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Cold-Weather Chicken Care: A Winter Survival Guide for Your Flock

When the crisp bite of winter approaches, we need to start thinking about the well-being of our flock as the weather turns cold. Understanding what your chickens need to keep them protected and healthy in the cold will help you maintain your flock, whatever the increasingly crazy winter weather has to offer. Here, we’ll look at selecting the best cold-resistant breeds to mastering insulation, ventilation, feeding, and frostbite prevention. Learn how to transform your chickens’ home into a cozy sanctuary against the winter chill.

How Cold Can Chickens Tolerate?

The majority of fowl can regulate their internal temperatures effectively when the outside temperature is within the range of 60° to 75° Fahrenheit (15.5° to 24°Celcius). At these temperatures, chickens are able to maintain a balance between heat production and loss. 

Chickens typically maintain an average body temperature of 106°F (41°C), and most chickens can handle temperatures well below freezing, even as low as 10°F (-12°C) for short periods. My own large flock all survived a week where temperatures were as low as -8°F (-22°C). However, prolonged exposure to extremely low temperatures, especially in the absence of proper shelter, insulation, or supplemental heating, leads to cold stress.

Cold stress occurs when a chicken’s body temperature drops due to an imbalance where more heat is lost than produced.

Observable indicators of cold stress include huddling together, raising a foot to their breast, or fluffing up their feathers. These behaviors signify that the birds might be experiencing cold stress. Extended periods of cold stress have the potential to diminish well-being and, in severe cases, may result in fatality. 

Therefore, attentive care is essential to ensure the optimal health and happiness of your flock during colder weather, especially if it is prolonged.

Selecting Winter-hardy Chicken Breeds

Not all chicken breeds can face the winter chill with the same resilience. Each variety has a unique history, many originating from fowl that roamed in tropical climates and not icy landscapes. 

When the temperatures drop, strategic choices in breed selection could determine survival. While some will thrive, others may falter.

Heavier breeds like the Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Ameraucana, and Orpington generally tolerate the cold winter months effortlessly. This is due to their sturdy build and ample feathering that provides a natural defense against the cold, allowing them to thrive even in the chilliest conditions.

Lighter, smaller breeds with less dense feathering or those adorned with large combs and wattles will require additional care and attention to protect them from the cold. 

Some other cold-tolerant breeds include:

  • Ancona
  • Araucana
  • Aseel
  • Australorp
  • Brahma
  • Buckeye
  • Buff Sablepoot
  • Chantecler
  • Delaware
  • Dominique
  • Dorking
  • Faverolle
  • Holland
  • Jaerhon
  • Java
  • Jersey Giant
  • La Fleche
  • Langshan
  • Naked Neck
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • Sussex
  • Welsummer
  • Wyandotte

When the weather turns cold, the flock’s pecking order can impact individual birds’ access to vital resources such as feed, water, and roosts. The stronger birds will rule the day, leaving the weaker ones quite literally out in the cold. Consider the dynamics of your flock, especially if it contains a mix of breeds. 

Observe your chickens’ behavior and try to understand the intricate social dynamics at play. Should the need arise, you may have to segregate certain members of your flock based on size or dominance to ensure all get their fair share.

What Attributes Make a Chicken Breed Good for Cold Climates?

These are a few things to consider when choosing a chicken if you live in a colder climate.

Size – As we have already touched on, larger hens are more able to regulate body temperature, and it takes them longer to get really cold, while small hens will feel the chill a lot faster, making them less cold-hardy. 

Feathering – just like you wearing a down coat filled with lots of feathers, a chicken’s plumage also insulates them. The denser the feathers, the warmer the bird will be able to keep itself, but the type of feather is also important; soft feathers that can be fluffed up in order to trap warm air are more effective against the cold than harder feathers that allow warm air to escape.

Comb type – large combs and wattles are more likely to be affected by frostbite than small wattles and a rose comb that lies close to a chicken’s head. 

Ancestry – Consider the heritage of the chicken breed and where its ancestors came from. Often, breeds originating from hot climates will not tolerate the cold well. 

Winterizing Your Coop for Cold Weather

A sturdy coop acts as a year-round shield, protecting your chickens against harsh weather and predators. Before the cold of winter descends, it’s highly advisable to prepare your coop for the winter by following a few practical steps to protect your chickens’ comfort and well-being.

1. Roosts – Usually, roosting bars are placed at around 12 inches above the coop floor. This keeps your chickens away from the coldness of the ground. Also, allow 9 inches of space per chicken. 

The spacing and sizes of roots depend on factors such as the size of your birds and their ability to access higher roosts (heavy breeds generally need lower roosts with more space per bird).

Opt for rounded wooden poles of 1 ¾ to 2 inches in diameter or natural branches of a similar thickness. Avoid using materials that retain the cold, such as metal or plastic. 

2. Drafts and Insulation – Seal holes and cracks to prevent drafts and keep rodents at bay. Insulate the coop’s interior, ensuring the insulation is chicken-proof, or sandwich it between two surfaces so the insulation is in the middle of the outside wall of the coop and an inner wall you erect, which can be made from marine-grade plywood, planking, or other material that is naturally warm. 

The important thing is to prevent your chickens from pecking and scratching at the insulation. Using insulation will make a big difference in retaining more vital heat during winter and also protects against the heat in the summer.

3. Heating – Chickens don’t often need artificial heat to be provided, but when the temperature drops to less than 35°F (2°C),  then you can consider supplemental heat. But where should that heat be, and what do you use that’s safe?

The heat needs to be where the chickens spend the majority of their time, so close to the nest boxes and over the roosting area. 

The best heat sources to use give off radiant heat. This can be provided by brooder plates or special hanging heaters. The focus should be on warming the birds rather than the air. Infra-red panel heaters are excellent for this as they heat objects and not the air. 

Never use heat sources with open flames or exposed heating elements, as these can cause bedding or feathers to catch fire. Choose only poultry or livestock-approved heating options, and always read the safety warnings. 

Depending on how well-insulated your coop is, you may also wish to use thermostatic controls for added efficiency or at the least, automatic timers to help reduce running costs. 

4. Ventilation – It can seem quite counterintuitive to allow outside air into the coop, but ventilation is more about letting stale air out rather than cold air in. 

Proper ventilation prevents moisture buildup from condensation, which can cause frostbite. It allows air containing ammonia from your chickens’ droppings to escape, helping keep your birds healthy. You’ll need to adjust the amount of airflow depending on the size of your coop and your flock. 

The best way to ventilate a coop without causing drafts is by installing roof vents. On warmer days, you can open south-facing windows and use burlap over them to encourage air movement without causing a draft. 

On entering your coop, if you can detect an ammonia odor or see condensation build up inside, it signals the need for increased ventilation and more regular cleanouts.

5. Nest boxes – Many chicken breeds stop laying or at least produce far fewer eggs during the winter months. If you’re lucky enough to have some of the few winter egg layers, such as the Chantecler or Wyandotte, then you’ll need to keep your next boxes clean, filled with suitable bedding, and insulated from the cold. This is because eggs are made largely from water and will freeze if the weather is cold enough. 

Always collect any eggs that have been laid as quickly as possible. Most hens will have finished laying by noon, so this can be a good time to go out and gather any. 

Inspect each egg carefully to ensure the shells are not cracked. If they are, discard them to prevent any contamination that could cause you to become sick if the eggs are eaten.

6. Coop Cleaning – When you have a sizeable flock, chicken waste builds up very quickly, and daily removal of this waste is needed. 

Efficiently managing chicken manure, which is 70% water, can be done effectively by installing collection trays below the roosts. These will gather the droppings and make cleaning a breeze. 

Routinely remove the soiled bedding. If you use a deep litter system, ensure the bedding is around 4 to 6 inches of straw or shavings. Add fresh layers on top periodically. A 6 to 8-inch kickboard can be added at the entrance to the coop to help keep deep bedding in place. Do monitor ammonia levels and condensation build-up with deep bedding!

Feeding

Providing your chickens with a well-rounded diet protects their overall health and productivity, and should be aligned with their specific age and purpose. While their regular balanced diet supports meat, feather, and egg production, it’s essential to adapt their feeding routine during the colder months.

1. Increased Demand – As temperatures drop, your chickens’ food intake may surge by up to 25%. Ensure you keep an ample supply of their normal diet in stock to meet this heightened demand.

2. Proper Feed Storage – It’s not only your chickens that need more to eat when the weather gets cold; rodents and other animals are also looking for an easy meal. This is why strong containers are needed. The containers you choose must also guard against contamination and spoilage by mold, so using ones that are moisture-proof, such as metal garbage cans with secure lids, is ideal. This precaution maintains the quality of the feed and prevents health issues in your flock.

3. Poultry Grit and Supplements – When cold, wet winter conditions limit outdoor access, your chickens’ opportunities to scavenge for grit that helps them digest their food may be reduced. Always provide free access to insoluble poultry grit to keep their food broken down sufficiently and digestion healthy.

If your chicken breed stops laying eggs in the wintertime, then there is no need to feed oyster shells once they have completed their autumn molt. Too much calcium is detrimental to your chickens’ health. Re-commence supplementation with oyster shells in the spring so that laying hens can once again provide you with plenty of tasty eggs with strong shells.

4. Scratch Grains and Activity Boosters – One of the best ways to keep your birds active and warm is to provide them with something to do. Scratch grains, a mix of seeds and grains, can be given as a treat in moderation. Limit the quantity to around a handful per every ten birds. 

Not only do scratch grains stimulate activity and alleviate boredom, but your chickens’ digestion also generates heat, helping them stay warm during chilly nights. 

Other treats that can keep your flock engaged and active in winter are root vegetables, squash, or pumpkins. Always ensure the treats you provide are non-toxic and always avoid feeding potentially harmful items like potatoes or anything with mold on it.

Seed blocks are another entertaining diversion that provides an additional energy source in winter. Moderation is key, though; treats should always complement, and not replace, a balanced food ration.

Watering

It is obvious that chickens need a plentiful supply of fresh, clean water during the hotter summer months, but this requirement is the same in winter. Water is a vital part of your flock’s diet and is necessary for digestion. Without water, chickens stop eating and will soon become sick and die. Whatever the weather, chickens must always have free access to fresh, clean water. 

There is one particular problem during the winter that can be difficult. Ice. When the mercury falls, the risk of your chickens’ drinking water turning to ice increases, and this needs to be monitored carefully.

Check water at least once a day in freezing weather and remove ice as necessary. Where possible bring the water inside the coop to help prevent it from freezing.

There are several products you can find commercially available to help, including:

  • Plastic drinkers with heating elements which you need to plug into an electricity outlet.
  • Heat pads that you can place a metal drinker onto so the water remains above freezing (ensure the heat pads you use are intended for this purpose).
  • Dog dishes that are heated. Be careful when using these; they should be raised off the ground to prevent soiling. 

The main downside to chickens and electric heat sources or drinkers is that chickens do like pecking at their wires; they resemble tasty worms after all. Remember also that water and electricity do not mix! For safety reasons, always keep any wires away from your poultry, water, and flammable bedding to prevent accidents. 

Get a professional electrician to install electrical sockets and devices into your coop. Don’t be tempted to use extension cords. Always put safety first.

Supplemental light

Many egg producers advocate providing your chickens with supplemental light as daylight time shortens in the winter. This is because light encourages egg production.

It is said that for egg production to be optimal hens need around 14 hours of light per day. However, I am not an advocate of this, as I feel my hens loyally provide me with so many eggs each year that I don’t want to artificially stimulate them into laying more. This practice puts a lot of additional strain on your hens and could weaken their immune system, compromise their health, and ultimately shorten their lives. 

There should never be any artificial light provided at sunset, as this affects your chickens’ natural roosting behavior and may cause them to end up roosting on the ground, where they could become cold and are more vulnerable to predators.

It is, however, a good idea to use low-level lighting just before dawn, when chickens are starting to become more active again, as they are unable to see very well in the dark. 

Frostbite

Frostbite is a problematic condition during the winter months and mainly affects a chicken’s comb, wattles, and sometimes their feet. Frostbite can be identified by visible signs, such as the affected areas becoming black or dark gray. They may also feel brittle to the touch. 

Frostbite is generally caused when the affected area is damp, through condensation, and the condensation freezes. Controlling moisture in the coop with correct ventilation and airflow and good chicken waste management, will help to reduce instances of frostbite. 

You may also choose to use heating above the roosting area to keep the chickens warm at night so the moisture cannot freeze. 

Petroleum jelly is often applied to chickens’ combs and wattles as it helps to insulate them from the cold and aids in preventing frostbite. Keep in mind that it is a petrochemical, so it is not good for your chickens’ health. There is no point in trying to use petroleum jelly to heal frostbite as the damage is already done, and other treatments are a lot more effective.

You could try using a non-petroleum-based alternative such as Waxelene, which is made from natural ingredients. 

Once a chicken has frostbite, you will usually need to consult with a veterinarian for treatment and to prevent infection. If left untreated, severe frostbite can lead to loss of the comb, wattle, or foot.

Unfortunately, chickens tend to pick on weaker or sick birds, so it is advisable to remove one with frostbite until it has healed to prevent it from being pecked at by the others. 

Pre Winter Culling  

One of the hardest parts of any animal ownership is knowing when it’s the right time to end their life due to sickness, poor condition, old age, etc. Sadly, it is just a part of being a responsible owner. 

Before the onset of winter, inspect your flock carefully, looking for any that are in poor health, are very underweight, or are old and fragile, and consider if they will be able to live through the winter without undue stress, additional illness, or a drawn-out death. Allowing a chicken to live with a poor quality of life during the winter is unfair to the bird, and it is far kinder to cull them humanely. 

Conclusion

As responsible chicken owners, we owe it to our birds to ensure they have the right care in all seasons. For the winter, this can mean selecting the best cold hardy breeds and preparing the coop by managing key elements, including insulation, ventilation, and heating, as well as changes to how we feed and water our birds and think about frostbite prevention and their general wellbeing. All of these things increase our chickens’ contentment and maintain their overall health, ensuring they flourish despite the winter’s challenges.

Questions and Answers

What temperature is too cold for my chickens?

Most breeds of chicken manage quite well in the cold due mainly to their warm feathering. Temperatures of 20° Fahrenheit (-7°C) and even far lower can be tolerated by most for short periods, providing that they remain sheltered and dry, can stay out of the wind or draft, and have ample food and fresh water that is not icy.

Do my chickens need heat in the winter?

Adult chickens don’t necessarily ‘need’ heat during the winter, but it can be helpful for several reasons. It helps prevent frostbite and can stop their water from freezing if it is kept inside the coop. It will also help support birds who are less strong or cold-tolerant due to their age, size, breed, or health to cope with winter better.

How can I keep my chicken coop warm without a heat lamp?

There are alternatives to heating your coop other than using heat lamps, which some people are concerned about due to their potential to cause fires. A very simple method is to place hot water bottles or stones you’ve heated in a fire in the coop. For a stronger heat source, things like heat mats or infrared panel heaters work well, although care must be taken and safety recommendations followed.

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