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Winter Care for Chickens: Tips to Keep Your Flock Healthy and Happy

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As the popularity of raising chickens in suburban areas grows, backyard flocks have become an integral part of sustainable living. Despite their hardiness, chickens can struggle during winter, making it crucial to provide proper cold-weather care to keep them healthy, comfortable, and productive.

Chicken-keeping is an enjoyable and manageable task for the most part, especially compared to the rigors of farming and gardening during the challenging spring and summer seasons.

While shepherds tend to their flocks in the morning, midwife does, and ewes, chicken-keepers can sit back and watch their hens lay eggs. As milk demands attention twice daily, chicken keepers can rest assured that their flock is safe behind locked doors. Nevertheless, winter requires additional effort from chicken keepers.

Summer has its obstacles, but winter requires hands-on attention from the keeper. Cold temperatures, snowdrifts, and harsh winds amplify the workload of chicken keepers in winter. Proper care during this time of year is vital.

Can Your Chickens Care for Themselves in Winter?

While chickens can naturally endure harsh winter weather, their feathers provide excellent insulation, and they fluff their feathers to create an even warmer coat. On sunny days, they position themselves to absorb the sun’s warmth and huddle together in a tight group to share body heat on cold nights.

They can even slightly lower their internal metabolism to resist cold snaps. However, chicken breeds have varying abilities to endure chilly temperatures, with smaller combs and thicker feathers better adapted to the cold. The Australorp, Plymouth Rock, and Cochin chickens are some of the best breeds for cold winters.

Chickens may seem delicate, but they are resilient and only require extra care during winter. Healthy and content chickens will continue to lay eggs all year long. Proper care during the winter season is critical, and here are some essential tips to consider when caring for your feathered friends.

Related post: Insights into the Visual World of Chickens

Preparing Your Chickens for Winter

As winter approaches, it’s crucial to ensure your feathered friends are ready to face the challenges of the cold months. By taking proactive measures and preparing in advance, you can ensure your chickens remain comfortable, healthy, and happy during winter. Here are some tips and strategies to help prepare your chickens for winter.

Preparing Your Chickens for Winter
Photo: Homestead and Chill

Fall Preparation

The autumn months are the perfect time to ensure your coop is ready for winter. This is the ideal time to replace worn-out equipment or bedding and fix any leaks or drafts.

It’s also essential to stock up on extra feed and medical supplies to have them readily available during the winter season. By tackling these tasks in the fall, you can avoid potential problems and have peace of mind as winter approaches.

Winter Care Overview

To keep your chickens happy and healthy during the winter months, you should take the following steps:

  1. Winterize the Coop: Before the onset of winter, it’s essential to check the coop for leaks and drafts. Repair any holes that predators could enter or areas where drafts could occur. Also, ensure that perches are secure and sharp edges are removed to prevent injuries.
  2. Winterize the Run: In addition to winterizing the chicken coop, ensure the run is safe for winter. Check the fences for any damage, and add a windbreak to provide shelter for your chickens while allowing outdoor activities.
  3. Ensure Proper Ventilation: Proper ventilation is essential to maintain excellent air quality in the coop. A well-ventilated coop helps to prevent respiratory problems caused by decaying feces and humidity. Cross-coop airflow is recommended to keep the air clean.
  4. Deepen Bedding: Providing a thicker layer of bedding material such as wood shavings, coarse sawdust, or straw can help to insulate the coop, keep the chickens’ feet dry, and make cleaning easier. Ideally, the bedding layer should be 3-6 inches deep throughout the cell.
  5. Improve Lighting: If your chickens are productive layers, they may need up to 10-14 hours of light per day. Ensure that the coop windows are not blocked by snow, and consider adding supplemental light if required. Timed lights are an easy, hassle-free option.
  6. Provide Adequate Space: Ensure your coop is large enough to accommodate all your chickens and has plenty of perches for every bird. Overcrowding can lead to aggression, loss of productivity, and health complications.
  7. Provide Outdoor Perches: Even on cold days, chickens enjoy being outdoors. Use hay bales, thick branches, log chunks, low benches, or stumps to provide perches outside so the birds can get out of the snow and slush.
  8. Be Entertaining: To prevent winter boredom, offer your chickens a clean area to peck, scratch the ground, and hang cabbage or lettuce heads to ride and play with.
  9. Protect Chickens’ Combs: A chicken’s bare comb is vulnerable to frostbite. To prevent this, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly on the comb to moisturize and insulate it during cold snaps. The coating will need to be reapplied regularly throughout the winter.
  10. Keep Water Liquid: Dehydration can lead to kidney problems and a loss of laying productivity. Use heated bowls to ensure plenty of water available to your chickens, and clean the bowls regularly to avoid contamination that could endanger the entire flock.
  11. Offer a Bedtime Snack: Giving your chickens a treat of corn in the evening can help raise their body temperature overnight. Corn takes a long time to digest, providing extra feed to help keep them warm for hours.

Chicken Winter Nutrition 

During the colder months in North America, a winter flock of chickens may lack vital nutrients from their diet. With fewer plants thriving, less greenery is available for free-ranging flocks to forage. While providing supplemental food might seem like a luxury to most chicken keepers, it is essential to ensure the health and well-being of your feathered friends.

Staying warm during winter requires more energy, so your chickens need more food to maintain their body heat. Feeding them later in the evening can also help to keep them warm throughout the night as their bodies digest the food.

Chicken Winter Nutrition
Photo: Kennan Harvey

Chickens are omnivores and eat almost anything, from greens, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and minor bugs to small animals like rodents or snakes. Like us, they thrive on variety and diversity in their food sources.

Free-ranging chickens can source various growing things on pasture during the summer months, but even free-ranging winter chickens may struggle. Therefore, any flock will benefit from some extra supplements in the winter, even if it is just leftovers or peelings from your kitchen. Winter is a great time to start giving your chickens kitchen scraps.

While it may be cold outside, a few extra minutes spent giving your feathered friends kitchen scraps will show them love and care. All fresh greens, fruit and vegetables, kitchen clippings, and leftovers are fair game for chickens.

However, it’s essential to avoid feeding them avocados (as the pits contain a chemical toxic to all birds), raw potatoes, or anything excessively oily or greasy, such as old takeout. While fresh food a few days past its prime is still suitable, avoid offering anything rotten or moldy.

Treats are an excellent way to keep your chickens happy and healthy during winter. Scratch is a fabulous winter treat because it offers variety to an otherwise everyday diet, and it raises body temperatures as the bird digests it, keeping the chicken warm.

Mealworms and sunflower seed treats are also a great source of protein and fun activity for chickens cooped up during winter snowstorms.

In conclusion, by providing your chickens with a healthy and diverse diet in winter, you are ensuring their health, happiness, and well-being. And adding treats and scraps from your kitchen can show your feathered friends a little extra love and warmth during the cold winter months.

H2-Oh, It’s Cold!

As the cold winter weather sets in, it’s easy to overlook the importance of water for our feathered friends. While chickens may not sweat or pant in the same way as we do, they still require hydration to stay healthy all year round, significantly when temperatures drop.

Providing fresh, clean water to your flock can be challenging during freezing conditions, but it’s essential. Investing in a heated water bowl is a smart choice if you have access to electricity in your barn or coop.

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However, it’s necessary to take care when installing electrical items in a chicken house. If you don’t have electricity, you must provide fresh water several times daily, as water sources can quickly freeze.

When water freezes, you have a few options. You can keep an extra set of waterers and switch them out daily for thawed water or heat the water font so that water is always available. Both options have drawbacks: Lugging water back and forth from a heated house is not much fun, especially in the winter, while heating a water font poses a fire hazard.

Chicken in cold winter weather
Photo: thespruce

If you live in a southern state with mild winters, you might get away with lugging frozen water fonts for a few days or weeks each year. However, if you live in northern or midwestern states, it’s essential to research the safest heating options to ensure your flock can always access fresh water.

Fresh water is essential to keeping your chickens healthy and hydrated, regardless of the season. By keeping their water source from freezing, you’ll be helping your feathered friends thrive throughout the winter months.

The Heat Is On

Winter can be a challenging time for chicken keepers, particularly when maintaining the ideal temperature in the coop. Some people advocate for heating the cell to keep their birds warm and healthy, but there are potential risks associated with this approach.

While some chicken breeds are more susceptible to cold weather, with the proper attention and care, most birds can handle the winter weather without additional heat.

Artificial heating, such as with a heat lamp, can create a dangerous situation for the flock. If the power goes out on a freezing night, the temperature inside the coop may plummet, putting the birds in harm’s way.

In addition, heating the coop increases the risk of fire, which can devastate the flock. Instead, a few simple precautions can help ensure the coop stays warm without risking the birds’ safety.

The first step is to choose cold-hardy breeds that are naturally suited to the region. Popular choices include Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, Plymouth Rocks, Australorps, and Orpingtons.

The coop should be well-prepared for winter, with adequate ventilation but no drafts, particularly around the roosting area. Insulation in the walls and windbreaks around the coop can help keep the temperature moderate while employing the deep-litter method can raise the temperature even higher.

Increasing the amount of thermal mass in the coop can retain heat for longer, which is essential for colder nights.

Allowing the birds to acclimate naturally to the colder weather is also crucial. By gradually adjusting to the cooler temperatures in the autumn season, and with proper nutrition and a fortified coop, they will be able to handle the cold weather with grace and strength.

Ultimately, while it may seem tempting to heat the coop, the risks associated with it can far outweigh the benefits. Taking the necessary precautions and providing a safe and comfortable environment for the birds can thrive and lay plenty of eggs even during the coldest months of the year.

Having Extras

As a wise chicken keeper, it’s always best to have extras. You never know what nature might throw at you, and the last thing you want is to find yourself unprepared when the winter weather hits.

Just as emergency preparedness experts advise keeping at least two to three weeks’ worth of food and medical supplies on hand, it’s equally important to do the same for your feathered friends.

No matter how mild your winters may be, it’s always wise to be prepared for the unexpected. One way to ensure your flock stays well-fed is to keep at least one month’s worth of feed.

You should also stock up on medical supplies, including first-aid-kit essentials for pets, and consider adding supplements like grit, oyster shells, and scratch to their diets. Store everything tightly and away from hungry winter scavengers, such as mice, rats, and raccoons.

As a wise chicken keeper, it's always best to have extras
Photo: Backyard Poultry

Despite the chill, winter can be a fantastic season for chickens. They’re relieved of the summer heat, and most laying hens take a break from their egg-laying duties. They’re not bothered by moving locations to fair shows or additions to the flock. Things are slow and quiet, and winter is a time of rest.

With adequate preparation and maintenance, it can also be a time of rest for you. One way to ensure your chickens’ comfort during the winter is to increase the bedding you place in the coop. Straw is the most commonly used material, though some prefer sand, as it’s easier to clean up.

Adding extra bedding lets, you keep the chickens’ feet insulated from the frozen ground during the day while they scratch around. Be sure to keep the straw or sand clean and dry, and replace it often when it becomes soiled or wet from inclement weather (typically at least twice a week).

Using the ‘Deep Litter Method”

Nurturing your coop in the deep-litter style is a practice that some criticize for being indolent, while others hail as a genius way of fostering sustainability.

But what if both viewpoints are actual? Using the deep-litter method, you can maintain your coop’s bedding and preserve the raw materials that would typically be wasted, such as bedding and chicken manure.

The traditional method of placing a thick layer of bedding on the coop’s floor, where the flock roosts, is replaced by adding a layer of pine shavings or a similar organic matter. Rather than tossing out the waste your chickens accumulate, you only need to stir up the bedding with a light rake and allow your chickens to do the rest.

If properly implemented and regularly topped up, the litter forms a compost layer that attracts good microbes, enabling them to consume the unhealthy bacteria in the chickens’ waste. This helps insulate your coop during the colder months while preventing lice and mites infestations.

It is critical to avoid using cedar shavings as they can be harmful to your chickens. The decomposition process generates heat, making the deep-litter method ideal for naturally warming winter coops while keeping the internal temperature stable.

So why do some consider this approach to be lazy? You do not have to remove the bedding all year. The coop accumulates chicken droppings, and the chicken keeper mixes the bedding and adds more as needed. The size of the coop, flock, and the type of bedding used determine the amount and frequency of the bedding added.

Although most chicken keepers can get away with completely changing the litter once per year, when that occurs is up to you, but it is typically best done in the spring or fall. With some attention and maintenance, the coop should not emit a foul odor or create health issues for you or your chickens.

Regular replacement and mixing of the bedding are essential to maintaining cleanliness, but the bedding and droppings are still breaking down into something usable again.

After the litter is fully decomposed, it becomes a valuable garden fertilizer with minimal effort, making the deep-litter method both sustainable and ingenious.

Additional Tips and Strategies

Keeping your chickens healthy and happy during winter requires a few essential measures. One key aspect is maintaining proper ventilation in your coop, which ensures your vents are positioned towards the roof.

This will allow for the release of warm, moist air and cooler, drier air. It’s crucial to avoid reducing airflow too much, which can lead to ammonia buildup and promote mold growth in your birds’ bedding.

Ensure that your chickens have adequate space to roost comfortably, which is crucial for staying warm. Construct roosts at least two feet above the ground to ensure they feel secure. Regularly inspect them with a torch in the evening to ensure none are on the floor, which indicates insufficient space.

While it may be tempting to keep your birds locked away from the harsh weather, providing them with more space can benefit their health. Consider building a cold frame or greenhouse-style addition to your coop, covered with clear plastic to shelter them from extreme weather conditions.

As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, ensuring that your feathered friends are well-equipped to weather the winter months is essential. Chickens are remarkably resilient creatures, but with a little extra effort, you can help them stay cozy, healthy, and productive all winter.

Here are some tips and tricks for preparing your chicken coop for winter:

Block Out Any Drafts in the Coop

When the mercury dips, chickens fluff their feathers to trap heat and stay warm. While they don’t need a heated house, they require dry and dry shelter from cold drafts. Before the cold snap arrives, take a look at your chicken housing.

Are there any air leaks or holes? If so, make the necessary repairs to cover these areas and prevent heat loss. The easiest and most cost-effective way to fix any holes is to attach a cut-to-measure piece of plywood over the hole.

Ensure Coop Ventilation

While blocking out drafts is essential, providing adequate ventilation to prevent ammonia buildup and illness among your chickens is equally crucial. Ideally, vents should be located towards the coop’s roof, where cold air won’t flow directly onto your birds.

By venting out warm, moisture-laden air and replacing it with more extraordinary, drier air, you can keep humidity down and prevent mold growth in your birds’ bedding. Consider using a mesh vent with a hatch that you can open and close to properly ventilate the coop during the day and close it up at night or during periods of heavy rain.

Create Comfortable Winter Bedding for Your Chickens

In winter, consider adding extra bedding to your chicken coop to keep your birds’ feet insulated from the frozen ground during the day while they scratch around.

Straw is the most common bedding material, although some use sand for easier cleanup. Keep the bedding clean and dry, and replace it often when it becomes soiled or wet from inclement weather (typically at least twice a week).

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Winter’s extreme cold can reduce egg production, but darkness is why production slows in late fall. Chickens lay best when they receive at least 15 hours of sunlight per day, but in northern regions of the US, natural daylight drops to under nine hours at the end of December.

To optimize egg production, use supplemental lighting in the coop for three to four months until the days get longer. Consider hanging a light bulb controlled by a timer in the nesting area to extend the “daylight” hours to approximately 15. With this method, you’ll improve egg production through the shorter days of winter.

In the coldest months, breeds with large combs and wattles may be more susceptible to frostbite. You can provide extra protection by covering them in petroleum jelly to keep them warm.

Following these steps ensures that your feathered friends remain healthy and comfortable throughout the winter months. Proper ventilation, adequate space to roost, and shelter from extreme weather will contribute to your chickens’ well-being and continued egg production, even when temperatures drop.

Following these tips and tricks will help your chickens stay warm, healthy, and productive all winter. With a bit of extra care, your feathered friends will thank you by laying delicious eggs throughout the season.

Keeping your chickens healthy and happy during winter
Photo: Mother Earth Living

One Winter Trick to Avoid

Winter can be difficult for backyard chickens, and many people may be tempted to install a heat source in their coop to protect them from the cold. However, this well-intentioned action can do more harm than good.

External heaters can increase the fire risk, and chickens can be prone to overheating or burning if they are too close to the heater, even if it works correctly. Additionally, chickens need time to acclimate to colder temperatures, so if their coop is always heated, they won’t develop the natural resilience needed to handle the cold.

This can be especially problematic if the heater fails or there is a power loss, and the birds are suddenly exposed to a severe drop in temperature.

It’s essential to exercise caution when considering external heating, and only in areas with extreme winters should any external heating be considered. If it is necessary, it should be done with all the proper safety precautions.

Winter may present challenges for backyard chicken keepers, but proper measures can ensure the birds stay healthy, happy, and productive throughout the season. Your flock can thrive by adequately preparing for winter and providing good care, even in the colder months.

Related post: Preventing and Treating Common Chicken Illnesses

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