Are your chickens ready for winter?
It’s been a glorious autumn in Iowa, but these photos from last winter provide a chilling reminder of what lies ahead. Where I live, negative double-digit temperatures are all too common during the winter months, along with blowing snow and ice.
Although chickens – especially cold hardy breeds – generally can tolerate cold better than heat, I take steps each fall to prepare my flock for winter. I feel better knowing I can meet their needs no matter how low the temperature may go. And if you keep chickens in a place where the coming months will bring snow, ice, and freezing temperatures, you need to be prepared, too. This is your guide to caring for chickens in winter.
Chickens in winter
Most chickens tolerate cold better than heat, but even with cold hardy breeds, you still need to take a few basic precautions to ensure the health and comfort of your flock during the frigid winter months. Start by considering the needs of chickens in winter.
First, chickens need to stay dry. Chickens keep warm by fluffing their feathers and trapping their body heat next to their skin. Wet feathers don’t fluff, so it is important to provide a dry environment out of the rain, snow, and ice.
Second, just like any other time of year, chickens need fresh water and food. Providing a source of fresh water can be tricky when temperatures fall below freezing. You need to have a plan for providing access to unfrozen water. You also need a place to feed your chickens where the food will stay dry and won’t get buried under blowing and drifting snow.
Third, a well-ventilated coop is important for maintaining the health of your chickens in winter. You can expect your chickens will spend a lot more time indoors on frigid days, where their breath and droppings will create moisture in the air. A poorly ventilated coop will trap that moisture, and the damp conditions will raise the risk of frostbite and respiratory illness.
Finally, chickens need a comfortable place to roost at night. The roost should be made of wood, not metal, to insulate the chickens’ feet from the cold. It should be wide enough so the birds can settle in and completely cover their feet with their bodies to prevent frostbitten toes. And it should be positioned in a dry, draft-free spot with ventilation above.
Preparing to keep chickens in winter
If you live in a cold climate, you should prepare to keep chickens in winter before you ever bring that first chicken home. Start by selecting cold-hardy breeds appropriate to your climate. Generally, breeds with larger, heavier bodies and smaller combs do better in cold weather than smaller breeds or those with large combs or fancy crests.
Some cold-hardy breeds that make good backyard chickens in winter include Ameraucana, Australorp, Buckeye, Chantecler, Dominique, Jersey Giant, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, and Wyandotte. This is not an exhaustive list, so do your research to determine what breeds of chickens are best suited for your conditions.
Read more: Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart.
You also need to think about winter when you plan where to house your flock. Your chicken coop and pen should be located in a sheltered spot that provides some protection from the elements. Ideally, position it where there is a wind block to the north, such as a building, a fence, or even a hedge. A nearby source of electricity to which you can run an extension cord also is a plus for winter heating needs (more about this later).
Read more: Housing chickens in a suburban backyard.
Winterizing the chicken coop and pen
Even with the most cold-hardy of breeds and an ideal sheltered location, it is important to take certain steps in the fall to ensure your chickens’ health and comfort during the harsh winter months.
Provide shelter from the wind and snow. My chickens live in a small, elevated coop inside a 6-foot x 20-foot pen that is situated under my deck and screen porch. Although the location is mostly protected from the elements, I provide some extra fortification for the winter months.
First, I add a new, thick layer of straw over the bottom of the entire pen to provide insulation from the cold concrete floor. I also add an extra layer of wood chips in the bottom of the coop itself to prevent drafts from below. I cover the top of the coop with a tarp that provides protection from blowing snow but still allows for ventilation.
Depending on where your coop is situated, you may need to install some extra protection from the elements. Corrugated metal roofing or a tarp above the pen will help keep the snow and precipitation out. Straw bales can be used to create a wind block and insulate the coop. A snow fence will keep the pen from drifting over.
While insulating your chicken coop is a good practice, take care that you aren’t insulating to the point of limiting air circulation. Remember that good ventilation is important to prevent the build up of moisture and ammonia fumes, which can be harmful to the health of your birds.
Have a plan to keep water from freezing. I run an extension cord from a nearby electrical outlet for a heated base to keep the water fount from freezing. The heated base did come at a cost (around $45-50), but it has lasted through three harsh winters so far and provides my hens unlimited access to fresh, unfrozen water even on the coldest days.
Another option for keeping the water from freezing is to use an electric dog water bowl. Keeping the water from freezing will be a bit trickier without electricity. Using solar power, such as a black rubber tub set in a sunny location, may work for a while but won’t be a great option on overcast or super cold days.
Consider heating the coop. In a climate where sub-zero temperatures are common, I have heated my coop the past three winters with a 60-watt infrared bulb in a brooder clamp light securely attached to one corner of the coop. The light is plugged into a thermostatically controlled outlet installed inside the coop that is programmed to turn on only when the coop temperature drops below freezing. On nights when the outside temperature has approached 30 below zero, the heat source, along with the heat generated by the birds themselves, has provided just enough warmth to keep the inside temperature a balmy 12-15° F.
An important note about heating: Providing a heat source in your coop may not be necessary (and with two additional chickens in my coop this winter, bringing the total to five warm chicken bodies, I may decide not to heat at all). It’s a call you must make based on your climate and the health, age, and breed of your chickens.
Heating the coop carries some risks, as your chickens’ bodies may not adjust to the cold, leaving them at risk in the event of a power loss. Also, having a heat source in the coop around wood shavings or other dry bedding material runs the risk of fire. If you do choose to heat, make sure the heat source is secure and clear of debris and dust at all times. Also, have a way to monitor the temperature inside the coop (I use a remote thermometer that I can read from the house) to ensure the temperature inside the coop is neither too warm nor too cold.
When cold weather comes
When old man winter arrives, it’s time to be extra vigilant about the health and comfort of your flock. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your chickens in winter is make sure the coop stays dry and draft free, yet well-ventilated. Regularly remove droppings to prevent harmful ammonia fumes from building, and add more bedding material as needed.
If you are using a heat source inside the coop, monitor the inside temperature to make sure it isn’t too warm, which will interfere with the chickens’ ability to handle the cold outside. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want inside temperatures much above freezing when outside temperatures are below freezing. Also make sure the heat source remains free from debris and tightly secured to prevent fires and that the power supply is uninterrupted. Have a Plan B in the event of a power loss on a very cold night, like moving the chickens into the garage.
Feed your chickens in winter as you would normally, making sure the food remains dry. As a treat, and not as a substitute for their normal rations, provide scratch grains or cracked corn. Digesting scratch raises a chicken’s body temperature and helps it generate heat. Suet cakes or warm oatmeal also make good treats for chickens in winter.
Continue to provide fresh water daily. If you are not using an electric water heater, you will need to change the water frequently to ensure a continuous supply of unfrozen water for your chickens in winter. If you are relying on an electric heater, ensure that it remains in working order.
Provide chickens with outdoor access every day, even if they choose to remain inside for most of the day. I do not put water inside the coop to avoid spillage (and because there isn’t much room for it), so my chickens need to go outside to drink. To encourage them, I clear the snow from the pen and toss around some scratch grains. Chickens don’t like snow, so providing straw bales, stumps, or other places for them to get up off of the ground also will help entice them outside.
Boredom can result in bad chicken behavior, like pecking one another, so make sure to provide some diversion for your chickens in winter. Toys that dispense treats are a great way to prevent cabin (or coop) fever.
Chickens with large combs and wattles (particularly roosters) are susceptible to frostbite. Applying petroleum jelly to the comb and wattle area on especially cold days helps to prevent frostbite; just make sure you don’t get any ointment in the bird’s eyes. Black areas on the comb or wattle are a sign that frostbite already has occurred.
Read more: Treating frostbite in chickens.
No matter how cold it is outside, make a point to spend time with your chickens every day. By interacting regularly with your chickens in winter, you will be in a better position to observe and address any issues before they become big problems, which will ensure a healthy and happy flock come spring.
Some of the items I use for my chickens in winter
(Affiliate links; click on the images for more information or to order from Amazon.com, and see my affiliate disclosure below.)
Heated base for water fount
Infrared heat emitter
Thermostatically controlled outlet:
Brooder clamp light: