Keeping Chickens in a Cold Climate – What You Need to Know
Can you keep chickens in the winter? It’s the golden question many cold climate dwellers want to know. Well the answer is, yes! You can keep chickens year round in a cold climate. Even in an extreme Canadian climate as cold as a Zone 3 or lower. It takes some planning and preparation but it is definitely possible as well as rewarding.
For more tips on cold climate chicken keeping, listen to Episode 89 of my podcast, The Grow Guide — Top 10 Tips for Backyard Chicken Keeping in a Cold Climate.
In this post, we cover:
- Why Get Chickens For Your Backyard
- Provincial By-Laws and Restrictions
- Cold Tolerant Breeds of Chickens
- Building A Cold Weather Chicken Coop
- Winter Time Behaviours and Tendencies
- Cold Weather Supplies
- Additional Resources
Why Get Chickens For Your Backyard
Chickens are an easy-to-care for and inexpensive backyard pet. For gardeners especially, they will prove to be extremely beneficial for your compost pile and even to till up your garden at the end of the season.
For a flock of 10-15 chickens, you can expect to spend approximately $40 each month. This covers chicken feed, supplements (if needed), clean bedding and any small repairs you may need to make from time-to-time to your coop. This doesn’t include the general start-up costs required for chicken keeping, such as building a cold-tolerant coop and run, chicken wire, feeders, roosts, waterer, etc…You should initially plan to spend between $1,000 – $1,500 on coop building and supplies. However, this is a one time cost and, if done right, an investment that pays off by keeping your hens healthy and safe long-term.
Though caring for chickens becomes more complicated in the winter months, October through to March, they are generally rather self-sufficient. If you ensure your chickens have constant access to food and water, adequate space for them to move around comfortably and protection from the cold and wind, you will only need to check on your chickens once a day.
For us gardeners, chickens can play a key role in keeping our gardens healthy. Firstly, they are a great aid in the early Spring before the veggie garden is planted to till up the soil and eat any unpulled weeds. Second, their droppings are a high source of nitrogen for your compost pile. The bedding can also be composted and used to make up the “browns” in your compost. And lastly, your chickens will take care of eating most of the veggie scraps, plant foliage and spoiled harvests that come from your garden. They are incredible at eliminating food waste.
Here’s our happy hens a few years ago, enjoying some plums from a friend’s orchard.
Provincial By-Laws and Restrictions
Can I keep chickens where I live? This is the MOST common question for those interested in chicken-keeping. But it’s key to know that the answer totally depends on where exactly you live. Chicken-keeping regulations vary provincially in Canada. For example, in Manitoba under the Responsible Pet Ownership By-Law, backyard chickens are not allowed within Winnipeg city limits. However, the Province of Manitoba allows backyard chickens to be kept outside of the city on rural properties. On the other hand, provinces such as Nova Scotia have passed new by-laws to allow egg-laying hens to live in both private and public urban areas. Check your government’s by-laws to ensure you’re adhering to local regulations. Chickens are low-maintenance, quiet pets that do not cause disruption. If you’re inclined to do so, speak with your local political representative to challenge these by-laws.
Cold Tolerant Breeds of Chickens
What breeds of chickens can survive harsh winters? Surprisingly, there’s quite a large list of birds that fit the bill. Buff Orpingtons, Brahmas, Columbian Plymouth Rocks x Red, Rhode Island Red and Jersey Giants are all hardy birds that can withstand cold temperatures as low as -20°C.
The easiest way to find chickens that best suit your climate is to purchase from a local hatchery. Look for a hatchery with ethical, trustworthy practices. If you go this route, you will likely receive your chicks at a few days old. They will require a lot of care and attention for their first few weeks of life. The primary focus when raising young chicks is ensuring air temperature remains consistent. You can do this by using a heat lamp, thermometer and keeping your chicks either inside your home or in a safe space outside where they can be easily monitored.
Here are our baby chicks from a few years ago at just 5 days old.
Alternatively, you can look on your local buy and sell or Kijiji/Craigslist for residents in your area who are either selling chicks or looking to rehome chickens from their flock. This is another great option for ensuring the birds you buy are suitable for your climate.
Cold hardy breeds generally have smaller combs and wattles. This makes them less susceptible to frost bite. Picking a breed that has dense, heavy feathers is also key to ensuring they stay warm throughout the winter.
Here’s what each cold hardy breed of chicken has to offer:
- Buff Orpingtons: A large, brown, fluffy chicken originating in England. Buff Orpingtons are said to be friendly and docile. Their dense feathers make them very cold hardy. They are consistent egg layers year round.
- Brahmas: Considered to be extremely cold hardy and a consistent winter-layer. They are larger birds with layers and layers of feathers. For some varieties of Brahmas, their feathers go all the way down their legs and feet. This is especially helpful in cold climates. Brahma chickens also come in a variety of colours, so you can have fun selecting a bird you love!
- Columbian Plymouth Rock x Red: These are a crossbreed of chicken bred specifically for the extreme cold, Canadian winters. Columbian Plymouth Rock x Red are one of the types of chickens we have on our homestead! Our hens are friendly and like to jump up on visitors shoulders to say hello. One downfall is that they do have large combs, making them susceptible to frostbite. Ensure your coop does not get damp or humid in the winter to avoid frostbite.
- Rhode Island Red: This is the other breed of chicken we love having in our backyard flock. We’ve noticed our Rhode Island Red hens are very winter hardy, and they will even free range with snow on the ground. Usually up until November-December. They are easy-going, sweet and extremely friendly with humans. When we come with kitchen scraps, our hens will run right up to us just as a dog does when you have a treat. We love it! Our Rhode Island Reds have consistently laid eggs for us for the last 3 years.
- Jersey Giants: This breed is very large, as its name hints, which helps the birds stay warm in cold weather. They typically have black feathers and red/pink combs, however there are some crossbred varieties with more unique colours. But, the biggest downside with keeping Jersey Giants in a Canadian winter is that they have large combos that are prone to getting frostbite. Frostbite on chickens is treatable. We put Vaseline on our chickens combs and wattles if they get a bit of frostbite. However, your chicken-keeping experience will be easier if you avoid getting a breed that is prone to it.
Building A Cold Weather Chicken Coop
When it comes to building your chicken coop, there’s a few must-haves for a winter climate:
- Well insulated walls, floor and roof. You don’t want your coop to be drafty.
- Proper ventilation to keep the coop from getting damp or humid. This is a must. Otherwise, your chickens can easily get sick. When chicken droppings get damp, they release a gas called ammonia, which can be toxic to both chickens and humans.
- Plenty of indoor free-ranging space for when your hens can’t go outside in the middle of winter. This can sometimes be for weeks at a time over January – February. Each chicken should have a minimum of two to four square feet of space. Our coop is approx. 100 square feet for 10 chickens, which is plenty of room.
- Access to a power source. Whether you run an extension cord from your home or have electricity directly in the coop, you will want it for the winter months. You’ll need power to plug-in a heated water dish to avoid their water from freezing. We also like to give our hens some additional light in the winter when daylight hours are short.
- A roost for your hens to sleep on and huddle for warmth. A roost is a 2-3 inch wooden platform that your chickens perch on and typically sleep on. In the winter, this is especially important as it allows chickens to protect their feet from the cold by covering them with their feathers.
Here’s a look inside our chicken coop. We built our coop by building a 10×10 platform from plywood. We then framed in the walls and put on a barn-style hip roof. The walls and roof are insulated. There’s a window on the back for ventilation. Inside, we’ve optimized our space by adding what we call “the mezzanine,” which is a 4ft tall platform at the back of the coop that gives the hens an upstairs. This way, the hens can disperse between being on the floor of the coop, on their roost, or on the mezzanine.
On the other hand, there is ONE key mistake you don’t want to make.
- Avoid having a heat lamp in your coop unless absolutely necessary. Heat lamps pose lots of risks for fire. They can also affect your chickens internal body temperatures, potentially leading to your hens getting sick. We only use a heat lamp on extremely cold days when the low hits -30°C, and we monitor very closely. We do not let the coop get warmer than a few degrees above freezing. We also keep a weather sensor in the coop with the digital data screen on our kitchen window. This way we can always see the exact temperature and ensure the hens are safe.
Winter Time Behaviours and Tendencies:
As your chickens are forced to spend most of their time indoors during the winter months, you will notice their behaviours changing.
The term “pecking order” is a real thing, and you’ll quickly understand who is the “boss” and who is lowest on the totem pole. This is a fine and natural chicken behaviour….as long as they don’t start going after one another, which typically happens for one of two reasons in the winter months.
1: Your chickens are bored. They need more enrichment in their day. A few ways we keep our winter chickens busy is by giving them a plastic bin with dust in it so they can bathe (chickens love dust baths!), as well as hanging cabbage and ball lettuce from a string so they can peck at it like a tetherball.
2. A chicken is hurt and the rest are ganging up. This is why it’s so key to continue checking on your chickens often throughout the winter. Chickens are also more suseptible to illness in the winter monthsthis case, such as frost bite, pneumonia and mites. If you notice one of your chickens is injured, remove them from the flock immediately. Assess their injuries and let them rejoin the others once fully healed. The other chickens will peck at an open wound and/or attack a bird if they sense she is sick.
Other Winter Behaviours:
- Less egg laying as there is fewer daylight hours. Installing an LED light in the coop is a good way to maintain productivity.
- Eating more food. Our hens eat almost twice as much grain in the winter as they do in the summer. They do this to keep warm but also because they are not getting the extra calories they would in the summer when free-ranging. We mix cracked corn into our hens food over the winter months for extra nutrition.
- Sometimes going outside. If it’s a mild winter day (-10°C or warmer), our hens will go out in their run to enjoy the fresh air. This came to a surprise to us at first and we were worried they would get cold. But they are hardy, and the fresh air is good for them! We ensure the door to their run is open on these mild days so they have the ability to go in and out.
Here’s one of our chickens outside in February.
Cold Weather Supplies
After you build your coop, this is everything else you’ll need to purchase for winter chicken keeping. Take a trip to your local hardware store with this checklist in hand!
- Extension cord
- Heated water trough or dish
- Food trough
- Straw or woodchip bedding
- Chicken grain with supplements mixed in — purchase food specific to your chickens’ age and breed (layer vs. broiler).
- Cracked corn
- Oyster shells
- LED light
- Digital weather station
A few other great resources for keeping chickens in a cold climate.