Winter Care for your Chickens
- as featured in Countryside Magazine and Small Stock Journal - Volume 93 Number 1 .. January/February 2009
Winter, what a wondrous magical time of the year! Glistening icicles, powdery new fallen snow, and your chicken’s good health can all go together with a little care and preparation. Winter is definitely a time of special considerations. In our area the temperature sometimes drops to 5 below zero with a hard wind, yet our hens have wintered well for years just by following a few simple guidelines.
With poor care during the winter months chickens will experience frozen feet and toes, sometimes even losing them! Combs can freeze as well, with parts actually falling off. Roosters can become sterile due to the stress and hens become sluggish and depressed. Forget about any eggs. Sneezing and illnesses are much more prevalent and sometimes even mortality will result.
So how do you do it right? First it is important to understand that chickens suffer much less in cold temperatures than in the heat, as long as certain needs are met. While chickens can tolerate cold conditions, it is dampness that causes combs and toes to freeze. Chickens produce a tremendous amount of moisture, both by respiration and the moisture in their droppings. Since they produce this moisture even in the winter it is very important that their housing provide good ventilation without being drafty. Providing vents at the floor level and the roofline help the natural convection of air carry away large amounts of moisture. Absorbent bedding such as sawdust will also help the situation, especially if you periodically rake and keep it stirred up and fluffy. Providing a raised stand for the water pan can also help by catching any spills. A raised water pan is also easier to keep clean.
Insulation in the chicken coop can be problematic. When chicken houses have normal stud type walls with insulation in them they seem to be especially prone to rodent infestations. Solid Styrofoam insulation seems to be least likely to encourage rodents; however, chickens will go to great lengths to eat Styrofoam insulation. I have no idea why. If you choose to insulate your coop, be sure to have a solid interior wall covering any insulation.
Where do your hens perch at night? If possible lower the ceiling height to within a couple of feet over the perches. This will help to keep body heat close to the birds at night, when temperatures tend to drop the most. Provide wooden perches for the winter time as well. Metal perches can conduct so much cold the chicken simply can’t stay warm. A wooden 2 X 2, with edges rounded, seems to be a good size for most standard size birds. They can grip the perch and settle down over it allowing their feet to be engulfed by their breast and cushion feathers keeping them warm. Be sure to offer several perches in the coop, so even a low ranking hen can find a safe place to perch. Smaller quarters for winter actually stay much warmer than a large coop. Providing a small coop for night and a larger preferably outdoor run for daytime exercise, seems to work the best.
Certain breeds of chickens obviously do better in the cold than others. Birds with large bodies and small pea combs will have the fewest problems. Feather footed birds may or may not have problems. Sometimes leg feathers can pick up snow and ice and actually make the birds feet and legs colder. If your birds have large single combs or possess large wattles or earlobes they will certainly benefit from a coating of Vaseline or other petroleum jelly rubbed on when the weather is bitterly cold. The petroleum jelly acts as a sort of insulator against the cold.
Providing fresh water can be a challenge in the winter as well. There are heated water fount bases available to be used with a metal water fount if you have electricity available. Plugging into a “freeze plug”, which is a thermostatically controlled outlet that will turn on the electricity when the temperature is below 40 degrees, can help save electricity. A light bulb near the water fount can add enough heat to keep the water liquid as well. Just be certain that the bulb is well caged, chickens seem to be fascinated by light bulbs and will peck and break them causing a fire hazard. Providing a caged light bulb to add heat to the coop can also work. Just be sure to use a red light as too much light can cause cannibalism in chickens. For coops that have no electricity available natural rubber tubs, such as DuraFlex, seem to work the best. When the water freezes it is easy to bash the ice out without breaking the tub. Fill the tub with slightly warm, not hot, water. The hens can burn their crops on hot water and there is no cure once they are scalded. Filling the tubs twice a day, first thing in the morning and a few hours before sunset, seems to work best. Filling the tub after sunset will do no good as the chickens will not leave the perch to drink at night. You must be VERY dependable watering in freezing temperatures. Fresh water is very important for your chickens. Some people also recommend placing a pan of fresh snow in the coop for your chickens to peck at. They seem to really enjoy eating snow, but it will not replace their need for fresh liquid water.
Proper nutrition is always important for chickens as is proper exercise. I believe that chickens should have the opportunity to go outside everyday no matter how cold it is. They love to soak up the winter sunshine and eat snow. They have enough sense to come in when it gets too cold. Having the option of going outside keeps hens healthy.
Feeding chickens in winter is much like feeding in the summertime. I offer free choice oyster shell and granite grit in a small feeder attached to the wall of the coop at all times. I like to feed a good commercial chicken food that supplies the proper amounts of protein for my particular chickens. Feeding only scratch grains or corn will not provide adequate protein. I also offer my chickens cooked table scraps, not including potatoes (which they don’t really like) or chicken (which could transmit diseases). I feel that the variety provided by a few scraps is good for them and it seems to stimulate their appetites in the winter months. Placing a pumpkin or some apples in the pen will also help with boredom which can sometimes cause chickens to peck at each other or pull feathers. The final thing that I offer my chickens is leafy alfalfa hay. I place a flake of it in a corner of the coop during the coldest days of winter. They love to dig and scratch around in it, especially if I sprinkle a little whole corn in it, and they will eat a great deal of hay as well. I find offering them the alfalfa also keeps their egg yolks nice and orange as well.
Light is a problem in the winter. As daylight decreases the chickens will stop laying eggs. If you would like them to lay all winter long you must increase the amount of light. I personally don’t do this as I believe that the hens need a break from laying physically and will perform better in the long run if they have a rest period. Science says a 14 hour “day” is ideal for egg production. If you want to extend the “day” all you need is a timer and a small light, even a night light will work for a small coop. Set the timer to turn on in the small hours of the morning and shut off after the sun is well up. This way the hens go to bed naturally. In a very short amount of time they will resume laying, although usually not at summer levels.
So you see how easy it is to take care of your chickens even in the challenging time of winter. Following a few simple guidelines can keep them happy and healthy so they can continue to provide your family with joy and the best tasting freshest eggs possible. Please learn all you can about your chickens, they will be glad you did.
Ice clings to a City Biddy pen after a winter storm.