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.
Getting the Most Eggs from Your Hens in Winter
Bring more eggs in from the cold!
By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC
As cold winter weather approaches and the days grow shorter, your normally productive hens may be challenged to stay productive, and the cold weather may take its toll on the eggs they do lay. How can you keep your hens in optimal laying condition and assure that their eggs are the highest quality possible, while helping the birds live their best lives in the dark, cold months of winter?
Let’s look at some important factors to consider with regard to winter egg production.
Check your nest boxes early in the morning and several times a day, depending on how cold it is. Collecting eggs often prevents them from freezing and expanding, which leads to cracked shells. You can also winterize your nest boxes to help prevent your eggs from freezing:
- Ideally your nest boxes will be in the interior of the coop.
- Insulate your nest boxes by cutting pieces of cardboard to fit sides, top, and bottom. Do not use insulation! Chickens will eat it.
- Put deep bedding, such as pine shavings or chopped straw, in the nest boxes.
- Make curtains for the nest box entrances from a heavy cloth, such as wool.
If you find a cracked egg, assess how bad the damage is. If only the shell is broken and the membranes are intact, wash the egg and eat it right away. If the membranes are broken, discard the egg. Do not feed broken eggs to the chickens; they will break and eat their own eggs once they realize how tasty they are!
Mental and Physical Health
The winter months can bring boredom, leading to pecking problems, also called flockmate persecution. Provide enrichment for your hens, such as scratch scattered in bedding/litter, a cabbage hung from the ceiling of the run, and suet baskets with lettuce and other vegetable treats (not suet!) tucked inside.
Nutrena’s scratch grains can provide energy and keep your birds’ metabolism going at night when it’s cold! Feed only a handful of scratch in the evening. Be careful not to overfeed; extra fat on their body can lead to egg binding and other health issues.
Winterizing Your Coop
While chickens can tolerate low temperatures, sudden temperature changes can be challenging for them. A heat source such as lightbulb in a safety cage (Beware: it’s a potential fire hazard!) or heat panels can be used to raise the temperature about 10° F above outdoor temperature. Heat only part of the coop; this allows the birds to choose where they are most comfortable. Other ways to winterize the coop include
- putting extra bedding in coop;
- providing heated perches;
- making sure the coop is well ventilated;
- eliminating moisture and drafts, especially around roosts; and
- covering the coop and part of the run with tarps or heavy plastic (not blankets).
You can find more tips and suggestions for winterizing your coop in this post.
Chickens lay in response to the photoperiod, or amount of light they get per day. They need about 14 hours of light per day to lay their best. Check out the post “Feeding Chickens in Winter” for more information.
You can supplement light by installing a bulb that comes on in the early morning. For more information you can read this post. If you do choose to provide extra light, it’s best to limit it to 16 hours per day. However, you may choose to give their bodies a break for the winter months.
Fresh water is critical for egg production. Your birds’ bodies and their eggs are mostly water, and they need to continually replenish this vital element. Slight dehydration may cause hens to go out of lay. Winter presents unique challenges because waterers freeze quickly. Heated waterers are especially helpful, but they require an electric outlet in the coop or a very long extension cord. Another alternative is to have a couple of waterers so you can place a fresh one outside for your birds while the other is inside thawing.
Once you’ve addressed the factors above, consider if your birds are getting the nutrition they need to be productive. Continue to feed your birds a balanced layer ration even though they might not be laying. They will need to be in top shape when days start to lengthen to go back into lay. Your birds will eat a bit more in the winter, so keep the food available at all times.
A 2020 study, conducted in 10.5 daylight hours at 12° F, showed the importance of a nutritionally well-balanced feed that includes ingredients like pre- and probiotics, yeast culture, essential oils, and Vitamin D3. In the study, hens fed NatureWise with FlockShield and essential oils not only kept laying, but they also produced thicker, stronger shells with no broken eggs. After three weeks of eating this diet, egg production increased by 325%.
As winter approaches, make sure to include NatureWise Poultry Feed as a balanced source of proper nutrition to keep your hens happy, healthy-and laying!
Keeping Your Chickens Healthy This Winter
As George R. R. Martin loves to remind us, “Winter is coming,” and now it is almost upon us. While other folks might be worrying about preparing for the holidays or making the most of their limited daylight, chicken owners have their own unique set of concerns about the health and productivity of their birds.
One of these, as always, is predation, which remains a threat to backyard flocks year-round, even as many predators go into hibernation or migrate to avoid the colder weather. There are many simple steps coop owners can take to protect their birds from the weather and maintain their productivity in the face of dwindling daylight, several of which will also help keep winter predators at bay. In addition to those, however, there are always a few more things the cautious chicken owner can do to make sure their chickens make it through the winter unscathed and uneaten.
Install an automatic door on your chicken coop. An automatic coop door might seem like an unnecessary expense, but they’re worth their weight in gold once winter comes and the darkness starts setting in earlier and earlier. Getting the hens in by nightfall is probably the easiest and most important thing an owner can do to keep them safe from predators, and an automatic coop door is especially helpful in the winter. As a bonus, many automatic doors are light-sensitive, so they can adjust the hens’ bedtime with the changing hours of sunrise and sunset, regardless of when their owner gets off from work or back from the store. The one concern for people in wintery areas looking to outfit their coops with an automatic door is to make sure the motor and other hardware can withstand the inevitable freezing and icing that comes with high winds and subzero temperatures.
Clear the area around the chicken coop. Predators, especially ground predators, are masters of hide and seek, and the closer they can get to the chicken coop without being seen, the more likely they are to view it as a safe and regular source of food. Winter, unfortunately, increases these opportunities several times over, between the fallen leaves, accumulating snowdrifts, and growing piles of firewood and unused equipment. Keeping these handy hiding spots far away from the coop and trimming back high grasses, low-to-the-ground bushes, and overhanging tree limbs will all help encourage prowling predators to seek food and shelter someplace else, far away from your hens.
Maintain protection from above. Anyone with an outdoor run knows that hawks and other birds of prey are one of the biggest threats to homegrown chicken flocks, even in winter – while some species of raptor migrate, others do not. Fortunately, stringing some chicken wire or hardware mesh over the top of the run is usually more than enough to keep the swooping predators at bay. This remains true in the winter; however, harsher weather and heavier precipitation – snow, hail, freezing rain – means this high-strung chicken wire is one of the coop’s most vulnerable defenses. Owners should check its impregnability regularly, especially after a particularly heavy storm or other weather event.
Keep your coop clear of snow and ice. The annual battle against ice dams is a long, cold, exhausting one. However, chicken coops present another, smaller front in the war. After all, ice dams on the chicken coop present all the usual risks of warping and leaking, which is just as unpleasant for your chickens as it is for you, in addition to the question of that warping and weakening presenting the perfect holes to allow weasels, snakes, and other predators into the coop. These holes are especially troublesome in the winter, when the coop is more appealing to intruders, not only an all-you-can-eat buffet, but also a warm shelter from the harsh weather outside.
Clean up after your hens. Most predators will be dealing with a decrease in food sources in winter, which will make not only your hens, but their leftovers significantly more appealing to hungry predators, especially rats and other small creatures to whom some leftover chicken feed would be a significant boost in their diet. Making a pass at the end of the day, or at least every few days, to clean up any food scraps, feed piles, etc. lying around the coop and especially the run will go a long way in discouraging these foragers from making a habit of dinning at the Chicken Coop Market, which would inevitably escalate into stealing eggs and maybe even chicks.
There are many reasons winter presents a special challenge for chicken owners, from decreased egg production to the risk of frostbite. Unfortunately, predation is just one of these challenges, and one that doesn’t go away the rest of the year, either. The good news is that a little prevention goes a long way, and there’s no reason that, with a little foresight and a healthy vigilance, your entire flock of hens shouldn’t emerge in the spring, happy, healthy, and fully intact, ready to keep laying, playing, and living a happy hen life.
Feeding Chickens in Winter
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.
Anticipating Winter with Chickens
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.