6 Tips to Keep Your Chickens Happy & Healthy This Winter
I hate to admit this, but winter is coming [insert Jon Snow reference here]. Here in the snow belt just south of Lake Erie, it won’t be long till we’re buried under a couple feet of snow. (Actually, I think we’re overdue … SHHH!) So I’ve been scrambling to get my chicken house ready for the winter. Here are a few tips to get your coop ready too…
1. Winterize your coop and run
In the late fall, start with a good deep-cleaning of your coop. Make sure all of the roosts are scraped and scrubbed clean, and remove all the bedding. Check around your coop for any cracks or holes that might let in drafts or vermin, and close them up. Make any roof repairs that might result in leaks.
In the wintertime, moisture and drafts are your biggest enemy. The key is to have enough ventilation (so that moisture doesn’t build up), but prevent icy drafts. Your chickens’ roosts in particular should be in a draft-free zone so that they’ll stay warm and cozy when roosting overnight. Ideally, vents should be cut near the peak of your coop, well above the floor and roosts where chickens will be going about their business.
If your chickens are confined to a run outdoors, consider covering part of it with a tarp to make a wind-barrier. Provide stumps, rocks, and outdoor roosts so that your chickens can sit outside without having their feet in the snow the entire time.
2. Plan to supplement their food
Chickens that are used to free-ranging in the summer won’t have nearly as much variety in their diets once winter sets in, so offer a few extra treats to keep them healthy and happy:
- Grow fodder for your chickens to add some green back into their diet. It’s surprisingly very easy!
- Offer scratch grains. Lisa Steele suggests feeding scratch grains in the afternoon to warm up your chickens before bedtime.
- Buy or make seed blocks or suet for your chickens to peck at and enjoy — this supplements their food AND keeps them entertained on dreary days.
- Don’t forget kitchen scraps! Here’s a list of safe foods to share with your chickens. Mine especially love winter squash and pumpkins!
3. Plan to prevent frozen waterers
Water, obviously, is essential for your chickens’ health. Once the temperatures drop below freezing, you have a few options to keep it free-flowing:
- You can haul water multiple times a day to the coop and/or break up any ice that starts to form in their bowl throughout the day. This may require having multiple waterers or bowls on hand so you can switch them out and bring the frozen ones indoors to thaw.
Tip: Try floating ping pong balls in the water bowl. Their movement floating on the surface helps keep the water from freezing as quickly.
- You can DIY a water heating solution inexpensively using a light fixture and a cookie tin or some cement blocks.
- Purchase a heated dog water bowl or water fount heater if you have electricity in your coop. Make sure the cords are protected from the pecking of curious chickens, though!
4. To heat, or not to heat?
In general, the answer is do not heat your coop. There are a few reasons why:
- Most common breeds of chickens adapt well to cold conditions. (If you’re just getting into chicken-keeping and live somewhere cold, look for especially cold-hardy breeds like Australorps, Orpingtons, or Wyandottes.) Just like other livestock grow winter coats for the season, chickens acclimate to cold conditions as the seasons change. Providing supplemental heat prevents this acclimation from occurring, which leads me to my next point:
- If you do start out the season heating your coop, you must continue heating your coop throughout the season because your chickens didn’t have the chance to slowly acclimate to the weather change. This means being prepared for potential power outages!
- Heat lamps can be extremely dangerous in the coop. Stray feathers or straw can easily spark a fire and burn your coop to the ground. The same goes for kerosene heaters. (Yikes!)
So how do you keep your chickens warm? Really, you shouldn’t need to, unless you live in an area that has extremely cold temperatures. But here are a few general tips:
- Make sure your coop is draft-free.
- Provide roosts wide enough that chickens can rest flat-footed.
- Research and consider if the deep litter method is right for you.
Bonus tip: When temperatures dip well below freezing, consider slathering Vaseline on the combs of your chickens. This should help prevent frostbite.
5. Decide whether you’ll add supplemental light or not
Egg production drops significantly, or even to nothing, once the days get shorter. If your hens are 18 months or older, this will also be time for molting to happen. There are pros and cons to supplemental lighting in the coop. The biggest pro is that you can keep your chickens producing eggs throughout the winter, therefore “earning their keep” year-round. The downside is that you’re disrupting the natural cycle, and they’re not getting the wintertime break for their body should have. Many people think this is cruel, and that it shortens the lifetime or at least the egg-laying-lifetime of a hen overall. Do your research, and you decide.
6. Prepare boredom-busters for your chickens
In general, chickens don’t like walking in the snow. So they’re going to be cooped up (heh) for several months out of the year if you live in a snowy region of the country. Even if you don’t consider chickens “pets” and aren’t concerned with entertaining them, it’s still important to keep them busy because a bored chicken is a destructive chicken. Much of the pecking and squabbling that occurs in a flock can be prevented with a few boredom-busters:
- DIY or buy a chicken swing.
- Add stumps, an old wooden chair or ladder, or sturdy branches for chickens to climb and roost on.
- Provide a wintertime dustbathing area.
- Hang a treat ball or even a whole cabbage or bunch of kale for them to peck at and enjoy.
- Purchase live crickets or meal worms from a pet supply store, and let your chickens have fun hunting them down!
So, is your flock ready for winter? Do you have any tips or experiences to share?
Amanda lives with her family on a little red farmstead in northwestern Pennsylvania. By day she's a web developer specializing in WordPress and in her off time she enjoys working with goats and other livestock on the farm, canning, knitting, and crocheting.
Great tips! We have orpingtons and they are great for cool weather. Ours free range during the day most of the year but once the snow comes they will want to stay inside. I never made suet scratch feeders for them and think that would be a lovely treat to keep them entertained! thanks for the idea!