is solid and large enough for them to do so. Chickens are not like most birds, meaning they do not perch on branches. They actually prefer a wider roost to walk and sleep on. 2 inches wide is a good rule of thumb when building your roost with 8 inches per hen in length.
Place your roost on the warmest side of the coop in the winter. This small tip will help protect them from those bitter winds that can stir up overnight.
Step #7: To heat or not to heat.
Even though we live in Northern Pennsylvania, we choose not to use electric heaters in our coop. I have found that by relying on the tips above, I actually have a healthier flock. Don’t underestimate the ability of your hens to adapt as the weather cools off. Their warm feathers and higher internal temperature allows them to handle the cold better than we may expect. Now, this does not mean that you should rush out now and shut off any heat lamps, especially if you are reading this in December, but it is something to take into consideration for next year.
Heat lamps are dangerous and have caused many fires in our area. For us, the risk is just not worth it. We choose to warm things naturally and rely on our flock to use their instinct instead.
Step #8: Protect them outside too.
Even in the snowy winter, chickens enjoy getting outside in the fresh air. Remember the most vulnerable parts of a chicken are the comb, wattle, and feet. For this reason, you will want to put down a layer of protection in your run. A nice layer of straw, hay, or bedding will work well here. You don’t need to go crazy, just enough to encourage your flock to get out and stretch their legs and their lungs.
Please remember that whatever you put down in the winter will need to be removed come spring, so add this layer sparingly.
Step #9: Have fresh water at all times.
The biggest challenge for us is water, and the best way I have found to deal with it is to replenish it often. On very cold days, I will change out their water 3 times a day. This not only gives them plenty to drink, but it allows me to collect eggs often enough so they do not become frozen—something that can happen more often than folks realize.
Step #10: Offer warm treats.
I like to give a few warm snacks on really cold days. Leftover soup, scrambled eggs, or even a warm mash of feed are yummy options. This is a welcomed treat for your chickens and also encourages the entire flock to eat. Why is this important? It can alert you quickly of anyone that is acting off. A chicken that is not eating needs your attention, so if you offer a warm snack and a chicken or two does not rush up to enjoy, then you may want to do a little investigating to be sure everything is okay.
Knowing a few tips on how to keep chickens warm in even the coldest weather will keep your flock healthy and have you eating fresh delicious eggs all winter long.