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!
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.
Watering Backyard Chickens – Winter Water
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.
Winter Is Coming
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.
Poultry Winter Care for Varying Climates
We all know the importance of preparedness for winter, especially for our feather friends, but sometimes that means different things to different regions of our country.
Winter can sure mean something else to a Minnesotan in comparison to a Texan, so read on (and reference our handy map!) to find the best winter readiness tips for your portion of the US.
Zone 1 – Coldest Region:
- Heated waterers. Dehydration can happen (yes, even in winter) if your chickens don’t have an adequate water source.
- Eliminate coop drafts. Plug cracks in walls or around windows with caulking or bits of fiberglass insulation that can be pushed into gaps with a screwdriver. Bits of cloth work in a pinch.
- Avoid metal perches. (Think of your tongue to a metal pole on a cold day, same discomfort can apply to your chickens).
- Keep feeders filled and treat the hens to some extra grain. Corn and scratch are low in protein but high in cold fighting energy. Chickens also eat more when it’s cold.
- Put a coating of Vaseline on combs and wattles. These are the body parts most likely to be frostbitten. (Thinking ahead, consider buying breeds that have tiny pea combs, which are much less likely to freeze than breeds that sport large single combs.)
- Warm the birds – slightly. There is an enormous difference between zero and 25 below zero. It’s not necessary to make the coop warm but it is important to take the edge off extreme cold. Warming the interior of the coop to zero on very cold nights will help the birds come through the chill in good shape.
- Coop ventilation. Obviously you want to prevent drafts in your coop, but a small vent in the top corner can help to keep air fresh in an otherwise tight, sealed up space.
Zone 2 – Middle Region:
- Water source. Again, making sure your chickens have an adequate water supply that isn’t freezing is key to overall health and egg production.
- Safe outdoor option. In this middle region of the country, you might consider outdoor options for your chickens during the day. A great consideration would also be an automated pop hole door set to a timer that allows your chickens that outdoor time during the day, while still keeping them safe and warm at night.
- Back-up plan for power outages. Consider the possibility of loss of power due to ice storms or other weather conditions. Take extra precaution during these times to make sure your chickens still have access to water.
Zone 3 – Warmer Region:
- Keep coop clean and dry. This is always an important consideration, but wintertime in the warmer regions might mean more moisture build-up, thus requiring a little extra care in the way of coop cleanliness.
- Wind protection. Although the temperatures might not warrant extreme measures of protection, it is worth noting that wind and cooler temps can leave your ladies feeling a bit cold. So keeping an eye to the forecast and planning accordingly can help in coop comfort.
- Chick preparation. The southern regions of the US will likely be receiving chicks much earlier than in the north, so planning for their arrival will be part of your winter checklist.
So remember, with a little foresight and planning, winter is sure to be a lot more comfortable this year for both you and your chickens. No matter where you’re located!