Is this your first winter keeping backyard chickens? It is mine. I’m getting a little bit worried about what to do so I thought I would do some research using our old friend Mr Google. There are lots of opinions out there, and it’s hard to tell which ones you should trust. What I’ve come up with below is a consensus, as best as I can make out, on how to care for your chickens in the winter time. I would love to hear your comments.
1- Start With a Cold Weather Chicken Breed
Now, if you’ve already purchased your flock, this section might not be too useful to you. If by some chance you haven’t purchased your chickens already, listen up, because this information might mean the difference between a “simplechicken” winter and a “complicated chicken” winter. You see, it’s all about the breeds that you begin with. Some breeds are very cold-hardy. And some, well let’s just say that they’d rather be lying on the beach in Barbados than scratching for bugs in International Falls in January!
Once you understand a little bit about chicken anatomy, it’s easy to spot the chickens that are made for the warmer climates (heat-tolerant) compared to the ones that have adapted to the cold (the cold-hardy breeds).
Courtesy: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
First, take a look at the chicken in the picture above. Check out her comb and wattles. Since chickens can’t sweat, they need to cool down either by panting or losing heat through their combs and wattles. Kind of like a radiator does in your car. Heat-tolerant chickens tend to have big combs and waddles so that they can get rid of excessive heat easily. That’s great in the summertime, but in the winter, we want our girls to retain as much of their heat as possible. Plus, the bigger the comb and wattle, the higher the risk of getting frostbite. For that reason, chickens that have evolved in cooler climates tend to have much smaller combs and wattles.
Cold-hardy chickens also tend to be larger in stature than their heat tolerant cousins. Their larger bodies are able to retain heat better because they have a greater body mass to surface ratio. In addition they have fluffier feathers, providing even more insulation against the cold. Heat tolerant chickens tend to be smaller and have sparse feathers and smaller combs and wattles
According to Chris Lesley at Chickensandmore.com, there are 11 chickens breeds that are especially well-suited for winter weather. In my mind, the Orpington (see picture below) kind of epitomizes the features of cold-hardy chickens. On the other hand, you can’t beat the out-of-this-world coloration of the Wyandotte
6-New Hampshire Red
9-Rhode Island Red
Of course, if you don’t currently have any of those breeds in your flock, there is absolutely no cause for alarm. First off, you need to know that chickens in general have a more difficult time with heat than with cold. Secondly, even bantams (the chihuahuas of the chicken world) do just fine in the winter as long as you take the necessary precautions that we will discuss in this article.
2- Prevent Frostbite!
Okay, so your chickens have huge combs and wattles and their feet have no feathers to protect them. That’s OK. Just make sure you protect them against frostbite. Vaseline is your friend here. Make sure you thoroughly moisturize their combs and wattles with Vaseline and check them regularly to make sure they feel a little greasy. If they begin to feel dry then make sure you apply more. If you see black spots on your chickens combs, they’re getting frostbite. Contact your vet if that happens.
3- Minimize Drafts But Provide Adequate Ventilation
This is kind of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you need to prevent cold drafts in your coop. On the other hand, you don’t want to close it up so tight that moisture and ammonia gas (from poop) is allowed to build up. Why? Two reasons: ammonia gas is corrosive and can lead to serious respiratory infections and death. Secondly, high humidity levels in the winter can result in frostbite of your girls’ combs, wattles,and toes. Frostbite is not only painful, it can lead to serious infection and death.
Drafts should be visualized as horizontal air blowing at the level of the coop floor and also at the level of the roosts. You don’t want drafts to blow directly on your chickens. To prevent this, there should be no openings in your coop’s walls at those levels. Any doors or windows at those levels should be kept closed in the wintertime.
Ventilation should be visualized as the vertical flow of air over the heads of your chickens, preferably out through the roof. Windows higher the than level of the roost should be left open, if possible. In addition, a good spot to ventilate the coop is where the wall meets the roof. This is especially good if the roof overhangs the wall of the coop. Air can move out of the coop but rain and snow is prevented from entering.
How much ventilation does your coop need? Well, according to Lisa Wilke of Hobby Farms, a good rule of thumb for ventilation is to have one-fifth of your coop walls be windows, doors, or vents.” How do you know for sure if your coop is sufficiently ventilated? Just smell it. If you smell ammonia, it isn’t. It’s that simple.
You must be careful to cover any opening in the coop with hardware cloth to keep the predators out. You already know it doesn’t take much of an opening for a chicken predator to get into your coop. For example, the Least weasel can squeeze through holes as small as 1/2-inch in diameter! These little devils can typically can get through chicken wire. Remember the saying, “Chicken wire only keeps chickens in, it doesn’t keep predators out.”
You should also winterize your chicken run. Most chickens don’t want to walk outside on frozen ground especially if it’s wet. So throw down some bedding to make it more comfortable to them. You might also want to hang some plastic sheets or tarps on the walls of the run to reduce the wind chill a little bit. Finally, think about placing some logs or other objects in the run which they can perch on above the cold wet ground.
Finally, a word about those Chicken Sweaters everyone is talking about. Sweaters are only recommended for humans (here’s a pretty one!). They are not recommended for keeping your chickens warm! As Daphne Cybele points out in Wide Open Pets, sweaters are not recommended for many reasons. They may actually make your chicken colder since they keep the chicken from fluffing up her feathers. They also can trap moisture if the chicken gets wet, again making it hard for your chicken to stay warm. They are apparently magnets for lice and mites! Because they’re usually made with bright colors, they make your chickens more visible to predators. And finally, they don’t allow the chicken to take a good dust bath. On the other hand if you’re looking for something to dress up your hens for a good Christmas picture, I can’t think of a cuter piece of clothing than this Chicken Tutu!
4- Generate Heat By Composting-The Deep Litter Method
Another way to provide some heat to your coop in the winter time is to manage the floor of your coop by using the Deep Litter Method. As an added bonus, by maintaining your coop in this manner, you will actually have less work to do out in the cold. And I would much rather be warming my feet by the fire than shovelling chicken poop!
In a nutshell, you allow the chicken poop and bedding to accumulate and decompose inside your coop. This generates a small amount of heat and also provides for a nice soft, and dry floor for your chickens to scratch and peck throughout the winter months. And it won’t smell!!
How do you get started with the Deep Litter Method? There are many opinions on how this should be done properly. According to Vicki Mattern at Mother Earth News, in early Spring or Fall, you first start by adding about 4 inches of “litter”. This is the carbon material that the microbes in the chicken manure will break down over time. It can consist of grass clippings, leaves, wood shavings, or straw, however many experts believe that straw should never be used in a chicken coop. (It is not absorbent, the moisture underneath it can lead to the growth of mold, and it can harbor insects.)
Some experts say that pine shavings are the preferred litter material and they use it exclusively. Why are pine shavings so wonderful? First of all they meet the requirement of being compost-able (if that’s a word). Secondly, they are very absorbent. Pine shavings are also very soft, so they are easy on chicken feet. We don’t want them getting bumblefoot! Especially if they are heavy birds jumping down from their roosts. Pine shavings are also good insulating material, which is important in the winter time. But what I like most about pine shavings is that they are lightweight, and very easy to carry and to work with.
Okay so moving on, now you’ve got your four inches of litter in place.Now you just wait for your chickens to poop! Yeah, OK that didn’t take long! Now every day or two you want to go in with a pitchfork or rake and aerate your growing compost pile manually, turning over the upper surface. Don’t let the poop form a crust anywhere. You can also get your chickens to help by throwing around some scratch grain or food scraps everyday so that the chickens can scratch and peck it, thereby aerating it for you.
As your pile builds up, about once a week you’ll need to throw in an additional layer of litter to absorb the droppings and excess moisture associated with it. You’ll know if you’re not putting enough litter in there if you see actual moisture on your litter floor or if you begin to smell ammonia.
You keep doing this until you have about a 12 inch layer of litter. You should shoot for about a six months time frame to reach this point. At that point, you will remove all but about 4 inches of it and then start it all over again. The litter you remove can be used as an excellent compost for the garden. The four inches of litter that is remaining in the coop contains valuable microbes which will jump start the process all over again for you.
Are there any caveats? Well first of all, you don’t want to overcrowd your coop. Too many chickens means too much poop to be absorbed. It’s recommended that each chicken should have at least four square feet of coop floor. The only other caveat has to do with your flooring. Dirt and concrete is ideal for flooring material. If you have wood flooring, like most us chicken farmers, this method will only hasten the rotting process, so its important that you cover it with rubber matting, or 12 inch vinyl tiles to protect the wood.
5- Provide Extra bedding
If you’re not going to use the “deep litter method” mentioned above, just provide an extra thick layer of bedding on the floor of the coop in the winter time. At least 8-12 inches of your favorite bedding material, eg, pine shavings, is ideal.
6- Make Sure Your Roost is the Right Size
One of the most important ways your chickens stay warm during the winter is to perch very close together on their roost. There is strength and warmth in numbers! So its super important that there be adequate room for all of your birds on the roost. You should check your coop at night to make sure that nobody is sleeping on the floor. In that case, you need more roosting space.
For a comfortable roost, I would suggest using a 2×4” board turned on its wide side, as opposed to round or skinnier roosts. While many experts advise putting your roost at least 2 feet off the floor, there are also many others who say that that is too high, that particularly larger birds, eg, Jersey Giants or Orpingtons can injure their feet and legs if they jump from such a height. Also, you need to think about lower roosts for your older birds who may have arthritis in their limbs.
7- Use Sunlight to Trap Heat
If you’re lucky enough to be able to select which way the long side of your coop is going to be facing, I would suggest you face it South. That way, it will get the most amount of sun during any season. And on that south-facing wall it would be ideal to place your windows. You can imagine how nicely a coup can heat up in the winter time with those windows in place. In the warmer months, you would want to open those windows, making sure you’ve got hardware cloth over the openings to keep out the bad guys, of course!!!
8- Feed Your Chickens More in the Winter!!!
Animals in general expend a considerable amount of energy to stay warm and will eat more feed in colder weather. Your chickens are no different. They will typically eat 1.5 times the amount of food they normally eat in the spring and summer. So be prepared!
What kind of feed are you giving your chickens right now? Whatever brand you are currently using, just make sure that its ingredients are sourced in the United States. Back in 2007, approximately 3600 beloved dogs and cats in the US were poisoned by an industrial chemical found in their food. The pet food company, Menu, apparently had sourced some of their ingredients from China, and the industrial chemical, melamine, had somehow found its way into the food. Only one year later, that same chemical turned up in infant formula sold in China, causing over 54,000 hospitalizations and several deaths from kidney failure. So the long and short of it is that you can’t depend on the FDA to watch over your flock. Its up to you. My advice is to only buy feed that is sourced and manufactured in the United Sates. You may pay a little more but its more costly in the end if you buy an inferior product.
I like Scratch and Peck Feeds because not only is it sourced and manufactured in the US, it is also organic and non-GMO. And Amazon ships it free, right to your door, so you don’t have to go out in the cold.
Cracked corn is often suggested as a nice evening snack in the winter. By causing the digestive system to work hard to break it down, cracked corn can actually produce more heat in your chickens’ bodies, helping them to stay warm during the night. Also don’t forget grit. Once the ground is frozen there’s less of a chance of your chickens finding any natural grit on their own. Grit, eg, sand, pebbles, lodges in the chickens’ gizzards, and is very crucial in helping them break down their food
If your chickens aren’t coming outside the coop in the winter as much as they usually do, you want to make sure to keep food and water inside the coop. To protect the water from freezing I would suggest you purchase a heated poultry drinker base and then place your metal or plastic fountain on top of it. It seems that those “heated pet bowls” that some people use just don’t last very long and tend to rust out very quickly. And please don’t run an extension cord to this device or any other electrical device you may be running in your chicken coop, eg, coop door, lights. That’s dangerous for many reasons. Fire hazard is number one, electrocution comes in a close second. If you care about your flock, have a professional electrician run a buried conduit out to your coop and have him install a GFI receptacle that you can safely plug your electrical devices into.
9- Entertain Them!
At some point over the winter, your chickens are going to get “coop fever” (the chicken equivalent of “cabin fever”). I mean, stuck sitting on their roost day after day, while the wind and snow is blowing outside, it’s not unreasonable to think that your girls are going to go a little stir crazy. Why not give them something to do? Why not help them learn how to play a musical instrument? What ? Are you sitting down? Yes, I’m talking about the Chicken Xylophone! Apparently chickens like crisp sounds and bright colors, so this may be just the right thing for bored chickens. Afraid your neighbors will think you’ve lost your mind? Well, some of the more traditional pecking chicken toys for entertaining chickens are the Veggie Ball which they can peck as it rolls along the ground, and the Hanging Treat Ball, which, you guessed it, hangs from the ceiling. There are also Chicken Swings and Chicken Ladders. Hey, whatever it takes to get through the winter!
My goal in writing this article was to give you some tips and tricks that I have learned by researching the subject on the internet. I will be utilizing all of them this winter. I’m particularly excited to try some of those chicken toys. I have a chihuahua who is easily bored and demands a lot of my attention. She has a treat ball much like the chicken treat balls I’ve described above. This keeps her entertained for hours. I’d like to think it helps her avoid the winter blues!