We love our little flock of backyard chickens like they were our own children. That’s why I get a little nervous when wintertime comes – I want to make sure they are healthy and happy, despite the colder temperatures outdoors. We’ve been raising our own chickens here on our little one-acre homestead for about three years now. I’ve learned a few helpful tips along the way on how to best care for your chickens in the colder months.
1. Some breeds fare better than others
Most grown chickens will survive the winter, even in colder climates. They may not like the cold weather quite as much, but they will do just fine. Some breeds of chickens are hardier than others, and more adapted to the cold temperatures. If you live in a cold climate, you should take this into account before setting up your flock. My favorite cold-hardy chickens are Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Barred Rocks.
2. Daylight has an impact
Chickens tend to lay fewer eggs as the days get shorter. Most hens prefer 13-14 hours of daylight to produce eggs in a regular cycle. As the amount of daylight drops, so will egg production, in most breeds. Cold-hardy breeds like those mentioned above tend to continue laying well even in the shorter hours of daylight. Other breeds may continue to lay regularly if you add a light to the henhouse. If egg production is your primary goal with your backyard chicken flock, I’d highly suggest you use supplemental lighting. Make sure you buy a light that is rated for outdoor use, and you’ll probably want to use a timer as well. As daylight hours increase again, so will egg production.
Even with shorter daylight, my chickens still produce an egg every other day, if not every single day, with the exception of my Americaunas and Easter Egger chickens. They are very random layers in the cold months, even with supplemental light. (We call them our “picky” chickens.)
3. Heater or no heater?
Some backyard chicken enthusiasts worry about providing a heater for their chickens. Most experts advise against this. Chickens will fare better than you think in the cold weather, and the risk of fire is increased when you use a heater outdoors (especially if there are drop cords involved). Not to mention, it can get pricey to run a heater or heat lamp for the entire winter.
But the most practical reason to avoid using a heater is that your chickens can get too used to the warmth. This could spell trouble in a power outage. Ice storms and snowstorms are notorious for knocking out the power, sometimes for days. It’s also extremely difficult for your chickens to go from a warm and cozy coop into the extreme outdoor elements without developing a natural adaptation to the cold. Don’t forget – chickens were meant to be outside.
The best thing you can do to provide warmth for your chickens is to insulate your coop or hen house well. If temperatures are extreme or the winter winds are extra-cold, you can close the chickens up into their well-insulated coop for the best, most natural protection. Most cold-hardy chickens will do fine, even with the temperatures around zero.
This handbook provides an introduction to key aspects of raising and breeding chickens.
However, because we have a mix of hardy and non-hardy breeds, and because we live in a moderate winter climate, we choose to shut our “girls” up in their house when the nighttime temperatures fall into the low twenties or teens. They will huddle up in the cold and keep each other much warmer than you might expect.
If you close your chickens up in the cold, make sure your coop or hen house has adequate ventilation. Air circulation is necessary, especially for larger numbers of chickens, and proper ventilation will keep moisture from accumulating.
In a potentially life-threatening cold snap, we will use a supplemental heater only as necessary, or we will bring the chickens into the garage or basement as a last resort, keeping them in a few dog crates. (A perk of having a small flock of only 11 hens.)
4. Water is critical
Even in the cold winter, fresh water is critical for chickens. Nothing will kill a chicken quicker than dehydration. Frozen water can be a potential life-threatening problem for backyard chicken flocks. Unless you plan to haul fresh water out several times a day, even in the coldest temperatures, you will need to provide a way to keep fresh water flowing. Options include heated water dishes and freeze-free chicken waterers.
5. Food treats keep them happy
Providing your chickens a few treats in the winter is a nice way to keep them happy and healthy. Our hens eat like queens in the summer with all the extra produce from the garden and the wide array of worms and bugs available. In the winter, these things are quite limited. In addition to their regular diet of non-antibiotic chicken feed and scratch, we will give them little treats like oatmeal, freeze-dried mealworms, and even some sunflower seeds. We try to let them out as much as possible even in the cold winter so they can still forage and eat what God intended chickens to eat.
6. They don’t like now and ice
Most chickens do not like snow and ice. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to “play” in it. If your chickens have to be in the snow or ice, keep an eye out for frostbite. Their combs and feet can get frostbitten. A little Vaseline can help – but good luck applying it to the chickens!
7. Chicks need special care
Wintertime can be especially hard on baby chicks. If you have chicks outdoors when a cold snap hits, you will need to check on them more regularly. If they show signs of huddling and peeping loudly, this means they are too cold and supplemental heat will need to be provided.
For newborn chicks, you can put them in a brooder, or you can bring them indoors or to a warmer location. Either way, you will probably need to use a heat lamp with the chicks for a few weeks. A cheap, non-digital thermometer is another very valuable tool when raising new chicks in the winter. While you are protecting against the cold, you don’t want to overheat the chicks either. First-born chicks need a temperature of around 95 degrees the first week or two. You can then drop the temperature a few degrees each week, by raising the heat lamp a little more, until they are hardy enough to be out in the elements.
Make sure your brooder is in a draft-free, warm area. Always provide a few inches of insulation between the chicks and the floor, especially if the area has cement floors. We use several inches of shavings or bedding for our insulation. The few times we’ve had newborn chicks in cold weather, we’ve brought the brooder indoors. (We love our chickens a little too much, sometimes.)