During the wintertime your hens’ dietary requirements will change as they molt and prepare for the cold, dark winter whilst their body recuperates for next spring.
Not only will their dietary requirements change but the volume of food they eat will also change during the winter. It’s important that during these changes you keep an eye on your hens and provide them with not only the right food but the right amount of food.
In this chapter of the definitive guide to keeping chickens in winter, we will explain what types of food you should feed your chickens during winter and also how much food you should give them.
Why Do Chickens’ Dietary Requirements Change in Winter?
As the summer comes to an end you will notice your hens naturally start to slow down and their egg production will also slow down. With this, your hens’ nutritional requirements will change as their body moves from a state of production to a state of repair.
As the amount of daylight starts decreasing your hens egg production will slow down, but why?
The amount of daylight tells your hen when to release a yolk and produce an egg. So when the daylight is reduced, chickens don’t receive this light ‘cue’ to tell them to release a yolk. This is mainly a survival mechanism as their offspring would have a very small chance of surviving during a cold winter.
This state of repair during winter is crucial for hens, because laying eggs throughout the summer places a huge amount of stress on their body and without this break they will eventually burn out. This is why battery hens are culled within 2 years because their bodies have simply burned out through constant egg laying with no rest.
As you can imagine, when a hen is laying eggs they need lots of protein, however during a state of repair they will need more carbohydrates to keep themselves warm… more on this later.
What to Feed Your Chickens During Winter
As we approach wintertime, hens’ feed consumption will typically be 1.5 times the amount they eat in the spring/summer, and many first time backyard chicken keepers get caught out and aren’t prepared for their hens to suddenly start eating more food!
Hens mainly eat more because they need to keep themselves warm during the harsh winters. When preparing for the winter, make sure you don’t get caught out by running out of feed and stock up at the end of autumn; otherwise you are going to have some unhappy and hungry hens.
During winter I tend to keep my hens on layers pellets, this provides them with all of their key nutritional requirements and keeps them healthy.
In addition to these pellets, during the final half an hour of daylight each day I feed them some cracked corn. Feeding corn to your hens before bedtime is a great snack; it not only fills them up but provides them with warmth during the night. As the chickens digest the corn their digestive system gets to work and this produces heat inside the hens’ body. I’ve also noticed that feeding my girls corn helps give the yolks of their eggs a deep rich yellow color.
Scratch grains are a great alternative, although they don’t provide as much nutrition as corn. Please don’t overdo the amount you give them- you don’t need or want obese chickens!
This feeding time is also a great opportunity to give your girls a quick visual inspection to make sure they are healthy and don’t have any problems.
Whilst I highly recommend cracked corn or scratch grains, your hens’ diet shouldn’t consist of only cracked corn/scratch grains. Used alone they won’t provide your hens with the required vitamins and minerals they need to live a healthy life. This is why it’s recommended you only feeding your hens cracked corn in the evening, purely as a way to provide your hen with heat during the night.
If you want to warm your hens up and don’t have any scratch grains, another great snack is oatmeal.
On exceptionally cold mornings I make a panful of oatmeal and take it outside to give to the girls. Just pour the oatmeal out into a trough and they will peck away at it. Don’t feed them the oatmeal directly out of the pan- they might bully each other because they don’t all fit around the pan at once.
If you want to add some variety to the oatmeal, you can add either bananas or maple syrup to it.
One of the biggest issues your hens will face during the winter months is the frozen ground. You might be surprised to find out that hens get a lot of nutrition from scratching and pecking at the ground. One of the most important minerals they get from foraging is grit.
Chickens don’t have any teeth so the grit they collect is used to break and grind down their food.
However, during the winter months if the ground freezes over your chickens won’t be able to forage for grit, and this can cause issues.
You need to make sure your hens are getting their grit supply from elsewhere instead. Normally this can either be from commercial feed, or you can just scatter crushed oyster shell in their run. This doesn’t need to be done daily, a handful once every 2 weeks will be plenty for a small flock of 12 hens.
How Much Should You Feed Them
During the wintertime chickens eat around 1.5 times the amount of food they eat during the summer. And as you know instead of just filling my hens up with more pellets, I prefer to meet this additional food requirement using other sources.
Don’t get too caught up on whether you are feeding them enough or not- the will let you know.
If you are constantly finding that there is food left in their feeder when they go to roost at night, you know that you are giving them too much feed. If there is feed leftover at night remember to tidy it up, as this will attract pests.
It’s much easier feeding free range chickens. As a general rule you cannot overfeed them- they will often not eat your feed as they prefer to roam and find their own little grubs. Whilst feeding hens which are confined to a run is slightly trickier, the same rule applies: if they have feed left in their feeder when they go to roost, you’re feeding them too much.
I feed each of my hybrids around 2.2lbs of feed per week, and then on top of that they get daily snacks and also some scratch grains.
How Should You Feed Your Chickens
During the summer months I prefer to spread their layers pellets directly out onto the floor. I’ve found this reduces squabbling and bullying because they can all get access to the feed at once.
However just like the amount of food they eat during winter changes, the way I feed them also changes during winter. During this time, I always feed my chickens using a trough, and there are two main reasons for this.
First, the ground is nearly always wet over the winter months, so the pellets get soggy as soon as they hit the ground. My girls seem to be very fussy and don’t like eating soggy pellets!
Second, troughs are much easier to clean. Pellets that are mushed up from being placed on the ground are a nightmare to scrape up. Troughs are much easier – all you need to do is pick them up and slide the pellets out from one side.
When I’m feeding my chickens snacks during winter, I try to make it fun for them! One of their favorite games is cabbage tetherball!
Just remember at the end of the day to clean up any leftover food and pellets. If you don’t, you’re going to attract pests such as mice and rats.
Their normal ‘feed schedule’ looks something like this:
- Breakfast (6am): Layers Pellets
- Snack (2pm): Varity of vegetables and occasionally mealworms
- Evening Meal (4pm): Handful of cracked corn
If your chickens are left on their own during the daytime, you might not be able to give them a snack in the afternoon. Don’t worry too much about this; just make sure to either give them slightly more food at breakfast or in the evening.
The most important thing to do during the wintertime is to make sure your hens have plenty of feed and stay stocked up!
Chapter Three Summary
As we approach the winter your chickens’ nutritional needs will change. During this period they will require less protein and more carbohydrates- the carbs help to keep the chickens warm.
In addition, chickens will also need more feed during this time. Their winter feed consumption is typically around 1.5 times their summer feed consumption.
During the winter my hybrids are fed around 2.2lbs of feed each per week, and they also get daily treats and cracked corn.
A huge problem your hens will have during the winter is the frozen ground. Hens forage for grit and when the ground is frozen they cannot access any. So it’s important you provide them with grit during this period- a handful every fortnight will be perfect for a flock of around 12.
It’s also important to use a trough whilst feeding your chickens during the winter. This will prevent their feed from getting soggy and spoiled.