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I have spent over 20 years keeping and breeding chickens on my homestead. Chickens have been a passion of mine for many years, and I spend much of my time these days giving talks at shows and clubs around the country.
One subject that comes up frequently at these talks is how to help chickens survive the winter.
Chickens are fairly hardy birds, and most breeds will cope just fine in an average winter. However, there are some things we can all do to make life for our chickens just a little easier as the cold weather sets in.
Almost no matter where in the country you live, winter will bring with it cold, wet weather that can make chicken keeping a bit more of a challenge.
Being prepared for that cold weather can make life easier both for you and your chickens.
In my experience, there are 10 things we can all do to help our chickens survive the cold weather that winter inevitably brings. These are;
1. Ensure your coop is weatherproof
Chickens are surprisingly good at coping with cold weather. What they absolutely hate is a draft.
When hens are sitting in the nestbox laying, or sleeping on their roosting bars, they can not stand cold air blowing in through gaps in the sides of the coop.
Before winter sets I will usually clean all of my coops out thoroughly. Once emptied of all the bedding and nesting material I will check the coop inside and out for gaps and cracks that could let in a draft, or could be utilized by rodents.
Rats and mice will happily spend the cold winter living in a warm chicken coop, and your hens will hate that.
If I find any gaps, I either replace the piece of timber that has the gap or I nail or screw a new piece over the top, sealing the gap.
I also check the roof to make sure the felt is in good condition. Winter often brings rain as well as snow and I don’t want the inside of the coop to become damp because the rain can get in.
On occasions, I will cover the whole roof of the coop in thick plastic sheeting. This extra layer not only helps keep the rain out but will also keep some of the heat in, trapping the sun’s rays and warming the coop a little.
2. Cover some or all of the run
If like me your chickens have access to a run that is essentially dry dirt, you will know that as soon as the rains start, the run becomes a giant mud bath. This problem is only increased once the snow starts to melt.
To help alleviate this problem, I like to cover some or all of my chicken run in early Autumn. Using either ridged clear sheets or rolls of thick plastic sheeting, I cover as much of the top of the chicken run as I can.
I prefer to use clear boards whenever I can as I do not want to block out too much light. Winter is already less sunny than the summer, and chickens like as much light as possible.
Whenever possible I also try and cover some or all of the side of the run. When plastic sheeting is fitted across the top of the chicken run and down the sides, you end up with a greenhouse effect, and everything inside the plastic-covered run is much warmer than outside it.
Covering the sides has another benefit apart from increasing temperature. It also stops snow from blowing into the run from the sides. If you have ever watched your chickens walking when the floor is covered in snow, they hate it.
Chickens’ legs and feet are bare of feathers and it certainly appears they feel the cold through their feet.
3. Add pallets or straw bales to the run
On a similar theme to covering the run to keep the floor drier, adding piles of old pallets or bales of straw will help the chickens get up off the wet, cold floor.
As you can see in the picture below, I use a lot of different materials to create an area where my chickens can get up off the ground. The run below has my flock of Cream Legbars and they have piles made from pallets, straw bales, and large, thick tree branches.
Allowing chickens to get up off the floor when it is cold and wet not only makes life a little better for the chickens, but also means they bring less mud into their coop, so you have to change their bedding just a little less often.
Pallets can be left in the run all year round, but straw bales will need removing once they start to break down. I normally take them out of my chicken run and spread them around something in the vegetable plot. I love getting more than one use out of things!
4. Check coop ventilation
Here is a point where new chicken keepers often get confused. I mention above that chickens hate being in a draft, which they do. However, ventilation and a draft are not necessarily the same thing.
Proper ventilation inside a chicken coop will allow fresh air in and stale air out. Proper ventilation prevents the build-up of mold and also stops condensation from forming inside the coop.
Condensation forms during winter when the coop is filled with warm, moist air. When that air hits a cold surface, like the roof of the coop, water droplets are released, and these can fall back down on your chickens.
Improper ventilation inside a chicken coop also allows the levels of ammonia from the chicken poop to build up to a level that can start to cause the chicken respiratory issues.
Your chickens can be uncomfortable from the ammonia long before it reaches a level you can smell, meaning your chickens will be suffering before you are even aware there is a problem.
One of the checks I carry out each winter is to ensure all the coop ventilation vents are open fully and not blocked by coop bedding, spider webs, or any other debris.
It is important that vents are fully open, but do not allow rodents to enter the coop. Coop manufacturers rarely give proper consideration to ventilation holes, and pretty much every coop I have ever seen has holes large enough to allow rats or mice to enter the coop.
If your coop has such holes, consider covering them with hardware cloth.
5. Add extra bedding to the coop
Whilst your hens won’t normally sleep directly on the bedding like a rabbit might, having extra bedding on the floor of the coop offer additional benefits.
Firstly, some of the heat inside the coop can be lost through the floor of the coop, so having an extra thick layer of bedding will reduce that heat loss.
Secondly, during winter your hens will almost certainly bring more mud and general wetness into the coop when they come in to lay eggs or roost at night. Having additional bedding material helps absorb some of that extra mud and water and reduces how often you will have to clean out the coop.
The third and final benefit of adding plenty of bedding material to the coop for winter is the effects of a technique known as ‘the deep litter method’.
The theory is to cover the floor in bedding material. Once the chickens poop all over it, add more bedding material. Repeat this process, and as the bedding material at the bottom of the coop begins to compost, it gives off a small amount of heat, helping warm the coop during winter.
6. Change coop bedding more frequently
If you don’t subscribe to the deep-litter method of coop bedding mentioned above, consider changing the bedding material in your coop more frequently during the winter months.
When the ground is wet and muddy, your chickens will bring lots of that mud into the coop. Changing the coop bedding 2 to 3 times a week will prevent the coop from becoming a wet, muddy mess.
7. Be prepared to change the water more frequently
Step 6 in my 10-part plan to help your chickens survive the winter is to be prepared to change the chicken’s water more frequently.
Needless to say, when it is below freezing outside, your chicken’s water will freeze solid, or at least have a layer of ice across the surface that is so thick the hens can not access the water.
Over the years I have found there are two different solutions to this problem. You can either empty the waterers at night and then refill them in the morning, thereby making it impossible for them to freeze overnight, or you can move the waterers into the coop at night, then bring them out in the morning.
The second technique works well if you have a large, walk-in coop with plenty of floor space, but if your coop is small, and the waterers end up under the roosting bars, there is a good chance the waterers will be pooped in overnight and need emptying in the morning anyway.
If you have a very large water container you could try adding a small pond heater or horse trough heater to prevent the water source from freezing over, but I have never really found this to be a viable solution.
8. Hang treats and food blocks around the coop
Chickens spend much of their day scratching at the floor looking for worms and bugs to each. Sadly, when the floor of the run is covered in snow, worms and bugs are few are far between.
This can mean that your chickens lose out on a vital source of additional nutrients and that one of their main sources of entertainment has been removed. Without having something to do, chickens can soon get bored.
Hanging treats around your chicken run during winter has a number of benefits. Apart from giving your birds something to do with their time, it will also make them more active as they jump up and peck at treats dangling from the roof.
Much like us, as the hens move around their muscles give off heat, which their feathers will retain. They will essentially keep themselves warm.
If the treats contain seeds, nuts, and perhaps dried mealworms they will provide your chickens with the essential extra protein they would have got from the worms and bugs they find naturally in the dirt around their run.
9. Feed warming foods before bed
Another technique that has been used by chicken keepers for many decades is to feed your hens food that takes a bit of effort for them to digest just before bedtime.
I like to scatter mixed corn or oats around the run about an hour before my hens go into the coop to roost. They will quickly flap around the run greedily picking up as much corn as they can, thereby getting their muscles moving and giving off additional heat before they go in to roost.
The secondary benefit is foods like corn and oats require the chicken’s digestive system to work hard to break them down and digest them. This extra effort has also been proven to increase the body temperature of the chicken, again helping the birds get through the night without getting too cold.
Also, who doesn’t like to go to bed with a full tummy? It is a win-win for the chickens!
10. Don’t heat the coop at night
There are a lot of articles on the internet (which are typically trying to get you to buy a space heater), that suggests you should heat a chicken coop at night.
In my 20-plus years of keeping chickens, I have never needed to heat a coop at night.
Adding a space heater firstly increases the risk of a fire starting inside your coop. Chicken bedding is dusty, and even a heater designed to go inside a coop can fill with dust and become a fire hazard.
Secondly, a space heater inside the coop will naturally mean the coop is warmer than the run, and this will encourage your hens to spend their day inside the coop rather than out in the run. Believe me, half a dozen hens literally cooped up all day will make a heck of a mess in your coop, and it is not good for the chickens well being.
Finally, chickens do not generally need the additional heat. They are good at coping with the cold and they will develop additional feathers to help insulate them and keep them warm. If you heat their coop, their body will not know if they should be growing additional feathers to keep warm or molting their feather to keep cool.
As we pass from summer to autumn and then to winter, your chickens will naturally acclimatize to the season. Adding heat to the mix will just make it harder on them as they will not develop those lovely warm insulating feathers.
Chickens are essentially hardy birds, especially if you choose breeds that are better suited to colder weather. Providing we take some basic steps, our hens will happily survive even the most extreme winters.
As winter approaches, I always take a couple of hours to ensure my coops are in top condition, my runs are covered where possible to keep out the worst of the weather, and there are plenty of obstacles spread around the runs to allow my chickens to get up off the cold, wet floor.
During the winter, we need to pay extra attention to our hen’s food and water to make sure they are eating food that will give them extra energy and ensure their water never freezes over.
If you found this article interesting, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘8 Best Blue Egg Laying Breeds of Chickens‘.