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7 Important Steps To Prepare Your Chickens For Fall And Winter

chickens ready for winter

The cold, dark months of winter can be life-threatening to backyard chickens, but they don’t have to be. Chickens are actually very hardy birds, able to withstand surprisingly cold temperatures as long as they have ample food, water, and a solid structure for shelter. For thousands of years, people have kept these birds in high mountain villages and the frigid countryside of Scandinavia. This means that the chances of your birds surviving their first winter, especially for the winter-hardy breeds, is quite high. If you don’t keep them warm enough and well-fed, however, there’s a good chance that their egg production will drop off or stop altogether. By taking steps to winterize your coop and your birds before winter sets in, you can easily keep your chickens happy, healthy, and laying.

Winterizing The Coop

In every survival situation, finding good shelter is paramount, for both humans and animals, including chickens. Illness or death resulting from exposure is perhaps winter’s greatest threat to a flock’s well-being, so preparing the chicken coop for the cold months ahead is one of the most important steps toward keeping the birds happy, warm and healthy. It’s important to provide a clean, warm and draft-free environment for your chickens to winter in.

Clean, Clean, Clean

A bit of fall cleaning will go a long way towards preparing the coop for winter. Take out all perches, dishes, removable nest boxes, and other accessories, and spend some time giving everything a good scrub. Use scrubbers and scrapers to get off all those stuck-on droppings and thoroughly wash everything with a commercial cleaner or a simple vinegar-water solution. Now is also a great time to inspect everything: are there any cracks in the dishes, or are the perches too worn down? Replace anything that’s in poor shape, and leave the rest out in the sun to dry.

Fortify

Before returning the perches and everything else to their place in the coop, take advantage of the extra space to perform a thorough inspection – the coop’s integrity will make all the difference in the cold months ahead.

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While maintaining airflow is just as important in winter as it is in the summer, too much can allow drafts in the coop, which can easily chill your birds. To little airflow, however, or poor control of water leaks, can cause the humidity to rise, which could make your coop a breeding ground for parasites and disease. You want your coop to maintain a comfortable 40 to 60 percent humidity. During the winter, it isn’t just the weather that threatens your flock; it is also the cold, hungry predators that may be bolder in their search for an easy meal when resources become scarce.

Some things to look out for during your coop inspection:

  • Make sure the coop doors, hatches, and other openings are hinged correctly and can shut tight.
  • Look for signs of leaking water, and make sure the roof is watertight. Replace the roofing if necessary.
  • Watch out for openings, cracks, holes, and anything else that could let in a draft. Some hatches and vents might need to be sealed shut for the winter.
  • Look out for signs of predators, and fortify any weak spots that you notice.
  • If you have electricity running to the coop, inspect all wires, hardware, and outlets for frays or other damage.
  • Check on the coop’s bedding. Are there any signs of mice or other rodents? Is the bedding clean enough to be top-dressed, or will it need replacing?

Bedding

Most flock owners find that it isn’t necessary to completely clean out and replace the coop bedding in the fall, though many certainly do. In fact, the presence of manure and decomposing bedding creates heat and can actually help keep the coop warmer. If you do decide to replace the bedding, don’t worry – there will be plenty of time for manure to build up throughout the winter.

You don’t have to switch to a new kind of bedding for winter. The following make perfect bedding all year-round:

  • Straw: Straw is easy to come by and works great on its own or mixed with other bedding types.
  • Wood shavings: Aspen, pine, and other shavings are widely available, can keep the stench and bugs down, and make for great insulation. Just make sure the shavings are chicken-friendly.
  • Shredded paper: It compresses and decomposes too quickly to be used exclusively as bedding, but shredded paper makes a great lining for nest boxes, adds extra insulation, decomposes just fine, and is often free (newspaper is best – avoid bleached, colored, or glossy paper).

Heaters

In the Midwest, Northeast, and other regions where winter temperatures regularly drop into the single digits or below zero, it’s a good idea to provide a source of heat in the coop. Extra heating is also important if you have cold-sensitive breeds or large single-combed roosters, which are prone to frostbite. There are several ways to provide electrical heat to your chickens, including radiant heaters and heat lamps. If your coop is well insulated, it won’t take much to provide extra warmth. One 100W bulb usually does the trick. Whichever heat source you decide to use, make sure the wires are out of the birds’ reach and keep an eye out for signs of wear or damage. Heating panels or lamps should be kept in a corner to allow the birds to escape the heat if they need to.

Nutrition

Staying warm takes a great deal of energy, so it’s important that chickens are kept well fed both before and during the winter. You can expect their caloric needs to increase by 10 percent or more in cold weather. As with the rest of the year, make sure your chickens have constant access to a quality chicken feed. To help keep them laying and help make them more able to handle the stresses of dropping temperatures, you can also add some extras to their diet. Feeding a little extra corn is often recommended, as is high-quality pecking foods like forage cakes. To help the birds bulk up a bit, you can also occasionally feed warm oatmeal. Many chicken owners also provide greens such as alfalfa, wheat grass, and lettuce at times to help keep the chickens happy and nourished until spring arrives and the birds can forage again.

Water

Chickens need constant access to clean water in the winter just as they do in the summer. If winter temperatures drop well below freezing and you dread trekking out to the coop to break ice first thing in the morning, consider investing in a simple water heater. The birds seem to enjoy the warm water, and you can have the peace of mind knowing that ice won’t be a problem. Like any electrical heat source, keep wires away from the birds, and periodically check for signs of damage.

As you prepare for winter, especially if this is your first winter with chickens, remember to relax! Chickens are surprisingly adaptable birds, and it’s fun to watch how well they handle winter’s chill.

References

http://www.hobbyfarms.com/chickens-magazine/online-exclusives/fall-2011-exclusives/chicken-winter-chores.aspx

http://www.backyardchickens.com/products/category/chicken-breeds?593%5B0%5D=Cold

http://www.thegardencoop.com/blog/2010/11/18/winter-chicken-coop-care-p4/#more-1204

http://www.examiner.com/article/winterizing-your-chickens-for-the-cold-winter-months

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5 comments

  1. I think this is a pretty decent, well-written article on due-diligence in keeping poultry in winter conditions. I would like to add and address a few things:

    1) Select chickens that are known to be cold-hardy if you live in cold winter areas. Some breeds are better suited than others.

    2) Supplemental heat is usually more harmful than good. It creates too great of an inside/outside difference that is hard on the birds as they go in and out. (You do let them out, right?) The coop should be 5-15 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
    Heat sources fail during power outages and the birds may suffer from the sudden loss of that heat source that they were relying on.
    Every year there are dozens of coop fires from these heat sources.

    3) Roosts should be wide enough that the chicken can sit on top of their feet to retain body heat while they sleep, turn a 2×4 sideways. Think shelf rather than closet rod.

    4) Ventilation is key. Vents needs to be placed as high as possible to allow for stale air and ammonia gas to escape. It allows for excess humidity to escape as well. You need a source of fresh air to enter the coop, just keep drafts to a minimum.

    5) High humidity is the leading cause of frostbite even with temperatures well above freezing.

    6) If you are relying on decomposing bedding as a heat source you will be disappointed. The bedding should be dry and dry bedding does not compost or give off heat. This is an internet story that has been going around for a long time. Don’t confuse deep litter with composting. Deep litter helps insulate the ground and mitigate temperature changes from the floor or ground surface. Compost requires a mix of brown and green matter with a higher moisture content for decomposition to be possible. If your coop bedding is actually decomposing you have a greater problem in your coop and your flock is probably suffering.

    7) Nutrition — Chickens are omnivores and in winter they do not find many bugs or worms to snack on. Consider supplemental foods that are higher in protein. Mealworms and earthworms can be raised year round with little fuss and bother.

    8) Outdoor shelter should be provided in the form of wind breaks and dry(er) areas in the run. Hay or straw bale walls work well. A dark tarp can be a simple roof and act as a solar heat collector on sunny winter days. (It’s not much warmth but helps a bit)

    Chickens do just fine in winter, keep them fed, watered and dry.

    • Thanks Randy – I had problems with the Composting and Heaters myself. As a child, our chickens did very well with their coop closed up during winter nights and extra cold days and hot water poured in the water trough in the morning took care of any ice that did form during coldest nights.

  2. If its in good condition in order to hot tub 4 people best deliver the flow of rich oxygen and nutrients to damaged cells.
    One form is sodium bromide, which hot tub 4 people needs to be considered and modifications have to be cognizant of the chemistry of
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  3. The temps are going to drop radically from 30s to single digits and below zero. We’d like to use a heating bulb overnight just for this one night, but doesn’t 24 hours of light screw with their little chicken brains? Is there a heating bulb that provides heat but not light?

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