Caring for Chickens in the winter time

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.

 

Breed Selection

 

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.

Choosing Chicken Breeds

Red Stars

Feed

 

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.

Water

 

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.

 

Dry conditions

 

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.

 

Light

 

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.

 

4 Comments

  1. Naomi Pockell December 27, 2011 7:05 pm Reply

    Your comments on the lighting are right on. I did it the wrong way first, then figured out that the instant switch from light to dark was not so great!!!

    I’m in central CA–it rarely gets to freezing, but it’s cold for chickens used to 90 degree plus summers. We don’t have too much wind, so I don’t close off the screen window in their coop–I think feeding them a scoop of scratch every day helps keep them warm.

    I have red some red stars (who are production stars, in my book!) and some Black Jersey Giants as well as a bunch of other breeds. All seem to be handling the extreme temperature changes of our area well. I think they adapt pretty well.

    I used to free range our flock for only one or two hours most days, but now that I know they will go into the coop to lay their eggs if they need to do that, and that they will go in a dusk, unbidden by me, I let them out in the yard much more often–sometimes all day. I was a little concerned they might hop the fence and wind up in traffic or the neighbors’ yards, but they seem to know which side of the bread their butter is on!!!

    • Rick December 28, 2011 8:21 am Reply

      Naomi, It is good to hear from another Red Star owner. Very few of the people that I know around here have even heard of Red Stars. Mine seem to be holding up really well in the cold weather. We have had lows in the teens and 20’s for a month or more now and they seem healthy and happy.

      I wish we could let our hens out more than we do. Because our garden is spread out all over the yard there is no way for us to keep them out of it so we have to be outside with them when they are out. We also live in fairly rural area (as rural as you can get in the suburbs) and we have raccoon, skunks, foxes and hawks to worry about. In fact my wife watched a near miss with one of our hens and a hawk just a few months ago. Had she not been there to distract the hawk we would have been down one chicken!

  2. steef February 15, 2017 12:24 am Reply

    It’s nice to have eggs the whole year long but in the winter I buy them.
    At some point the chicken has run out of eggs and by giving them light at the winter this point will be earlier. Than the chicken is too old to eat (I couldn’t eat her, even if she was young!).
    My chickens get their rest during wintertime and when they have finaly stopt laying eggs they can get old peacefully. In the meen time I buy 2 young chickens and get my eggs from them (during spring, summer and fall).

    • Mr. Stoney February 15, 2017 8:36 am Reply

      No free loaders at our place. We are careful to NOT treat our chickens as pets so we don’t get attached. Once production drops off they will be culled from the flock and replaced. All of this is currently theoretical as we have moved since this post was written and currently are not allowed to have chickens on our smaller lot. We are working with the city to change that.

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