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 water 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.
Winterizing Your Coop
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 their 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 the roof of 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.
Straw is also a wonderful insulator. I have read online that some people think straw is bad or causes mites or sour crop, but this is not the case. Everything you might use in your coop will come with pros and cons. Because straw provides warmth in the winter and makes it easy to compost our chicken poop, which feeds our garden, which feeds our family, we are big fans of straw and have been using straw here in Maine for 8 years.
Also, keep in mind that, according to research, most chickens can be okay in 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 (if they have breeds that are not winter hardy, for example), 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 -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Our flock was infected with a respiratory illness three years ago, so some of our hens, especially our older girls are a bit more fragile than the average flock. Our coop is sturdy and we use straw, so we don’t have to heat a lot. When we do add heat, 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.
Just remember, if you have a winter hardy breed and a sturdy coop and can use straw for insulation and warmth, you most likely will never have to add heat.
Adding Light to Boost Egg Production
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, we no longer add light to our coop because we have come to understand the value of winter rest to the overall health and lifespan of our hens.
If you do decide to add light because you want or need the eggs, be sure to use safe lighting, just a 25 watt bulb and keep that bulb away from feathers and bedding. Again, be sure to avoid heat lamps.
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. In total, you want to make sure you add just a couple of hours of light. If you leave your lights on all day and night, your chickens will never get proper rest.
The Importance of Water
Ideally, you will not want to keep water in your coop because it will add extra moisture, which leads to issues with frostbite. Ideally, you will want to keep your water in your run.
Of course, when it starts to get really cold, your water will freeze, so you have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. If you have electricity to your coop or run, this can work really well.
Because we work at home and try to avoid using electricity in our coop as much as possible, we do not use water heaters. We keep our water in our coop (which is not ideal, as mentioned earlier, but our “run” is nearly an acre and cannot be covered), so our water 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. On the worst days, we will have to bust ice and fill water more than once.
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 and available. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.
Wrapping Your Run
If you have a run that can be wrapped, then this going to be a great space for your chickens in the winter. We do not have a run to wrap and just have a very large coop, but farmer friends I know with runs will wrap their runs in plastic in the winter in order to keep out the elements.
Your goals with the wrap are to keep out the snow and some of the winds, but you do need to make sure you have proper ventilation in the run as well. If you wrap your whole run, just leave some space at the top between the top cover and the side cover for air to flow. Some people I know just cover the tops of their runs and leave the sides open. This seems to work well as well. As mentioned before, chickens are quite sturdy in cold temperatures if you have cold-hardy breeds.
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 a small area around the coop 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 in northern areas 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. We also feed our chickens food scraps. We have very healthy scraps and make all of our food homemade and from organic ingredients. Our chickens make it so scraps are never wasted, and the variety seems to be good for our chickens’ souls. There are some who advise against scraps and argue for feed only, but I disagree with that 100%. Of course, that’s a different essay.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the colder 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. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea for people to offer advice in absolutes, but these guidelines will get you thinking about the right things as you prepare for winter with your feathered friends.
Photo credit: Katie Bogdanski