Caring For Chickens In The Winter

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Warm weather is winding down as cooler weather moves in, bringing a taste of the coming winter. As well as preparing your home for the long winter months, it’s time to prepare your urban chickens for winter. With a possible cold, wet winter and prolonged subzero temperature in many areas of the country, ensuring your chickens’ comfort makes happy chickens and the urban chicken farmer’s life easier.

Providing proper care to your flock regardless of the season is essential. Chickens need specialized care in winter, just as in summer. Even if your chickens stop producing eggs during winter, putting forth the effort to keep them comfortable and healthy helps them start the spring and summer laying period in prime condition.

Preparing backyard chickens for winter is not difficult if you follow a few simple rules. Chickens are hardy creatures, with many breeds more tolerant of cold than others. Some cold, hardy birds include Orpingtons, Dominiques, Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, Black Giants, and Brahmas.

This is the most important step to caring for chickens in any season. Your chickens need suitable housing to protect them from predators and the elements.

Good Housing

Ventilation – Good ventilation allows dissipation of moisture caused by the chicken’s breath during the winter and provides a fresh air source during the summer. Your first instinct is to plug every hole in the chicken coop, thinking it will keep your birds warm—don’t do it. In cold weather, chickens spend more time roosting in the coop, and good airflow removes moisture.

Roosting chickens creates moisture, allowing condensation inside the coop and creating cold and damp conditions, which are unhealthy for your chickens. The moisture settles on combs and wattles, causing frostbite. You need good ventilation but not drafty. Drafts in direct line with chicken roosts are dangerous. If your chicken house has windows or vents, keep them open just enough to give airflow but not wide enough to cause drafts on roosting chickens. Cold drafts can kill a roosting chicken, so make sure your ventilation only allows the air to circulate, keeping the moisture down.

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Heat – No…no…and no again. Okay, I know there is much debate about this, especially in colder, northern climates. Our winters in Oklahoma rarely have long cold spells with subzero temperatures; our winters usually stay above freezing. However, my grandparents kept chickens in harsh environments with no heat in the henhouse, only suitable winterization. My dad’s parents lived in northern Ohio while my mother’s lived in northern Iowa; both kept flocks throughout the winter, with rarely a loss.

The biggest problem with heating your coop and preserving a warmer temperature is that chickens only feather out in light down and not their full winter plumage. If you lose power for any time, your heat source is gone, and chickens aren’t acclimated to the colder temperatures. We have ice storms in the winter, so losing electricity is common. If we kept our chicken coop heated, we might lose some chickens.

All heating sources are dangerous. If you feel you must heat, follow the manufacturer’s safety precautions for your heat source. Coop fires are common in winter, making safety a must. Heat bulbs are a common heating source. Hang them with sturdy clips, out of the way where chickens can’t knock them into bedding and cause a fire. I recommend oil-filled radiant heaters instead of heat lamps. These heaters won’t subject the flock to long-term illumination, causing egg production system damage.

Whatever heat source you use, keep it at a low temperature, no higher than 25° F, to avoid molting those extra layers of feathers. I suggest letting them grow their downy “underwear” and not offering any artificial heat unless it gets cold for long periods: -20° F or below.

If you decide not to heat your coop, provide ventilation without drafts and plenty of bedding and litter with enough depth to provide insulation. Never “overstuff” the house with straw since it sweats and causes fungal growth, leading to respiratory illness in chickens.

Mucking it Out – This is done weekly, regardless of the season. During the winter, you may need to increase mucking depending on how much time the birds spend in the house. For harsher climates, I suggest 2-3 times weekly.

Feed and Water

No matter the season, fresh feed and water are vital to a healthy flock. Chickens need constant access to water as well as feed.

Feeding – The winter food consumption rate varies depending on the weather, so giving chickens free access to food is recommended. To provide extra energy and help keep birds warm during the night, provide small amounts of corn or other slow-burn grain before roosting.

During slow egg production in winter, try reducing the calcium and protein and increasing calories to help keep birds warm. Decrease protein intake to 17 percent by switching from layer rations to scratch. Scratch is low in protein and high in calories. I also reduce calcium by reducing oyster shell availability. I like giving my hens a break from heavy egg production during the winter months, but if you prefer keeping egg production going, increase protein with sprouting. 

Sprouting: Sprouting makes wheat or other grains become more vegetable. Sprout grains until they grow a leaf and roots by placing them on a windowsill. Once sprouted, feed with scratch rations. Try sprouting all year to benefit eggs nutritionally. Buy high-quality whole grains from natural food distributors like Azure Standard.

How to Sprout: Fill a jar 1/3 full of wheat berries. Add water to cover and soak overnight (dechlorinate water for better germination). Drain and rinse well. Do not immerse after the first soak. Drain and rinse once a day, allowing sprouts to grow.

Watering – Disinfect both drinkers and feeders with good-quality disinfectant once a week. Rinse well with hot water and dry before refilling. In places like Oklahoma, we are usually above freezing during the day, so icing water isn’t a significant problem except at night. If you have constant freezing temperatures, water will need to be free of ice. Keeping drinkers sheltered and breaking the ice as it forms keeps water supplied. However, not everyone can do this, so another consideration is placing the drinker on a heated platform or buying a heated drinking unit.

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Never add anything to water that may stop freezing. This will seriously harm your chickens.

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Wind Shelter and Scratch Area

preparing backyard chickens for winter

Scratching is an essential function of a chicken’s day. Winter makes this problematic, so providing an area protected from the wind is necessary. Hanging plastic sheeting or tarps across the side of the pen or along the run offers protection from northern winds. If you have a Harbor Freight close, they often have plastic tarps on sale, perfect for windbreaks. Our large winter tarps (7′ x 9′) were on sale for $1.99 each, a great buy.

Having a protected area gives your chickens room to scratch. If the area is snow and ice-packed, add a thick layer of prairie hay to help insulate their feet. Scratching out seeds from the hay is a welcome winter treat.

Warning: Never use ornamental bark shavings in the coop or run area. These are unsuitable for chicken houses and runs. Ground coverings decay quickly and grow mold and fungi, which are toxic. Chickens risk inhaling spores as they scratch and peck, causing respiratory problems that are hard to treat. If you prefer wood for ground covering, use hardwood chippings with little or no bark present. Hardwood lasts all winter until dug out in the spring.

Pests and Predators

One of the most common winter problems is pests and predators, but with careful planning and diligence during the winter, your chickens will avoid illness or injury.

Pests – While red mites are bothersome during summer but inactive during colder weather, they are still a concern. Red mites can survive six to seven months without feeding. Harsh winter climates kill off adult mites, but eggs laid in late summer live on, hatching at the first signs of warm weather. A thorough cleaning of the coop is essential.

Northern fowl mites live on chickens, surviving the winter months. Checking your birds for these pests is necessary. The first sign of this mite infestation is greasy-looking feathers on the back at the base of the tail. The mites look like a mass of tiny black pinheads crawling around the vent area. Unlike red mites, these pests are easy to treat by washing the chicken and applying mite treatment. However, never leave chickens untreated. Northern fowl mites will kill a bird in a few days.

Predators – Foxes and rats are year-round problems for many chicken keepers, especially in more remote areas. However, winter is more troublesome because of the lack of food and shelter. We don’t have issues with foxes as much as we do with rats. During the winter, they migrate for food, water, and shelter. We remove all these sources, so they are no longer a problem. By bringing in all feeders, emptying waters at night (then refilling in the morning), and having our coop almost a foot off the ground, we rarely have a problem with them taking up residence.

Foxes are more challenging to keep at bay and a problem for many chicken owners living in more remote areas. If you live in an area where houses are closer and have more human habitation, chances are, foxes won’t be a problem.

It’s important to know that foxes are intelligent, and chicken is an easy and favored meal. I advise proofing the area as much as possible and never letting your guard down. Foxes can wipe out a flock in one night. If you are unsure how to predator-proof your chicken area, check with local farm and ranch stores or area extension offices.

Even in harsh winter conditions, with proper preparation and care, chickens are hardy. Watch their behavior; no worries if they move around and act normal. Chickens naturally fluff their feathers and stand on one foot to keep warm. Your flock remains happy and healthy by providing food, water, and shelter.

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