If you are new to chickens or even an experienced chicken owner, understanding winter feeding can mean the difference between your flock surviving winter or losing some of your feathered friends. To learn more, listen in as Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Expert gives a rundown of the dos and don’ts of feeding chickens during winter.
If you are new to raising chickens, you’ll need to know the basics to keep your hens healthy and safe through the cold days of winter. From whether to heat your coop or not, to how to keep your hens from feeling cooped up, Nutrena Poultry Expert Twain Lockhart has advice on winter care that will help you keep your birds safe, happy, and healthy.
The days are getting shorter, the girls are finishing up their molts, and you are getting less eggs as winter approaches. You might be wondering, “is this normal?” The answer is, yes, it’s perfectly normal.
Chickens need about 16 hours of light per day to produce eggs, with the exception of some over-eager first year hens who may lay throughout winter. But with the shortened daylight hours, and the cold weather requiring more of their energy resources be directed to keeping their body temperatures where the need to be, egg production will go down.
Just because your ladies have slowed down on their egg production, or even stopped, however, doesn’t mean they need less nutrition. Continuing to feed a quality, nutritious, energy-providing diet, just like you would through the warmer months, will help your girls continue some egg production and provide them the energy reserves they require to stay warm and fit. It will also help them show up next spring in prime condition to start laying regularly again.
You may hear some chicken owners say they feed a cheap layer feed, or even nothing but scratch in winter, because it is cheaper and “they aren’t laying anyway”. If you pay attention, these are often the same folks that lose birds in the winter, or their birds look pretty rough come spring time. Scratch grains should never make up more than 10% of any birds diet – or what they can clean up in about 5 minutes.
Don’t forget to provide grit throughout the winter as well, as they may not be able to find it on their own due to snow and mud.
As summer’s heat transitions to fall’s balmy days and cool nights it’s time to think a few months ahead. January is on the way, and for much of the northern hemisphere that means blustery cold wind, ice, snow, and long dark nights.
Winter is a challenging time for both people and chickens. Humans prepare by bringing coats, long johns, mittens and hats out of storage, checking the furnace, and closing the home’s holes and gaps with weather-stripping and caulking. These tasks are important to do! And, remember the chickens, too.
Chickens evolved in the sultry jungles of Southeast Asia. It is amazing that these tropical animals survive icy winter cold and continue laying eggs as snow drifts pile up outside. Many common chicken breeds sport layers of fluffy down under their outer feathers. They keep hens toasty warm, and with proper care, chickens are likely more comfortable during winter than when the temperature and humidity zoom upward in July.
Anyone keeping chickens in an icy area should prioritize sticking with hearty breeds well suited to surviving cold. In general, large brown egg laying, fluffy feathered breeds, like Orpingtons, Brahmas, New Englanders (Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and Plymouth Rocks), Wyandottes and several others thrive in cold. Smaller white egg layers often have a large comb and sparse feathers and are less suited to life where winter’s chill takes the breath away.
In summer a chicken’s comb acts like a radiator, giving off body heat and helping keep the hen cool. That’s helpful in July but is a January liability. Combs frostbite. The most winter hearty breeds have a small pea or rose comb that’s less likely to freeze than tall single combs.
Even the most winter hearty breeds need protection from winter’s chill. Pleasant fall days are the perfect time to prepare the coop and chickens for the coming chill. Here are several fall projects to keep the flock health through winter.
Few items are as handy during winter as electricity. Electrically heated founts keep water liquid and eliminate the tedious chore of replacing frozen water buckets with fresh water. Electricity also enables plugging a light into a timer so the birds have the 15 hours of daily light that stimulate laying. Set the timer so lights come on a few hours before the sun peeks over the horizon. Finally, having switch operated lights in the coop makes checking birds after dark easier than using a flashlight.
It may be convenient to stretch an extension cord from the house to the coop, but it’s not a good idea. Extension cords aren’t made for continual use and most aren’t built to withstand severe weather. Hiring an electrical company to run power to the coop may be the best investment a chicken owner ever makes, and it might not be too expensive.
Cords will be safe, and fall is a great time to get this task done.
On sultry evenings chickens love sleeping as cool breezes flow over them. Windows on opposite sides of the coop help create cross ventilation. In winter summer’s breeze transforms into a draft wafting through the coop, threatening to frostbite vulnerable combs. To reduce drafts and let more light through soiled windows clean the glass and close windows as the temperature drops.
Nearly all coops have plenty of cracks between boards, at the edges of windows and doors, and where the roof joins the walls. An inexpensive caulking gun filled with a tube of silicone caulk quickly plugs cracks and holes. Caulking doesn’t usually work on wide cracks but expanding foam does. Caulking supplies are available in every hardware and home store. The chemicals work best when the temperature is above freezing.
Keeping Water Liquid
Chickens can’t drink ice. The biggest challenge flock owners have on arctic days is keeping water liquid. If the coop has electricity investing in a heated waterer solves the problem, but many coops lack power. The time-tested way to let the chickens enjoy a drink is to bring a fresh bucket of warm water to the coop and remove the frozen one every few hours. It works, but it is a labor-intensive chore. These days most people are at work or school and can’t make frequent water switches.
Insulation works. Chicken body heat will keep a well-insulated coop a few degrees warmer than outside temperatures, helping keep chickens comfortable and slowing the water freezing process. Insulating the coop also keeps it cooler in summer. Fall is a great season to insulate a coop’s walls and ceiling.
Insulation also works with water containers. Some insulated waterers are made for chickens, but a re-purposed bait bucket may be less expensive and works just as well. These are plastic buckets lined with Styrofoam and sold to anglers who want to keep their minnow water from freezing while they ice fish. Cut a small hole in the lid so the chickens can access water, fill the bucket with lukewarm water, and it will resist freezing for several hours longer than an un-insulated bucket. Insulated bait buckets can be purchased at stores that sell fishing gear.
Mice are one of nature’s craftiest animals. They sense that winter’s coming and seek comfortable warm places to overwinter. Spilled feed becomes nutritious mouse meals. Caulking holes and cracks helps exclude rodents, and fall is the perfect time to set up a trapline in and near the coop.
Commonly available snap traps have been successfully catching mice for over a century and work perfectly in the technology age. Be sure to set them in places where children and chickens can’t access them. Mice tend to run next to walls, rather than cutting across open rooms. The most effective way to set snap traps is to place two or more together next to a wall with the trigger side close to the wall. A dab of peanut butter on the trigger is irresistible to a hungry rodent. Often there are plenty of mice in a coop, so keep trapping until no more furry feed thieves are caught.
Avoid mouse poison. Mice sometimes eat a poison meal and die in inaccessible places where their decaying bodies stink. There’s also the scary possibility that chickens or children can access poison. A final reason to avoid poison is the threat it poses to one of the greatest friends of chickens. As long as hens are securely locked in a tight coop each night owls will patrol outside. Few animals are as efficient at catching mice and rats as these beautiful predators. Sometimes a mouse will eat poison, stagger outside and be caught by an owl. The poison transfers and the helpful mouser either sickens or dies.
When the temperature dips, chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers to most efficiently trap body heat and eating more. It takes energy to produce that heat, so always keep quality feed available to help keep the girls warm.
Heating the Coop
Chickens are tough birds. As long as they are draft protected and have plenty of food and water they’ll thrive even if the mercury drops to zero. Most parts of the United States rarely experience super cold, so heating the coop isn’t needed. But if the mercury falls to 20 or 30 below zero adding warmth could save chickens. Heating the coop to a balmy temperature isn’t needed but taking the edge off a super cold night will be appreciated by the hens. The same heat lamp used to brood chicks last spring will often raise a coop’s interior temperature from 10 or 20 below to a balmy zero.
Be fire safe. Most coops are flammable, so make sure any heat source is positioned away from combustibles.
Fall is a good season to be outdoors but it’s winter’s harbinger. It is the perfect time to winterize the coop so hens will be comfortable and keep laying even as blizzards rage outside.
Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.
Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.
Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.
For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.
Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.
Let Electricity Do the Work
By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies. They all work.
Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing. Thermostats soften the electric bill.
A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs.
These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.
A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.
Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks.
It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.
Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens.
Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production.
Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.
If There’s No Electricity
Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable.
Here are a few possibilities:
- Take advantage of free heat from the sun. Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
- Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
- Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink. Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.
Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores.
They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake.
Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail.
Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid.
Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected.
Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.
Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof.
Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.
When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.
Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.
The temps are dropping, and for some of you, even the snow is starting to fly. It’s that time of year where we are busy preparing for the upcoming holidays, but there are additional preparations that need to be made – to your chicken coop!
Weatherization of your coop is vital in ensuring your feathered ladies survive and thrive the cold winter months. A quick checklist for sealing the coop up can make the task easy and achievable.
Consider the following:
Clean and disinfect
- Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
- Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.
Pitch out and deep-bed your coop
- Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust, or straw.
- Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
- Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
- Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.
Feed and supplement your birds correctly
- Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
- To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.
Check for drafts
- Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
- Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
- Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.
Set up any heat lamps and water heaters
- Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
- Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
- If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand and have safely located the lamp.
Winter getting the best of you and your chickens? Cabin fever set in? Then take a look at these boredom busters to incorporate into your coop during the long winter months.
Variety in Diet
It’s important to continue your regular commercial feed regiment during the winter, but other variety in the way of diet can go far.
Ambitious owners can sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery.
Additionally, table scraps can serve as an exciting treat for your feathered friends.
Among the better scraps to feed chickens are small amounts of salad, greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that is relatively dry.
Please remember that MODERATION is KEY when it comes to scraps and treats.
Other treat options can include a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have.
Giving your birds space in the coop is important in keeping peace and contentment among the flock. Four square feet of floor space per bird is the minimum. Include perches and roosts at different heights and angles to offer exercise for hens. Add some stumps to the coop floor as well, to add some variety in perch options for your friends.
New and Different
Your girls will love the addition of something new and different to the coop during those long, cold months. Try securing a mirror in the coop, chickens find their own reflection fascinating! Do avoid if you have a rooster as they may mistake their reflection for another rooster in the flock.
Additionally, just spending more time with your birds can help to break up their day (and yours!) And remember, stay strong, Spring will be here eventually!