We are just loving our chickens! They are fun to watch and they give us more eggs than we can eat!
(Hmm, It may be time to start making homemade mayo…)
We were lucky enough to get a chance to see a local farmer’s chicken setup and ask him questions well before we got our own flock.
He was pretty relaxed about keeping chickens in winter, which was reassuring that ours would be just fine, but I still needed to bury my nose in a book (or more accurately, the computer screen) to learn as much as I could about keeping healthy and happy chickens through the cold winter.
Here is what I learned during our first winter keeping chickens (Hint: that farmer was right. Our chickens are just fine):
Keeping Chickens in Winter: Choose the best breed for your climate
If you live in a climate that frequently gets freezing temperatures like I do it’s a good idea to start with cold hardy chickens. We started with Ameracaunas, Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons. Here’s a list of some other cold hardy breeds. Update: our second round of chickens included black australorps, which are incredibly beautiful, and Dixie Rainbows, which are kind of weird and I don’t think I’ll get them again. Our third flock is Plymouth Rocks.
Keeping Chickens in Winter: Create adequate ventilation
It may seem counter intuitive but having enough ventilation is key to keeping healthy chickens in the winter. Without adequate ventilation ammonia can build up and create illness. Also, water vapor that can’t escape will create a damp environment. Chickens can handle cold but not dampness.
Ventilation is good but drafts are bad. Ventilation should be above where the chickens roost so that they don’t get chilled. Our ventilation is the space between the walls and the roof (covered on the inside with hardware cloth).
Signs of not enough ventilation:
- Excessive condensation or frost on the inside
- Mold or mildew inside
- Ammonia smell inside the coop (you’d notice it most in the morning)
Keeping Chickens in Winter: Use the Deep Litter Method
The Deep Litter Method (DLM) is when you allow the bedding and poop to build up on the floor of the coop so that there is a few inches to a foot of material. The bedding and poop decompose which gives off heat. A natural heater for the coop! (More on DLM in a future post, but yes, it is sanitary.)
Keeping Chickens in Winter:Trust them to stay warm
Cold hardy chickens are meant for the cold. They love it, they thrive in it. Actually, it’s usually the summer heat that is more dangerous for them.
That being said, When we had a ridiculous cold snap here (high temps in the single digits, lows in the -20’s) I was nervous about our chickens staying warm at night.
We received some (bad) advice to put a regular 60 w light in the coop to give off just enough heat to keep them warm. What ended up happening was our chickens were terrified of the light and we found them huddled on the ground instead of in the coop! Luckily we found them in time to get them into the coop for the night.
We took the light out and they were happy.
What I didn’t consider was that though wind chill can increase heat loss, it doesn’t change the air temperature. So our chickens were nice and warm in their coop, which only got down to about -14. (I have read that chickens can be just fine down to -20F).
It’s also important to remember that chickens create a lot of heat. My 5 chickens create just about the same amount of heat as a 60 watt lightbulb!
Keeping chickens comfortable
We have a covered chicken run but sometimes snow sneaks in the sides when it’s windy. To keep as much snow out of the run as possible we put a couple of pieces of leftover plywood against one side of the run. It also acts as a wind barrier and our chickens seem to really enjoy the protection.
Another option would be to add clear plastic to one or more sides to let in the sun while keeping out snow and wind.
Keeping Chickens in Winter: Give them a dust bath
Chickens stay “clean” by dusting themselves. In the summer they find a nice sandy spot in the yard and kick the sand up onto their feathers. In the winter they aren’t able to do this so we need to provide dusting material.
Some people put a tub of sand and/or wood ash mixed with a bit of food grade DE (Diatomaceous Earth) for added protection from lice and mites. I just throw dry dusting material right onto the ground for them, when they are done dusting they scratch it around and it becomes a clean layer of ground for them to poop on ;).
Where do we get the dusting material?
I dug up some sandy soil in the summer and put it in boxes and buckets in the garage. We have also used sand (for sanding an icy driveway) and our wood stove ash.
Give your chickens something to do
It you’re not able to free range your chickens for whatever reason it’s a good idea to give them something to do. When I feed our chickens every morning, after filling their feeder I throw some on the ground for them to scratch at. I also throw kitchen scraps and treats in whenever I have them. Though I haven’t tried it, I have heard many chicken farmers hang dry sunflowers, heads of lettuce, cabbage or other treats for the chickens to jump and peck at.
Give them greens
I try to let our chickens free range as much as possible in the warmer months so they can supplement their feed with greens and bugs, but in the winter months there’s not much for them to forage. So I make an effort to give them extra greens in their kitchen scraps if I can. Yes, that means I sometime give them lettuce, spinach or kale that could be eaten by my family! I may try to grow fodder next year like this person.
Keeping Chickens in Winter: Keep an eye on first timers
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on young chickens when they are in a new situation or environment.
Our Chickens were born at the end of June so this is their first winter. When I let them out of their run for the first time after it had snowed they didn’t know what to do.
All of a sudden some snow fell off of the run roof (BOOM!) and the chickens flew in 5 different directions. Three of them ended up stuck in the snow. As I ran around the yard rescuing them I thought that it was probably good this happened while I was outside with them! Luckily they eventually got used to the snow because they no longer get stuck in it :).
But, just to be safe, if your chickens are experiencing their first winter, keep a close eye on them until they get used to the snow. You wouldn’t want to find a frozen chicken!
You may want to also check that they all get in the coop at night (if you have an automatic door like we do). Young chickens might need a little help knowing when they need to go inside at first (though we didn’t have a problem with this except for the one time I mentioned earlier).
Keeping chickens from getting frostbite
Some chickens with larger combs and waddles may be prone to frostbite. Some chicken farmers recommend applying petroleum jelly to their combs and waddles before bed to reduce the risk of frostbite.
I personally don’t do this for two reasons 1. I don’t believe that adding moisture is a good idea to prevent frostbite and 2. I would not want to use petroleum jelly since it’s a by-product of the oil industry, thus not natural, sustainable or healthy.
Our experience with frostbite
Our chickens have been frostbite free except for the night that they put themselves to bed on the ground instead of in the coop.
We decided to keep a close eye on the two that got some mild frostbite, checking for infection every day, but they are doing fine and it’s not getting worse. If you are concerned about your chickens frostbite and how to treat it take a look at this post by The Chicken Chick. Update: The ones who got frostbite recovered fine on their own.
Since our only experience with frostbite was when our chickens were outside in a wind chill of -20 I’m not very worried about frostbite prevention. Well, except for making sure they don’t go to bed on the ground again!