How to Care for Your Chickens in Winter

Young hens in coop

 Caring for your chickens in the winter

No matter where you live, in the north or further south, your chickens need different care in the winter than they need in the summer.

Winter means shorter days with less sunlight - in the northern hemisphere anyway - and perhaps some frigid temperatures depending on where you live. 

Whether those cold nights last for months or just for a few weeks, you probably worry about your flock.

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Your chickens probably don'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.

Keeping chickens warm in the winter

Chickens huddle together on the roost and share their body heat. At night they hunker down over their feet and those feathers do a good job of keeping their toes warm. 

My coop doesn't have electricity, but even if it did I wouldn't use a heat lamp. In spite of our below-freezing winter weather it stays reasonably warm inside my coop. 

As long as the coop isn't damp or humid and there isn't a draft blowing on them, your chickens will be warm enough without a heat lamp.

And frankly, heat lamps scare me. They're the cause of too many chicken coop fires.

Do chickens need a light in their coop to lay eggs?

You can provide supplemental light for your chickens in the winter if you wish. A regular light bulb on a timer, set to stay on for an extra hour or two after sunset, is usually sufficient to keep your hens laying eggs during the short days of winter.

I've chosen not to add a light to my coop though. As I mentioned, my coop doesn't have electric power, and it's much too far away from the house to run an extension cord. 

But the main reason I don't use a light in my coop in the winter is because I think my hens deserve the break from laying eggs that the shorter days provide.

How to keep chickens warm in the winter without electricity

Winterizing your chicken coop will help keep your hens warm and healthy during the winter. 

Keep your coop draft-free. Check for cracks in the walls, and spaces around windows and doors that might allow cold air to blow through the coop.

On the other hand, good ventilation is essential to a healthy coop. I know, it's a delicate balance. Just keep your birds out of any drafts.

Locating the roosting bars along a southern wall (in the northern hemisphere) will keep your hens further away from the cold winter winds that will blow against the north wall.

Moving the roosts away from windows will help too. Sleeping near a solid wall is warmer than sleeping near a cold glass window.

Using the deep litter method of bedding will help your flock stay warm. 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 decompose, which creates heat.

If possible, cover the top of your chickens' run with something solid to keep the ground dry and relatively snow-free in wet weather. They'll appreciate the opportunity to be outside on sunny days.

You can also block the sides of the run with a tarp or stacked straw bales to protect your birds from the cold wind.

How to keep chickens' water from freezing

I love the big red-and-white plastic waterers in the summer, but they tend to crack and split when the water inside freezes in the winter. 

In the past I've used black rubber feed pans instead to hold my hens' water during cold weather. I can turn the rubber dishes upside down and smack them [hard!] to dislodge ice; I can even twist and turn them to get the ice out without breaking the dishes.

But it's too easy for the chickens to knock these water dishes over and spill them. leaving them without water to drink.

And 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 the 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 inside the plastic waterer to keep the water thawed, but the first time I tried it, it didn't work very well for me. 

But after a very cold winter week, I decided I'd try it again. I used a lot more salt this time: half a cup of salt

I even bought a canister of iodized salt just for this purpose. We use Himalayan pink salt in the kitchen, which is expensive, but 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 an empty water bottle using a funnel, simply fill the bottle halfway with hot water and shake vigorously 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! The chickens' water remained thawed even in below-freezing temperatures, I didn't have to make extra trips out to the coop in really cold weather, and it didn't add to the humidity level in the coop.

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I did find a problem with it at times though: on some super-cold mornings, the top of the red-and-white plastic waterer is sometimes frozen shut so that I can't screw it off to add more water. And 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. 

The answer to this problem is to keep the plastic waterers as full as I can so they won't run out of water completely if I can't open the top to add more. If I can unscrew the top in the morning, I add more water.

This method works best with large plastic 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

I haven't used metal waterers so I can't say that the salt water method will work with them.

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. 

NOTE: Check the water bottle occasionally to make sure it isn't leaking salt water into the chickens' drinking water.

Which breed of chicken is the most cold-hardy

You might wonder what breed of chicken is best for cold weather. 

There isn't one breed that stands out as "best" in frigid weather, but you can choose birds that are better suited for your winter conditions.

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 where the blood vessels are close to the surface and serve to cool the blood as it circulates, cooling the animal down.

Once you decide which season is the most challenging to your flock - winter or summer - you can make an informed decision as to which breeds might be best-suited to your backyard or homestead. 

Are you looking for more information about keeping chickens? You'll find all of my chicken-keeping articles here.

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

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