Here in the North Eastern States, we will be seeing the snow flying soon.
By all accounts this year is going to be bad, so we need to prepare ourselves and our flocks for the long months ahead.
Many beginner chicken keepers are amazed at just how hardy and tough chickens are.
But still, a common concern is how cold is too cold for my chickens?
Do they need a heat lamp to keep them warm?
In this article we look at, what to do, and what not to do, for chicken winter preparation.
Make sure to read on to learn how to take care of your hens during the coldest months of the year.
How Cold Is Too Cold For Chickens?
Chickens can deal very well with temperatures that send us scurrying for the fire. Their plumage has a couple of different layers which trap air near to the body.
If you have ever paid attention to the feathers when they molt, you will see a couple of different types of feather. The contoured plumage feathers, wispy feathers and some feathers which are a combination.
The wispy feathers are the under feathers that are closest to the skin. All that fluffiness holds the air tight against the body which heats the trapped air and keeps the chicken warm and cozy.
The chicken also has a high metabolic rate which helps it keep warm.
The resting temperature of a hen is between 105-109F (40-43C) and their hearts can beat up to around 400 beats per minute! This high metabolism certainly is useful in winter.
Chickens can survive quite well with temperatures down into the teens. In fact, if you place a thermometer in your coop overnight, you will likely find the temperature has maintained in the thirty to forty degree area.
Each chicken has generated enough heat to keep themselves and flock mates warm.
Many folks in Alaska and North Canada keep chickens throughout the winter without added heat and without problems.
As long as your hens have a weatherproof coop, and are in good health, you’d be amazed by the sort of temperature they can withstand.
Let’s now turn our attention to making sure your hens are prepared for winter.
Are Your Chickens Prepared For Winter?
If you live in a rural area, you have probably already stocked up on everything ready to ride out the snow and ice. Have you got everything your birds need though?
A short list of your poultry needs includes:
- Feed- enough to feed your flock for two weeks minimum, three would be better. I include scratch and corn in this area too.
- Water- if you have a limited supply, or rely on electricity to pump a well for example. Get, and fill, some plastic containers (I re-use old plastic gallon containers). Allow one cup/bird/day. So one gallon will hydrate eight chickens for one day.
- Large can of bag balm or petroleum jelly for protecting those combs and wattles.
- Straw or bedding of choice. Get extra- chickens don’t like walking on snow, but if you put down straw they will venture out.
Feeding Chickens for Winter
Since I like to spoil my girls I usually keep a large bag of oatmeal ready for those bitter mornings. They love oatmeal with chopped fruit, seeds etc. It’s usually a battle to see if I can get it into the feeders before they run me over!
They get this once or twice a week as a treat.
Helpful Hint: Supermarkets in the US toss out old, deformed or slightly damaged fruits and veggies. Get to know the manager and see if it would be acceptable to use these for animal use. Most managers are very good about it and will let you have stuff free or at a greatly reduced price.
Make sure you have sufficient feed for your flock in case of emergency. As noted above, two weeks supply should be enough- but if you live way off the beaten path you may want to get more.
In the evening just before bedtime, throw them some scratch or corn. Both of these will keep the birds’ digestion going through the night, adding some warmth to the chickens’ body.
Be moderate with how much you give them as too much will make them fat and unhealthy. How much is enough? About two beakfuls each.
Providing Chickens with Water during Winter
Water can be a huge problem in winter. If you have the luxury of heated drinkers or bases it makes life easier all around.
If you don’t have electrical access in the coops you are going to be running back and forth three or four times a day to keep them hydrated. It doesn’t take long for the water to freeze over and become impossible for the birds to drink.
Many folks use the heavy duty plastic bowls- the ice takes longer to form and when it does you can simply take out the ice as one sheet.
I also give my birds Apple Cider Vinegar once a week and vitamin/mineral powder on another day.
Keeping Hens Warm and Dry
This is the essential thing- dry and no drafts blowing through the coop.
Chickens need a safe, secure place to be in during the snow or rain, or when the wind is cold and blowing. The coop does need ventilation of course, but the air should not be blowing directly onto the birds.
If your coop is drafty, you could wrap it with Tyvek or a similar barrier. Cheaper still is tar paper. It will eliminate those drafts and is easy to work with. I have wrapped my two outside coops with one or other of these products. It took a few hours for each coop.
Vents should be placed above the birds heads so that warm, moist air can escape. While the hens are sleeping, their breath is releasing moisture into the air around them. This moisture is not healthy for the flock. Excess moisture build-up can lead to moldy bedding- in turn the chickens will inhale mold spores and become sick.
It can also lead to frozen combs and wattles.
It is essential that the hens be kept in a dry area. When they get soaked with water, the feathers are not able to perform as they should, so the bird will quickly get chilled and may die from hypothermia.
If you have a hen that has got herself soaked, you can consider bringing her into the house. Once she is dried out and able to fluff up her feathers once again, she can be returned to her flock mates.
Should I Add Heat To My Coop?
The million dollar question every year becomes ‘should I add heat to my coop’?
This is something that is a personal decision really. We should note though- chickens really do not need extra heating until the thermometer gets into the very low teens and single digits.
I don’t advocate extra heat in the coop for a few reasons:
- Chickens are comfortable with the temperature in the teens- remember they have feathers!
- Unless securely fixed in place, you run the very real risk of a coop fire from heat lamps.
- If you keep your birds too warm, they will start to suffer from the cold when they go out. Remember, too much heat is unhealthy.
Chickens themselves add heat to the coop. About the equivalent of a ten watt light bulb per hen, so the hens all piled together adds a considerable amount of heat.
Should you decide to add heat, add something like a small oil filled radiator (firmly fixed in position).
Bedding of your choice, lots of it! I use straw in my coops. It is relatively cheap and warm, plus the girls can glean a few missed grains here and there.
I pile the straw in areas they like to sit in so they can sink down comfortably and talk away to their flock mates.
If your coops are outside, you will need extra straw for the walkways. Chickens will venture out in the snow but not on the snow. If you throw down some straw they will happily walk on it.
If you are going to clear paths for them, make sure there are a couple of places when they can hide- hawks and owls are hungry this time of year.
It’s ok to stack straw bales around the outside of your coop, but please don’t stack them inside. Bedding such as straw can become damp and moldy, leading to respiratory problems with your flock.
So there you have it- it has to be extremely cold to upset chickens! They can adapt far better to the cold than to heat.
The worst thing about winter is keeping the drinkers from icing over. If you have an electricity source, spend a few dollars and get yourself a heated drinker. It will save you a lot of grumbling when the snow is blowing.
Watch out for ‘mischief’, boredom can set in and then you will have to keep them occupied so they don’t pick on the girls lower in the pecking order.
Our comprehensive Winter Guide has much more information on winter related issues, so check it out!
Before you go, I’d love to hear your top chicken raising winter tips in the comments section below.