4 Things Your Chickens Need This Winter...and 3 Things They Don't

October 17, 2017



While it seems natural to worry about your chickens in the winter, they're actually far more comfortable in the cold than you might imagine. Even here in Maine, our chickens do just fine when there's snow on the ground and it doesn't get above freezing for days on end. They do however, appreciate a little bit of TLC to get them through it.

So here are four things that are important to help your chickens when the temperatures drop.

Dry, Well-Ventilated Coop

In the winter, I put a nice thick layer of straw on the floor of my coop, and close the windows to prevent cold drafts, snow and sleet from coming in, but I leave the vents under the eaves open year round. This allows moisture and ammonia fumes to escape. 

It's the moisture more than the cold that can cause frostbite, plus your chickens need fresh air to keep them healthy and prevent respiratory issues.  If you get a lot of snow where you live, piling it up against the coop can actually help to keep the coop warmer. The snow acts as insulation against the cold.


Outdoor Perches and Wind Blocks

It's important to get your chickens outside as much as possible, every day, year round. Sunshine, exercise and fresh air are all critical for optimal health. But chickens don't like to walk on snow, ice or muddy ground, so some outdoor perches will help to entice them outside. 

Branches, benches, swings, pallets and even straw spread on the ground can all encourage your girls to step foot outside on even the coldest of days. Chickens also don't like wind, so wrapping part of your run with a tarp or clear plastic creates a nice wind block for them. 

  

Scratch Grains and Suet

Your chickens should be eating their feed as their main food source through the winter, but tossing them a few handfuls of scratch grains as a treat before bedtime will help keep them warm overnight, as their body creates energy digesting the grains. You can buy commercial scratch or mix your own. Suet can also help keep your chickens warm by providing them some extra protein and fat. Commercial suet cakes are available or you can make your own suet for your chickens as well.

Fresh Water

Even though they likely won't drink as much water in the winter as they do in the summer, your chickens still need access to fresh, unfrozen water all day long in the winter. Keeping it from freezing can be a challenge, although if you have electricity in your coop or can run an extension cord, an electric dog water bowl is about the easiest way to keep the water from freezing.


Chickens really need very little to get them through the winter just fine, but there are three things that they absolutely do NOT need.

Say No to Heat

I'm pretty sure that many, many more chickens die in coop fires caused by heat lamps than from the cold. Sadly, year after year, people burn down their coops, garages, barns and even their homes with faulty or poorly installed heat lamps. 

But even if you decide you'll use a (safer) radiant panel heater in your coop, what happens when you lose power in a storm? Now your chickens haven't been able to acclimate to the cold naturally. Also, heat creates moisture and that is extremely detrimental to your flocks' health. No matter how you look at it, heating your coop is a bad idea.

Say No to Light

While it's true that chickens do need about 16 hours of daylight to lay an egg, I prefer to give my chickens a break through the winter. To rest up after going through the molting season. Sure, twinkle lights are cute, but I don't use them to add artificial light in my coop. Have you ever seen a battery hen who is forced to lay year round after about two years without a break? Enough said. 

Instead, I'll let you in on a little trick: spring chicks that start laying in late fall generally will lay through that first winter without any artificial light, so if you get a few new chicks each spring...you'll have eggs through the winter.

Say No to Chicken Sweaters

Memes of chickens in sweaters circulate around social media each winter, but please, please do not start knitting your chickens sweaters - unless you're donating them to rescued battery hens (see above!) who literally have no feathers on their bodies. 

Chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers and if you put them in sweaters, they can't keep warm naturally.  Trust me, your chickens don't need sweaters. Even those who are molting won't benefit from wearing a sweater - I would guess that would be exceedingly uncomfortable, bordering on painful, to have a sweater on while growing in new feathers.

Photo Credit: Bored Panda
So this winter do your girls a favor and add some more straw to the floor of their coop, offer them some scratch grains and suet, and open the coop door to allow them the choice to spend time indoors or out. They'll be healthier and happier. I promise.
Further Reading
Cold Weather Chicken Care Guide
20 Cold-Hardy Chicken Breeds
My Top 5 Winter Tips
Keeping Chicken Eggs from Freezing


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