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Myths and Tips for Caring for Chickens in Winter

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While the idea of keeping chickens happy, healthy, and warm during cold weather can seem overwhelming, it really isn’t. Thankfully, with a bit of help on your part, you can care for chickens in winter weather fairly easily. Here are some tips, myths, and how to keep your flock happy all season long.

Flock of chickens in the snow. Chickens need a little extra care in cold weather.

Our first year with laying hens was a little overwhelming. I was pregnant with our third daughter when we got our first chicks and she was up and toddling by the time winter rolled around again later that year. There are so many myths circling around about the proper way to care for chickens in the winter, I wasn’t sure what to believe.

I had done previous research and made sure that all of our chickens were cold hardy breeds, but I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of the temps they could withstand before we needed to do something to help them.

After sorting through the information and getting a little experience under my belt, I figured out the best ways to care for chickens in the winter, what they need, what they don’t, and what they can handle. So, here are my best tips.

Myths Surrounding Chicken Care in the Winter

Myth 1: They Need Supplmental Heat

Livestock heat lamps aren't necessary for chickens in cold weather.

A lot of chicken keepers living in cold climates think they need to use heat to keep their chickens warm. Your chickens do not need a heater or heat lamp in their coop. There are various reasons why this is a bad idea.

The first is if you create heat, you’ll create moisture. Moisture causes frostbite in chickens and is something you want to avoid.

Second, putting a heat lamp, or even an “approved” heater source in your coop is an easy way to start a fire. All the dust, bedding, feathers, and everything chicken coops are made of is highly flammable. It only takes a bulb busting, a heater sparking, or a wire getting pecked to spark a fire. It’s not worth the risk.

I know we always think things like that won’t happen to us, but it does. Unless you want to watch your flock and coop potentially go up in flames, I’d leave the electrical appliances out.

Third, they don’t need it. They just need a nice, dry, draft-free place to roost. Believe it or not, their feathers do a wonderful job of keeping them warm.

Think of it this way, while chickens are domesticated, they have the same natural defenses wild birds do and wild birds fly around and roost sans heat lamps, they’re fine.

And fourth, if you do choose to take the risk and put heat in your chicken’s coop and don’t have a coop fire if you experience a power outage, your chickens could very well freeze to death due to their dependence on supplemental heat.

When chickens deal with the natural change in temperature, they can adjust their body temperature naturally. If the power goes out and it’s 20 below? The temperature in the coop will rapidly change, causing them to get hypothermia and possibly die before you ever even notice that it happened.

Myth 2: They Need Put Inside in Inclement Weather

Backyard chickens are a lot more hardy than a lot of folks think and aren’t as averse to inclement weather as some may assume. While our chickens often go inside out of the wind and snow when it’s an awful day outside, they come out and eat and drink.

If chickens want to be outside, they’ll be outside. If they don’t, they’ll naturally go seek the warmer, drier coop instead of hobbling around in the snow.

While they don’t care for snow and rain the way our ducks do, they still go outside.

Backyard chicken walking out of a coop into the snow

Myth 3: Their Water and Feed Need Kept Inside the Coop

This is actually a bad idea, any time of year, but especially in the winter. Keeping water inside your coop creates moisture. Moisture is something you want to avoid at all costs in your chicken coop, but especially in the wintertime. As I mentioned, moisture, not cold itself, is what causes frostbite on combs and wattles.

It also brings electrical cords inside the coop, because most of us wind up needing to utilize some sort of heat for the water to keep it thawed. I don’t want those things in the coop.

I also don’t recommend you keep food inside the coop. It attracts mice and other rodents, which are abundant this time of year and I don’t want those things in the coop.

It’s best to keep your water and feed outside of the coop year-round. Keep it in a covered area so it doesn’t get wet and they can get out of the weather conditions, but keep it outside. We keep ours outside in a sideways stock tank, dump the water at night to refill with clean water in the morning, and put any unused portion of food back in an airtight container.

Tips to Care for Chickens in Winter

First, let’s talk about a chicken’s natural ability to stay warm. Chickens have a thick layer of down underneath their beautiful plumage that you and I see. This fluffy layer naturally keeps them warm as they can puff it up against the air to add their own, natural protection from the cold temperatures.

Tip 1: Use The Deep Litter Method

The deep litter method is a fantastic way to naturally keep your coop warm all winter, have composted droppings in the spring, and not have to clean your chicken coop out during the cold season. If you’d like to learn more, you can check here and see exactly how to implement this very simple litter method in your coop.

Deep litter can be made out of wood shavings, straw, or even hay. The choice is really personal and what is available to you. We usually do a mix of pine shavings and straw for our ladies. The straw holds moisture, so we mix it with the pine shavings to make sure it stays nice and dry.

The important thing with this method is ensuring you keep a dry coop. The trick is to make sure you keep a nice, dry layer of bedding in the coop at all times so you don’t have moisture problems.

Tip 2: Coat Large Wattles and Combs

Photo of rooster, roosters are particularly prone to frostbite in the winter

If you have chickens, especially roosters, with large wattles and combs you may want to coat them with a layer of coconut oil, tallow balm, petroleum jelly, or similar semi-solid oil on especially cold days to help prevent frostbite on them.

Here the past few years we’ve had some very cold winters. So, we usually coat our rooster’s wattles and comb on the really cold days. I just pick him up in the morning, slather some on and let him do his thing. It’s not his favorite time of day, but then his comb and wattles don’t get all icky and black looking from the super cold temps.

Tip 3: Supplement Their Feed

While this isn’t necessary, it can help them stay warm. In the evenings, feed them a little organic cracked corn mixed with a little cayenne pepper or some scratch grains.

Giving this to your flock right before bed will give them something to digest, and digesting corn takes a bit. So, they’ll go to bed with full bellies and heat-producing digestion to keep them warm all through the night.

On particularly cold mornings, you can supplement them with a little plain, warm, cooked oatmeal or scrambled eggs to help heat them up.

Just don’t let the supplementation get too out of hand, they’ll end up overweight and won’t get all the proper nutrients they need to thrive. Just remember, it’s a snack, and give it on the coldest of days.

Tip 4: Provide Proper Ventilation

Good ventilation is essential year-round, but especially in the winter when your birds are likely spending more times inside.

You want to make sure your ventilation doesn’t cause any cold drafts and is above the height of your roosting hens to prevent any illness or other problems. Our coop is vented at the very top across the roof and this provides adequate ventilation inside the building for our flock.

Chicken walking in the snow.

Tip 5: Use Black Buckets for Water

One of the biggest problems chicken owners face when colder temperatures hit is how to deal when the water freezes so easily and you can’t keep up. We’ve tried a few different methods, but like black, rubber buckets the best.

We used to use fount waterers for our flock and drug an extension cord out to the run area and stuck a warmer/de-icer underneath it to keep the water liquid (most days). After that became a pain, we used a heated waterer, and it worked ok. Then, we got ducks. Ducks actually need to be able to dip their bills all the way into the water to clear their nostrils, and the water wasn’t deep enough for them to do that.

We spent half of that first winter with ducks trying to figure out how to keep water thawed and realized we could help it stay liquid longer by using black, rubber buckets.

By using black, any sunlight we do receive helps to heat the water inside, resulting in less ice. They’re rubber, so they don’t break and splinter if they have frozen water in them, making it easy to break up the ice that does form.

We fill these with not hot, not cold but warm water each morning and place them outside. On very cold days, we stick a stock tank de-icer in them to keep them thawed, but by using these we’ve cut down on the need to refresh their water regularly with or without the de-icer.

Tip 6: Use Flat Roosts

Roosting helps your chickens stay off the ground where it’s colder. It also allows them to bunch together and use their body heat to keep each other warm.

A lot of coops have round roosts, which makes the chicken wrap their feet around the roost to stay on top of it. This means they cannot cover their feet as well with those fluffy, down-covered bottoms to keep them warm, making them prone to frostbite.

Using flat roosts, such as a 2X4′ cut to size can help your chickens keep their feet warm by allowing them to keep them flat on the board instead of having to wrap around when they roost.

Tip 7: Consider Supplemental Light

Egg production naturally wanes in the winter as the amount of light decreases. While you can use artificial light to help keep more fresh eggs when it’s cold, the decision is really purely personal. Some breeds, like our favorite Orpingtons, lay well even in the winter months. Others, not as much.

Remember, a chicken requires 14 hours of light in order to produce an egg. If you’re wanting to have eggs year-round, supplementing with artificial light may be necessary.

Personally, we do not supplement our flock’s light. We deal with not having as many eggs, allow our chickens to naturally rest if they need, and forgo the necessity of having some sort of electricity inside of our coop. But, it’s really up to you.

That’s it! So really, your ladies (and gents) don’t need much extra in the winter. Just a little bit of extra feed and a dry place to roost and honestly, they’ll be fine.

Tip 8: Raise Winter Hardy Breeds

Orpington hen. Orpingtons are winter hardy.

As I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of research and tried to pick breeds of chickens that could withstand our winter temperatures in northern Indiana. While it doesn’t get as cold here as some other places, we do get a lot of very frigid temperatures and wind chill factors well below zero.

Several breeds do well in winter, some are meant for Florida weather more than Minnesota. It really just depends. These heritage breeds are some of my favorites and are all hardy birds.

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Cindy

Friday 1st of October 2021

What about eggs? If coop doesn't have any heat, don't the eggs freeze? We are in Ontaruo Canada.

Danielle McCoy

Monday 4th of October 2021

They sure can. https://www.therusticelk.com/prevent-frozen-chicken-eggs/

Fay Smith

Thursday 19th of March 2020

Our old chicken coop is being remodeled...should we insulate walls and ceiling? We live in northern Wyoming

Danielle McCoy

Friday 20th of March 2020

I wouldn't. We don't get quite as cold as you, but we have some pretty bitter temps here in Northern Indiana sometimes, especially in recent years. I would use straw around the edges in the winter to prevent drafts, but I wouldn't insulate all over.

Bethany

Monday 20th of January 2020

Many people don't realize that chickens have a higher internal temperature than humans. They naturally run around 104-105 degrees F, so they can tolerate lower temps easier than us. Summer is more of a problem than winter!

Also, about the fire risk, it's SO REAL. My husband is a firefighter, and he has responded to several chicken coop fires in the last few years. It's so sad and totally avoidable.

Molly

Monday 7th of January 2019

We don't have chickens yet but my plans in the next year or two is to get them and do a mobile style coop to let them keep the bugs down and forage a bit without being killed on the road or from predators. My question is, during the winter, can I set them up where we plan to keep our garden for the following year and let them sit there until the snow is gone? Can a mobile coop serve as a winter coop? I'd still give them the open yard fenced in but since the grass would be dead, I'd just feed them scraps, fodder, and whatever else they need. TIA I love your blog.

Danielle McCoy

Tuesday 8th of January 2019

Hi Molly,

Can you use a mobile coop in the winter? Sure. It will need to be well insulated and you'll have to have a way to keep the wind blocked. If you are keeping a tractor/run attached to the coop, you'll need to move it, even in the winter because it will be a mess in a short time if you don't move it around. If you're not going to have a run attached to it, it could be stationary.

If you are talking about letting them sit in the garden and poop, you'll need to move them out of there at least 45 days before you plan to start planting. Chicken manure has to be composted/cured before it's used in the garden. It's what is considered hot and it will kill the plants if it's too fresh.

Chickens do okay in the winter without fresh pasture to forage around for bugs, but a great way to keep them happy and scratching is to feed them whole grains, throw them into the area they're in. If it's stationary, pile up straw or pine shavings all over the run, then sprinkle it in. They'll miss some and it will sprout up for some fresh greens in the spring and summer months.

Good luck with your chickens!

Julie

Sunday 31st of December 2017

How do I avoid frozen eggs in winter without having to collect them several times a day. Right now it’s -8 below. I’m trying to determine if owning chickens in this Wisconsin climate is worth the effort. Would insulated nest boxes be sufficient?

Danielle McCoy

Monday 1st of January 2018

It is really cold here in northern Indiana, too (-30). Insulating the boxes with straw and using curtains can help. Here are a few other tips you can try as well. Hope that helps!

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