Here in the North Eastern States, we will see the snow flying soon.
This year will be bad by all accounts, 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 feathers. The contoured plumage feathers, wispy feathers, and some feathers are a combination.
The wispy feathers are the under feathers that are closest to the skin. All that fluffiness holds the airtight 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.
A hen’s resting temperature 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 been maintained in the thirty to the forty-degree area.
Each chicken has generated enough heat to keep themselves and their flock mates warm.
Many folks in Alaska and North Canada keep chickens throughout the winter without added heat and 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 shortlist 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 they will venture out if you put down the straw.
Feeding Chickens for Winter
Since I like to spoil my girls, I usually keep a large oatmeal bag 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.
Greens such as kale, collards, fruit- apples, bananas, and melon are also nutritious treats. As always, moderation with the treats, please!
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 excellent 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’ bodies.
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 will 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 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 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 bird’s 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.
The hens must be kept in a dry area. When they get soaked with water, the feathers cannot 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 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 genuine 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. The hens all piled together adds a considerable amount of heat, about the equivalent of a ten-watt light bulb per hen.
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 comfortably and talk away to their flock mates.
If your coops are outside, you will need an extra straw for the walkways. Chickens will venture out in the snow but not in 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.