Top 15 Tips For Caring For Chickens In Cold Winter Weather
Believe it or not, chickens are incredibly tough, little animals. Our hens stay happy and healthy throughout our long Canadian winters. Even on the -40°C days! And while they don’t necessarily venture outside to play in the snow (though it would be SO cute), they do keep happy in their winterized coop thanks to a few key tricks we’ve learned over the years.
A big disclaimer before digging into this article is that while you can care for chickens in cold winter climates, you must be well prepared before doing so.
There are several necessary measures and tools needed to make sure your chickens are well equipped to deal with winter. Keeping chickens is easy when you’re ready for them! Be prepared to initially invest some money ($850-$1,000) and your time to set up your chickens for the winter. After that, they’ll cost you $20-$40/month and will provide you endless joy…and eggs!
This post covers the top 15 recommended tips for caring for chickens in cold winter weather and what tools and products you need to care for your flock in the cold!
If you’re brand new to chicken keeping, be sure to also read my post Keeping Chickens In A Cold Climate: Everything Your Need to Know. where I break down chicken keeping basics, like selecting the right breed for your climate and building a cold weather chicken coop.
1. Insulate Your Coop
We knew insulation was a must for our coop being located in the Canadian Prairies where winter lows can sometimes drop to -40°C. So we chose a permanent insulation and used spray foam in the walls and roof of our coop. This is the most effective way to protect chickens from extreme cold.
It helps keep our coop from never drop colder than -10°C to -15°C, even on the coldest days. It also removes the risk of there being any drafts, which can be more harmful to chickens than cold weather.
However, if you live in a more mild winter climate, other options for temporary-style insulation could include stacking hay bales around the exterior or pilling snow around the exterior of the coop.
One thing to consider is that chickens do generate quite a bit of heat naturally. So, if you have a small space with many chickens in it, you may be able to go lighter on the insulation as their bodies will heat up the area.
2. Invest in a Heated Water Dish
A heated water dish will truly transform your life and make chicken keeping much easier and less time consuming over the winter. In our first winter having chickens, we didn’t take this advice and spent a lot of time hauling fresh water back and forth daily.
Don’t make the same mistake we did! Buy a heated water dish. They typically range from $75-$100 and will last a few winters before needing to be replaced.
There’s a few different water heater options you can find for chickens, several of which I have tried and many of which, truthfully, aren’t very good. I found that any heaters attached to the waterer tend to either crack, freeze or make removing the waterer from the heater a huge challenge.
The best option is to buy the electric heated base separate from the water feeder.
We use our regular, year-round water jug and place it on top of the base. It heats the water from the bottom and doesn’t have to be plugged and unplugged every time you need to refill your waterer.
All this to say, it is also necessary to run power to your chicken coop in the winter. We have a permanent power and water line trenched underground to our coop. But the first few years, we simply ran an extension cord and it worked just fine.
3. Supplement Your Chickens Regular Feed
You’ll notice your chickens eat A LOT more during the winter months. This is especially apparent if your chickens are free range and used to eating insects, stones and plants during the warmer months.
Be sure to budget for extra food in the winter. Also be sure to add extra nutrition to their food, to both keep them stay warm and to replace the typical nutrients they would typically get while free ranging.
Year round, we feed our chickens a layer-specific feed that is a nutrient dense formula of whole grains, vegetable proteins, vitamins and calcium. In the winter, we add in extra cracked corn, sunflower seeds and dried meal worms.
Cracked corn helps chickens produce heat to stay warm. Sunflower seeds are high in amino acids and also just a big hit with our birds! And dried meal worms are a dense source of protein.
4. Ensure There Are No Cold Drafts
Surprisingly, cold and wind drafts are more harmful to chickens than cold weather. Drafts can cause different types of illness, including respiratory issues and colds. This is especially true for older birds who have already endured a few winters.
Ensure there are no cold drafts in your coop by sealing any cracks in the floor boards or walls before winter weather arrives. Adding lots of bedding to your coop also helps eliminate drafts.
Obviously, you can’t avoid the draft that comes from your run door, giving your chickens access to outside. There’s a few options here though to help reduce the cold draft from coming in.
First, you can install a little fabric curtain or “draft drape” to minimize the amount of cold air blowing into the coop. Another option, and what I do, is simply close the door at night time when our chickens don’t go outside anyway.
But don’t worry too much the draft from your run door. It is likely located much lower than where your hens roost, so as long as it’s not too cold and they aren’t in the direct line of the draft, your chickens are likely good.
5. Keep Them Entertained & Busy
Winters can be long and boring for chickens when they’re cooped up inside (….pun intended). Bored chickens can often result in fights within the flock, something you definitely want to avoid. I’ve had friends actually find some of their chickens dead in the coop from getting into fights with the other birds. Not really something you want to come across!
So, to avoid tension between your flock, keep your birds busy and entertained with fun activities! Here’s a few fun DIY winter boredom buster ideas we do for our chickens:
- Tether Ball Veggies: Using a long rope, tie a knot around a vegetable of your choosing and hang it from the ceiling of your coop. Cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and bunches of kale or leafy greens tend to work best. Your chickens will peck at them for hours as they swing back and forth.
- Build a Swing: Using a piece of wood or a branch and some chain, create a small swing big enough for your hens to perch on. Be sure the wood is heavier than the chains so it doesn’t spin when your chickens jump on. Don’t be surprised if your chickens are a little weary of their new swing at first, it may take them some time to warm up to it. It did for ours! But now they love their swing.
- Make Chicken Popsicles: Using a muffin tin tray, freeze veggie and fruit scraps, seeds and other chicken feed in water. Once frozen, remove from the trays and place in the coop. Your chickens will peck away at them to get the food from the ice. This is a great activity that we do for our chickens in both the summer and winter.
6. Provide Access to the Outdoors
Though your chickens might not venture outside daily in the winter months, they still absolutely need access to the outdoor in the winter. It’s important they are getting natural sunlight for Vitamin D to produce eggs as well as fresh air for general wellness and prevention of illness.
Our chickens do not like getting their feet cold in the winter snow. No matter how warm of a winter day it is, they refuse to go outside if their feet will be in the snow. So we’ve found a few workarounds to encourage them to get outdoors!
The first is that we have various ladders and perches in their run they can stand on without having to be in the snow. We will also lay down straw and spruce tree cuttings over top of the snow to encourage them to walk around in their run. This works well and gets them curious to dig and scratch at these new items. Finally, during the really cold winter months, we hang up a tarp on the north side of their run for some additional wind protection.
You might have to get a little creative but it’s worth it to keep your birds healthy and happy!
7. Have Proper Coop Ventilation
This might be the most important tip in the entire article. Chickens NEED proper ventilation year round, but especially in the winter when moisture, humidity and bacteria can build up in the coop. Chicken droppings release ammonia, which can be harmful to chickens health and increase mold in the bedding. Airflow needs to move through your coop to avoid this.
Vents should be located toward the top of your coop so hot air can easily escape. The exact placement of your vent can vary based on your coop layout, but make sure it is at least above where your chickens roost. In our coop, we have one small vent as well as a screen window that I open during mild winter days for some additional air flow.
We have never had a problem with chickens getting sick or with high humidity levels. So whatever you do, add a vent to your winter chicken coop!
8. Maximize Coop Space With Ladders and Perches
As mentioned, chickens can get pretty bored and cooped up in the winter months when they’re stuck inside. Boredom and chicken fights are even more prone to happen if your flock is stuck in close proximity all day long. Just like humans, chickens need their space and get sick of one another.
So make the most of your coop’s square footage by adding various levels and spaces where your chickens can hang out.
We’ve built what we call “the mezzanine” in our coop. It is essentially a second level in the coop the chickens can access by going up a ladder. It basically doubles our coop space and allows chickens to be on the floor level eating or up on top roosting or laying eggs.
I’d also recommend adding in several roosts. Chickens love to perch on their roosts in the winter and protect their feet from the cold with their feathers. We have one large roost where our chickens usually sleep all together at night as well as a few smaller branches around the coop that they roost on during the day.
9. Provide a Wide Roost to Prevent Frost Bite on Your Chickens Feet
While we’re on the topic of roosts….make sure any roosts in your coop are at least 3”- 5” wide. This will not only allow your chickens to relax and balance when roosting, but it also lets them protect their feet from the cold. A wide roost allows hens to comfortably place their feet down without having to wrap their talons around it.
In our coop, we built our roost by using a 2”x4” untreated piece of lumber and laying the wide 4” side upwards for the chickens to stand and roost on. It is a great size for them and have prevented frost bite on their feet for the last four winters.
10. Practice the Deep Litter Method
When I first heard about the deep litter method I thought, “gross.” It really doesn’t sound like a great approach to keeping a coop clean. However, I was wrong and it is actually a brilliant solution for keeping chickens warm in the winter without needing any additional heat source.
So what is the deep litter method? It is when you don’t remove the dirty bedding from your coop throughout the winter, but instead pile more and more fresh bedding on top of the old. The old bedding and droppings stay frozen throughout the winter and provide extra insulation.
As soon as the temperature starts to warm, we clean it all out immediately. By this point, the bottom layer of bedding has already broken down and decomposed quite a bit. It goes straight to the compost pile and we do a deep clean on the coop by cleaning it with soap and water then adding new fresh bedding.
The deep litter method is the best option for chicken keeping in Canadian winters because droppings and dirty bedding ends up freezing after being in the coop for long periods of time anyway. It is quite difficult to try and shovel it out when frozen. So keeping in the coop instead is a win/win – it makes cleaning easier for you and keeps your hens warm!
11. Add Additional Lighting in the Coop on a Timer
In this case, lighting does not mean heat. In fact, I’d advise you not to add a heat lamp to your chicken coop unless temperatures inside your coop drop below -20°C to -25°C.
If you do add a heat lamp, be very careful and regularly monitor the temperature as well as your chickens. Heat lamps can actually be more harmful to chickens as it can throw off their internal body temperature, causing them issues regulating once you remove the heat lamp. Plus, it poses the risk for their bedding to start on fire.
However, a source of light is important and necessary for chickens during the winter months. Why? Because it helps maintain regular egg production (hens need between 10-14 hours of light daily to lay an egg) and gets your chickens moving their bodies for more hours of the day, helping them to stay warm over night.
Putting your light on a timer is my other hot tip that I know you won’t regret! You can purchase an inexpensive, weather resistant timer at your local hardware store. Program it to go on around 7:00am and to turn off around 7:00-8:00pm. This time frame mimics Spring daylight hours and also takes away any of the work you would have to do of going out to the coop and turning the light on and off. Another way your chicken keeping gets easier!
12. Keep Nesting Boxes Clean
As hens lay less in the winter, it can be easy to neglect collecting the eggs daily. But I encourage you to do so! Otherwise, your hens will likely start to eat their eggs and the nesting boxes will quickly get dirty.
Dirty nesting boxes usually signals to hens that this is not a safe space to lay their eggs and they will start laying in hidden corners of the coop or stop laying altogether. Neither option is a good one.
Keep your nesting boxes clean by adding in lots of new bedding or straw regularly. I also like to put in fresh herbs and flowers during the winter months.
It gets the hens curious and gets them back into the nesting boxes. Every other month or so, I do a deep clean of the nesting boxes, removing all the bedding and cleaning with soap and water to remove any broken eggshells or droppings that have built up.
13. Be Prepared to Feed Your Chickens Extra Food & Treats
As mentioned, chickens eat more in the winter months. They are bored and stuck inside as well as eating to keep warm. So don’t be surprised when you start going through bags of feed more often.
Be prepared to refill their feeder at least daily. For our 10 chickens, I refill their feed trough, which is about 12” long and 6” deep, once to twice a day during the winter. Whereas in the summer when our chickens are free ranging, I can sometimes go 2-3 days without filling it.
14. Keep An Eye On Frostbite
Carefully take a look at your chickens feet, combs and wattles to ensure there are no spots of frost bite. Frost bite can appear as white or black patches on chickens. If left untreated, it can be painful to chickens or cause pieces of their skin to fall off completely.
If you’re following all my other above tips, you shouldn’t have to worry about frost bite! The key things to look out for is that humidity and moisture in the coop isn’t too high and that they aren’t getting wet from snow or their water.
If you do spot frostbite on your chickens, you can help ease the pain and prevent it from worsening by applying vaseline or coconut oil. Carefully apply with a cotton swap. It might require a few applications before you seen an improvement. Prioritize applying before nighttime when temperatures drop.
15. Watch and Monitor Humidity Levels
The final life hack to make your chicken keeping easier! We have become slightly obsessed with checking the temperature as well as the humidity level in our coop thanks to our digital weather station and sensor. It monitors temperature and humidity level.
We keep our digital weather station screen inside on our kitchen window and the sensor hanging on the inside wall of the chicken coop. A thermometer would also work well and is an affordable option, however you will still be required to head outside to the coop to read it.
So, how cold can your coop get in the winter? We aim to keep our coop between -5°C to -15°C and no colder than -20°C. That may sound cold, but chickens are tough! They can handle the cold as long as they are well protected from drafts.
On the other hand, what humidity level should your coop be at? We aim to keep our coop between 20-35% humidity. This can be tricky if your water feeder is in the coop (as we have ours), but opening vents and ensuring there is consistent airflow will help manage this.
And those are the secrets to keeping your chickens warm, happy, and healthy in the winter.
Happy Chicken Keeping!
I hope you found this article helpful and useful for your own winter chicken keeping. Be sure to leave a comment with any questions I didn’t answer! Tag me in your own winter chicken set-ups on Instagram @fromsoiltosoul.