Chickens are an incredibly hardy animal and you will find them in many cold places throughout the world.
There are people in Alaska, Canada and many other chilly places that keep chickens without too much difficulty- as long as you are resourceful! The temperature in certain areas of Alaska has been known to drop to -20F!
Whilst certain breeds are better in the cold than others, with enough preparation any breed will be fine during the wintertime.
Let’s take a look at some tips and ideas on how to keep the ladies warm, content and laying over the coldest months of the year.
Keeping the Run Warm
When the mercury dips into the negative numbers, humans need to bundle up to stay warm. Your chickens don’t need to do that- they have the finest insulation available, feathers!
Feathers are one of natures’ minor miracles. We will be writing an article about the feather early next year, but for now, it’s enough to say that the warmth and insulation provided by feathers is almost unbeatable.
When the feathers are fluffed out they create a layer of warmed air against the body of the bird, effectively a small cocoon of heat. As long as the bird is out of blowing winds and chilly drafts, these layers of insulation will keep the bird quite toasty and warm down to about -20F.
Try to keep drafts to an absolute minimum for your hens and they will be able to tolerate the frigid air very well. I fitted a tarpaulin sheet to the side of their run to prevent harsh winds blowing across it.
The insulating quality of feathers is also compromised when they become wet. The hen isn’t able to fluff up as before, the feathers won’t co-operate until they are dry.
Under these conditions, your hen is in real danger of frostbite or worse. If your bird is soaked and cold, she needs to be taken into a warm place until her feathers are dry and she is able to fluff up without any problems. You can gently use a hairdryer on her feathers to speed up the drying process.
While you have her in the warm- check toes, comb and wattles for any signs of frostbite. If you see any suspicious areas, treat them as outlined in the frostbite article. As long as the frostbite isn’t severe, she can go back to the coop when she’s dry and warm.
If they do like to get out and about for some exercise, try throwing down some straw, leaves, pine needles etc. to protect their feet from the cold and wet. Mine will not go out unless there is a clear patch or some sort of covering over the snow!
Some people use their snow thrower to clear paths for the chickens. A great idea, but make sure your chickens have some cover on these walks- hawks are hungry this time of year!
Keeping the Coop Warm
Chickens can generate a fair amount of heat per hen, so when they are all together in the coop, the temperature will usually hover around 32-40F.
You can help to trap some of that heat by using extra straw/bedding on the floors and in the nest boxes. Be careful thought not to put extra bales of bedding in the coop though- it is not healthy and can lead to respiratory issues.
If you need to add a little extra insulation to your nest boxes, try some cardboard, newspaper and more straw. It’s not advisable to use Styrofoam or plastic as the hens will eat it. I’m not sure why, but Styrofoam is a huge favorite to peck at!
Also, try to ensure the bedding remains dry and is changed fairly frequently so that it remains fresh.
You can add sprigs of herbs to the bedding to keep the coop smelling clean- I use mint, catnip, lemon balm or lavender as often as I can. It also helps to keep pest population in check since many insects/rodents do not like the strong smell associated with herbs.
Hopefully, your coop is secure at night when the girls are most vulnerable. All holes should be firmly plugged up, cracks patched up and roofing intact. If a mouse can gain entry overnight, so can weasels.
This will not only ensure the girls are warm and dry, but safe also. During the long months ahead, many wild creatures become bolder about looking for food- and your coop looks like a McDonalds to them!
Feeding Chickens to Keep Them Warm
Once you ensure the coop and run are secure and warm, you now need to make sure your hens are being fed the right type of feed to keep them warm!
Good quality feed is essential to the wellbeing of the hens over winter. Some hens are still finishing up their molt into January! These ladies need high protein to help with the business of re-feathering. Although it’s far from cold here in New York state, I currently have my girls on 21% game feed to help them feather out for the winter. Once they have their feathers in place, they will go back to 16-18% protein.
Extra treats from the kitchen are always a welcome addition to their diet. I’m guilty of gathering pumpkins from neighbors, storing them until I need one and then baking them (halved) in the oven for about 90 minutes at 350F. The girls won’t eat uncooked pumpkins – I’ve tried and failed. So they have trained me to cook them!
Another great snack to feed them is cracked corn. I normally feed the corn to the girls around half an hour before they go to roost. As the corn is digested inside the hen, their digestive systems sets to work and this produces heat.
Another bonus of feeding them cracked corn is that their egg yolks will turn a vibrant yellow color.
It’s not only feed which they need though. They also need water.
The most essential component for any animal or bird is water. Keeping water unfrozen during the winter can be a challenge. The novelty of running out to the coop several times per day to supply fresh water wears off fairly quickly – especially when it is snowing and blowing!
We have given you a couple of ideas on keeping the water ice free.
A recent idea I came across is placing a water bowl inside an old tire. If you pack the tire loosely with straw or leaves, the trapped air will heat up and keep the water unfrozen for longer.
If it ever gets cold here, I will be trying this out. If you have used this idea we would love to hear your thoughts on it!
Without a doubt, heated waterers are a blessing, the only downside is when the electric goes down. Since many places experience outages for extended periods, you will hopefully have a generator in place. If not- it’s back to the water buckets every three hours or so!
Heating the Coop
The great debate surrounding chickens during the winter months is: to heat or not to heat the coop.
Many choose to heat their coops with things like small heaters, and heat lamps, but others argue that not only are these methods fire hazards, but they also disrupt the chicken’s ability to handle and become accustomed to, the temperature changes.
In rare circumstances, the weather might call for some additional heat…but we’re talking sub-zero extreme temperatures. And even then, chickens don’t need the coop to be a tropical environment.
The best thing to do is to raise chickens that are cold-hardy and can withstand a range of temperatures on their own.
Because adding a chicken to your flock that prefers a tropical environment rather than a northern winter isn’t very polite. It is not equipped to hand the cold weather.
Keeping chickens warm during the winter can be hard, but providing you follow the steps outlined in the article, they will be nice and warm all winter long!
After this, the daily chores of topping up feed and water will keep you busy enough. The hens love social interaction with their humans, so spend a little time with them daily.
This time can be used to do visual health checks, how do the feathers look? Is someone limping? Is there a hen off to the side on her own? If so, a hands-on check will catch problems before they become a huge issue.
All of these things that you do will ensure that your hens are in tip-top condition through the winter ready for spring!