How to Care for Your Chickens in Winter

Winter Chicken-Keeping and Homestead Happenings | from Oak Hill Homestead

What a crazy winter we've had this year.  You too? The weather seems to be unusual just about everywhere.

As usual the temperature went up and down, up and down. That's "normal" in Oklahoma. How far down it went wasn't usual though: we dipped below zero twice, a first in the thirteen years we've lived here. I worried about the livestock, the bees, the chickens and the garden. All survived - well, I'm not sure yet about the bees or the perennial herbs in the garden, only time will tell.

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The chickens probably didn't need to be worried over. They're able to withstand some pretty cold temperatures as long as their coop is set up well. I've never lost a hen to the cold. To the summer heat, yes, but not in winter.

Chickens huddle together on the roost and share their body heat. They all hunker down over their feet and those feathers do a good job of keeping their toes warm. As long as the coop isn't damp or humid and there isn't a draft blowing on them, they should be fine. 

My coop doesn't have electricity, but even if it did I wouldn't use a heat lamp. In spite of our below-zero weather this winter it's stayed reasonably warm inside my coop. And frankly, heat lamps scare me.

Winter Chicken-Keeping | Oak Hill Homestead

Using the deep litter method of bedding will help your flock stay warm too. Dry straw or shavings are simply spread on top of the coop floor throughout the winter, without cleaning the existing bedding first. Underneath that new top layer the old bedding and droppings begin to compost, which creates heat.

If possible, cover the top of your chickens' run with something solid to keep the ground dry in wet weather. You can also block the sides of the run with a tarp or stacked hay bales to protect your birds from the cold wind.

Breeds with smaller combs are better for cold climates; big combs such as on a Rhode Island red are more prone to frostbite. Rose combs, pea combs and other small combs are a better choice for cold areas. (On the other hand, large combs are beneficial in hot climates: animals cool themselves with appendages such as large combs, long ears and horns.)

In the past I've used black rubber feed pans to hold my hens' water during cold weather. Red-and-white plastic waterers tend to crack and split when the water inside them freezes, but I can turn the rubber dishes upside down and smack them [hard!] to dislodge ice; I can even twist and turn them without breaking them.

But I had to empty out the ice and refill the pans with hot water several times a day. And every time you offer hot water, the steam adds moisture to your coop. Too much moisture in the coop is bad for your chickens, causing respiratory problems and possibly even mold on the walls.

Winter chicken-keeping

I'd heard of using a bottle of salt water in the waterer to keep the water thawed, but it hadn't worked for me in the past. After reading this post from A Chick and Her Garden, I decided I'd try it again. I used a lot more salt than I had in the past: half a cup of salt. I even bought a canister of iodized salt just for this purpose because we use Himalayan pink salt in the kitchen, which is expensive; the cheap iodized salt is fine to keep water from freezing. After all, the chickens aren't eating the salt, it's just keeping the water from freezing.

After pouring 1/2 cup of salt into the empty water bottle using a funnel, fill the bottle halfway with hot water and shake to dissolve the salt. Then add more water to fill up the bottle. Screw the top on securely, and add the salt-water-filled bottle to the inside of your plastic waterer.

Short story: it works!

I did find a problem with it at times though: on some super-cold mornings, the top of the waterer is sometimes frozen shut so that I can't add more water. Also when the water level gets down to the bottom - nearly empty - there isn't enough water for the bottle of salt water to work its magic. 

For this reason, I now try to keep the waterers as full as I can so they won't run out completely if I can't open the top to add more. This method works best with large waterers (larger than the one-gallon size that requires the bottom to be twisted off); I have both a 3-gallon and a 7-gallon waterer (affiliate links).

Now I don't have to carry hot water out to the coop several times a day, or worry that they will run out of water if I'm away from home all day.

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Elsewhere on the homestead, the Muscovy ducks are already laying their spring eggs. I walked in their coop one morning and they all began making noise at once and wouldn't stop. Muscovies don't "quack" but they do make noise. They were obviously trying to tell me something, but I am dense and didn't understand. Three days later I found three eggs in the nestbox. Aha!

Winter Chicken-Keeping | Oak Hill Homestead

Last year I thought these nasty muddy eggs couldn't possibly hatch, but both of my hens hatched a large clutch in late March and early April last year.

While January and most of February were abnormally dry - our drought status was upgraded to Severe and the entire state was under a burn ban - last week we caught up a bit on rainfall. In just five consecutive days we had rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow flurries, and more rain - over six inches' worth.

Homestead chores are significantly more difficult when it's that cold and wet. The doorknob of the shed where the livestock feed is stored was frozen shut. The clip on the chain of the goat pen gate was frozen shut. The door to the duck pen was frozen shut. The padlock on the front gate was frozen shut. We came home one evening and couldn't get in the house because the storm door was frozen shut.

Then the ice melted and the rain resumed until we were once again thankful that we live on a hilltop, and I was reminded that my boots aren't waterproof. The puddles (and the mud) were deep!

Winter chicken-keeping and homestead happenings

I had to say goodbye to my old barn coat this week when the zipper broke. I feel as though I've lost an old friend. Never mind that it was my daughter's coat when she was in high school more than twenty years ago. 

It doesn't matter that the dirt was so ground into the red fabric that no amount of washing could get it clean. It was easy to work in, it kept me perfectly warm and I could easily wear a hoodie under it when needed. It had the perfect number of pockets in just the right places. I'd worn it to an uncountable number of goat kiddings and sometimes it stunk to high heaven, but I'm actually mourning its loss.

Now I'll have to go shopping, and I hate going shopping. I won't buy an expensive new coat to wear out to the barn, and I don't have another a coat that can slip into the role. I'm hoping the thrift stores still have winter wear on the racks and that the "right" coat is out there waiting for me.

UPDATE: We stopped at Goodwill a week later to look for a "new" winter coat. The racks were nearly empty, and I spotted it right away: a coat in nearly the same style, in the same color, in the right size! It even had a hood which my old coat didn't have. And even better, we got a 10% discount. I was thanking the Lord for His provision - the perfect coat was right there waiting for me!

You'll find all of my chicken keeping posts here. For more homesteading and self-sufficient posts, subscribe to The Acorn, Oak Hill Homestead's weekly-ish newsletter, and follow me on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest. I'd love to see you there!

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Winter Chicken-Keeping, Tips and Tricks to Make it Easier | Oak Hill Homestead

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  1. We are in flood stage now. But our girls just seem to take the mud in stride. Wee are keeping extra straw down trying to keep them dry, before long they will have their own hill in the run. I would never have thought of keeping over laying in the coup though.
    We will use this next year, thanks

    1. I'm glad you found a new idea to try. Yes, just put a new layer on top of the old layer. It will begin to decompose underneath and will give off heat. In the spring, clean it all out and add to your compost pile for beautiful black compost.

  2. Great tips! This is my first year raising chickens, so I'm reading up everywhere!

  3. Thanks for the tips on the cold weather and chickens. I have been thinking about getting one or two and have started wondering about different seasonal care I should be aware of.

    1. Hi! Consider getting at least 2 so they can huddle together on cold nights. They'll be happier with "friends" too.

  4. Oh great Kathi, the Lord knew you needed and he provided the coat, Praise God!

    1. He provided a coat that was as nearly identical as it could possibly be!

  5. Heat lamps scare me too, Kathi. I'll have to try the salt water bottle for keeping the water from freezing. Our temps get below zero quite often in Jan and Feb in northern Illinois.
    Saw your post on the Simple Homestead Hop :)

  6. I did not know about the salt water bottle trick, but I may have to utilize it! It rarely gets below freezing where I am, but mornings can be quite frosty and waterers can be frozen! Thanks for sharing on the Homestead Blog Hop!


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