Northern Utah winters can be pretty cold. I know that other parts of the world have it a lot worse than we do, but we still see some chilly weather, especially in December and January. This brings some added challenges for chicken owners. As new chicken owners we have done a lot of research on what we need to do to keep our hens warm and happy during the winter. I have found very divergent views on what to do, any thing from providing them with a simple structure to keep the wind off to building them huge heated palaces. Here’s a list of what we are doing to help our birds through the winter weather.
Choosing the right type of bird for your weather is very important. Some breeds are more tolerant of cold weather than others. The web site backyardchickens.com has a great list of chicken breeds that includes cold weather tolerance. Be sure to choose a breed that bears cold weather well. Our hens are Red Stars (also called comets) they are a hardy bird with a medium sized comb and seem to be taking the cold weather in stride.
We are continuing to feed our birds a complete layer feed, we are very careful to be sure they never run out of feed. We noticed one day that the feeder had run low during the day, the next day only half the hens laid. That really showed me the importance of a good supply of clean food at all times.
In addition to their regular feed we have been supplementing with some greens. All summer the hens were use to roaming the yard for at least an hour a day and eating grass, my garden and bugs. They are not able to get out as often now so we are trying to make up for that a little by giving them a treat. Also at least once a day, usually towards the end of the day, we throw down some corn or a scratch mix. This feed is not nutritionally balanced but provides them with plenty of calories for the extra energy they need to say warm.
A fresh supply of clean water is just as important as food. Keeping the water clean and unfrozen is a must! There are several options available to help keep the water from freezing: There are plug in waters that keep themselves heated, also if you have a metal water you can buy a heated base for them. Both of those options are fairly expensive in my opinion.
We chose instead to buy two smaller water containers that we actually keep right inside the hen house portion of our coop. Even on the coldest days it stays above freezing in the house. Every morning we trade out the water with a fresh container and bring the other inside the garage to thaw out. I like this because it forces us to go out each day and check the condition of the hens to be sure they are doing alright.
Be sure your coop and run stay dry and clean. Wet muddy conditions are an added stress to your chickens. They need to be able to get out of the wet weather and keep themselves dry. We added a large tarp over the top of our outside run. This keeps the snow and rain out and gives the hens more dry living space. I really wanted to be sure the hens had as much space as they can to wander and scratch.
Additionally we have loaded the hen house with extra bedding and we change that bedding more often than we would in the summer. This helps absorb moisture and keep the hens feet clean.
A draft free place to sleep
Most breeds of chickens are pretty hardy and given the right feed and conditions should do great over the winter. All of the problems I have heard of from other friends that own chickens in the winter comes from lack of protection from cold winds. I have talked to several people who have lost birds to frost bite because the hens couldn’t get out of the wind.
Our coop is designed to be very “airy” in the summer so that the house is nice and cool. As the weather cools we progressively close off the ventilation so that at hen level there are no drafts or wind. You can see from the pictures that we have closed up the ground level vents and covered up the largest window. We also shut the hens in at night by closing the front door to help hold in the heat.
Some warning is needed here; you don’t want your hen house to be 100% air tight. There still needs to be ventilation otherwise there can be a built up of moisture and ammonia in the house. This is bad for the birds overall heath, especially their lungs. We keep at least one of our upper vents open all the time and we always open up the hens door during the day to air things out.
Our hens are a production flock. We bought them to lay eggs and we want them to lay as much as possible. I’m not into free loading hens!! Hens need 12- 14 hours of light a day to keep their egg production up. We added a small cage light with a compact florescent bulb to the coop. It is on a timer that provides them with 14 hours a day of light. Be sure you give them the added light in the morning. If you have the light on in the evening the hens may not see the need to roost and then when the light goes off they may be stuck somewhere on the floor of the coop in the dark. Hens have very poor night vision so they may not be able to find their way up to the roost with out some light.
So this is what we are doing for our hens in the winter. I’m actually finding them to be very hardy and they are really doing well. Our total egg production has slowed less than 10% and they are all healthy and active. There are really some differing opinions out there on what to do in the winter. If you have questions I’d suggest a few other online resources. First, my fellow bloggers at backyard farming have a couple of great posts about winter chicken care, you can find the first by clicking here. Second backyardchickens.com has a lot of great resources including a great forum you can join to ask questions of other chicken enthusiasts.