A few precautions will keep your chickens safe and warm during winter.
Caring for your backyard poultry flock in winter can be especially challenging. Frigid temps, snow, and wind can all play havoc with our normal chicken care routine and with your birds’ health. Depending on your climate, winter can present some trying conditions, but understanding the basic needs of your flock and how to manage problems as they arise will keep your flock happy and healthy through the worst winter can bring.
Water is the single most important nutrient for healthy chickens and continued egg production. When temperatures drop below freezing, it’s essential to keep your chickens’ water from also freezing. Thermostatically controlled heated water founts can be found for under $40. They typically prevent water from freezing, even when it drops down to zero degrees Fahrenheit. Because it can easily get much colder than zero degrees on the Nebraska plains, I opt for a heated dog bowl that can be found at local big box stores. Even in sub-zero temps, I’ve never had a problem with frozen water. With an open bowl, there’s more risk of the chickens dirtying the water, but I like to give them fresh water daily or every other day, so I take that opportunity to make sure the bowl is clean.
When the bowl begins to form hard-water mineral build-up, I’ll empty the bowl and add about a cup of white vinegar to a gallon of warm water for a few hours to descale the bowl. If you keep the bowl clean, empty out the water, and refill it with fresh water, you shouldn’t have any algae forming. Avoid continually topping off the water, as chickens will avoid stale water. While it can be challenging in the dead of winter to clean out and refill their water daily, this is the best way to keep them hydrated and healthy.
Extra Treats and Tidbits
Offering your chickens a treat of warm scrambled eggs on a cold day with a little oyster shell mixed in is a nutritious winter treat. While cracked corn and other scratch grains are a common treat for chickens, take care not to overdo it. Chickens need to keep their nutrients high during the cold winter months, and scratch grains have no nutritional value. On especially frigid nights, I’ll give my flock a small amount of grains right before they go to roost. When they go in for the night, their bodies will work to digest the grains, which keeps their blood moving even as they snooze.
Chickens do require grit year-round. Insoluble grit, made from small granite or flint particles, helps the chicken to break down their food, since they don’t have teeth to chew. In the warmer months, chickens naturally forage, scratching the ground for bits of sand, gravel, or other hard particles. However, in the winter months when the ground is frozen solid or is snow-covered, grit isn’t naturally available. Offering your flock supplemental grit during the winter will ensure your chickens’ gizzard is breaking down their food and keeps their digestive system working properly.
I’m often asked if I offer my flock table scraps? The answer is “not really”. While many chicken owners swear by feeding their flock everything from leftover hamburger to banana peels, table scraps won’t meet the nutritional needs that poultry require. If you want to offer table scraps, offer them as an occasional treat and not a main course. Take care to never give your chickens scraps with any sign of mold or rot, which can cause botulism in poultry.
A Warm Bird is a Happy Bird
Livestock will gradually adapt to temperatures. Remember, chickens are birds. Birds have feathers for insulation, and chickens will fluff their feathers and huddle together for warmth. New chicken owners often fear that winter temperatures will harm their birds, but chickens can tolerate the cold temps much better than hot summer temperatures. If you overheat your coop, your flock will never acclimate to the cold. Even worse, if the power goes out or you’re not home to turn the heat on, a sudden drastic drop in temperatures can have dire consequences. If you choose to heat your coop, the inside temps should not be drastically different than the outside temps. Heat the coop just enough to avoid frostbite on combs or wattles.
Some flock owners opt for a thermostatically controlled outlet to regulate heat lamps or heaters. When the temps fall to 35 degrees, the outlet will turn on. Once the ambient air temps rise to 45 degrees, the outlet will automatically turn power off. On the rare occasions I do heat my coop (zero degrees or colder), I use a thermostatically controlled, radiant space heater, and only when I’m home to monitor it.
As a general rule, you want about 2 to 4 square feet of enclosed coop floor space per bird. If you’ve built a walk-in coop, hopefully you’ve kept the ceiling height under six feet. The taller the ceiling, the harder it will be for the chickens body heat to generate warmth. Think about it: six chickens roosting in a small tractor style coop with low ceilings will raise the ambient air temperatures much easier than six chickens roosting in a coop with 6-foot ceilings. If you’ve retrofitted a garden shed or have an oversized coop for your poultry, try attaching a tarp just over the roost to artificially lower the ceiling height making it easier for your chickens to generate body heat.
The coop should be draft-free, but well-ventilated to avoid moisture build-up. When using insulation, make sure it’s totally enclosed inside the wall, as chickens will peck at and eat foam insulation, which could kill them. Though it’s tempting to place the water and feed inside the coop, keep it outside. You want the chickens to get outside for some exercise, and to keep droppings from piling up inside. Wet chicken droppings create moisture in an enclosed coop, which can lead to respiratory issues. Keeping the water outside will also prevent wet messes on the floor and around nesting areas.
You should keep some kind of bedding on the floor, especially in the winter. A 4 to 6 inch layer of pine shavings works as a nice floor insulation, and if turned over regularly, acts as a compost for chicken droppings. This deep-litter method creates beneficial microbes and makes it easy in winter to keep the coop clean as you top off with a fresh layer of pine shavings when needed. Avoid using straw inside the coop. It’s not as absorbent as pine shavings and wet droppings can mat and mold, which can lead to respiratory concerns. The hollow core of straw can also house mold spores, as well as mites as temperatures warm up. Only use pine shavings and never cedar, as the odor can be toxic to chickens.
Laying in the Cold
As the days grow shorter, egg production will slow (unless you choose to light your coop). Here in the frigid Midwest, my flock usually doesn’t lay the entire month of January, and sometimes even February. I’ve heard from other chickens keepers that their flock will stop and start like clockwork, stopping around the winter solstice and resuming around the spring equinox. Depending on your breed, however, you could have a good winter layer. I have two Buff Orpingtons, and one will lay once or twice a week in the coldest weather. Even though laying will slow or halt, continue to check the nesting boxes. You don’t want to let eggs sit in the boxes as they can freeze quickly.
While a frozen egg is still okay to eat, a frozen egg can crack, introducing bacteria into the membrane. If I see a visible crack on an egg shell, I’ll discard it, just to be safe. If the shell has a tiny hairline crack, but the membrane is intact, the chances of bacteria being introduced into the egg is lower. But to be safe, I usually scramble cracked eggs up and feed them back to the chickens. Always better to be safe than sorry.
Once the daylight hours begin to increase, your flock’s reproductive system will begin to wake up from winter hibernation. The light will cue your chickens to release an ovum—or yolk—that will become an egg. As a hen slowly makes this transition, the first few eggs might look a little wonky. The initial eggs after a winter break can be especially small or have ridges or ripples. I just collected an egg from a Rhode Island Red who’s been especially stingy with her eggs this winter, and it’s half its normal size.
While we’re still in the mid-winter on the cold prairie where I live, the daylight hours are starting to lengthen (thank goodness!), and slowly, I’m beginning to see signs of increased laying with the longer daylight hours. Even an extra hour of daylight will begin to wake up their reproductive system, and not a moment too soon for those of us who refrain from lighting our coop!
The long winter days will remain for a while longer, so continue to monitor your flock’s health. Try to inspect your chickens at least two or three times a week to watch for signs of illness or other stressors. It won’t be long before spring will finally return, bringing your flock sunshine—and worms—and you more eggs!
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website BigMackWriting.