by Crystal Sands
It’s that time of year. The light is fading, and the temperatures are dropping. There was a skim of ice on the chicken waterer this morning, and I know winter is coming. We’ve been keeping chickens on our little farmstead here in Maine for quite a few winters, but I imagine all of the new chicken owners must be a little worried right now about what to expect and how to prepare.
The Fall Equinox and fewer eggs from our hens are good reminders that we have to get our flock ready for winter. In the coming weeks and months, there are some things all chicken keepers (but especially those living in northern climates) can expect and should do in order to be prepared.
Once your chickens are at least one year old, usually in the Fall, they will molt. They will lose their feathers and replace them with new feathers. This is a process that takes a lot out of a chicken. If your flocks are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop suddenly in the Fall.
While your chickens molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Protein is good. Feed with extra protein and sunflower seeds can help.
Preparing for Cold Temperatures
Fall is also the time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. It’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.
First, keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have. If you have a larger flock, they will snuggle, and their breathing will help with warmth.
Of course, how much preparation you need to do also depends on the breed of chickens you have. If you have a winter hardy breed, you won’t have to worry quite as much about the temps, but I do recommend keeping a thermometer in the coop to help you keep an eye on things.
Most people, even in the north, do not need to insulate your coop walls, but, if you do, make sure your coop has proper ventilation. Ventilation is really key to surviving winter.
You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. So your goal for winterizing your coop is sturdy walls, no drafts, a door that closes well, and ventilation up high. We have vents in our coop that can be adjusted, as we have found that the size of our flock any given winter greatly impacts how much ventilation we need to have.
Also, keep in mind that, according to research, most chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so they are tougher than we think.
Of course, there may be situations where you want to add heat. For example, if you are in the south and have a big cold front with very sudden drops in temperature, or, as in our case, if the temps are hanging around in the negative teens or so.
Still, most chicken keepers I know in Maine do not use heat. Some do, however, in certain circumstances, and I have read about chickens getting frost bite. There’s always a balance, I believe.
We do use heat in our coop, but we only do it when temps drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Our coop is insulated and we use straw, so we don’t have to heat a lot. But we do use heat at times. When we do, we never use a heat lamp. Heat lamps are responsible for barn and coop fires every year. We use an oil based ceramic heater with a cage around it to keep anything from touching it, just in case.
If you add heat, you must do so cautiously. You do not want a fire.
If you are unable to add heat, just remember to keep a clean dry coop. We use straw, which adds nice insulation to the floor and lower walls.
Thinking of Light
You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, be aware that light supplementation means your hens won’t get the rest that their bodies may need. If you need to supplement with light for food or financial reasons, be sure to use safe lighting, just a 25 watt bulb and keep that bulb away from feathers and bedding.
Add only add light in the morning and at 15 minute intervals. You want to add light gradually and never at the end of the day.
The Importance of Water
When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. If you have to keep water in your run and not your coop, this is a great idea. We keep water in our coop, so it can go most of the day without freezing. It will freeze at night, however. So, every morning, we get up early and bust out the ice and put in fresh water.
We don’t mind too much though. It’s our ritual. I think the key thing is you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.
Be Aware of Chicken Boredom
Chicken boredom in the winter months is a real thing and will cause your chickens to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our flock goes from free ranging within a fenced 3/4 acre giant chicken yard all year long to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband and I shovel because the snow really stacks up here in Maine. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.
One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold. We are religious about shoveling out their run area and some paths around the chicken yard, and the best advice I have for this is to save your leaves right now.
Then, after you shovel out the snow, put down the leaves, so your chickens have something to walk on and scratch around in. This is really my best tip for surviving winter as smoothly as possible with chickens.
But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. You just want them to be healthy treats. We use heads of lettuce for entertainment, and some cracked corn right before bed helps chickens stay warm throughout the night.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. I think the important thing to remember is that every flock is different. You have to watch for signs that things in your coop are too wet or too cold and adjust accordingly, but these guidelines will get you thinking about the right things.
Photo credit: Katie Bogdanski