Raising chickens in winter can be extremely challenging. Especially if you live somewhere that consistently sees temperatures drop well below zero and snow is much more than a four letter word.
If you’re facing brutal winters, it’s best to take the time to understand exactly what your chickens need, and how you can give it to them. With the proper housing, feed, and water, winter should be no trouble at all for your flock. Be prepared for the cold and snowy season with our ultimate winter chicken keeping tips!
The Ultimate Guide to Raising Chickens in Winter
The Best Cold-Hardy Chicken Breeds
The best cold-hardy chicken breeds are those with small combs and wattles and plenty of meat on their bones. These larger chickens are more likely to acclimate to cold temperatures than svelte and skinny birds. This is because they have more fat and muscle to protect them from the cold.
Chickens are susceptible to getting frostbite on their exposed skin in the winter. Chickens with a large comb and wattles are more likely to get frostbite. Their bodies have a hard time regulating the temperature. For this reason, our recommended cold-hardy chicken breeds have small comb and wattles.
All the chicken breeds on our list would be a great addition to your flock if you live in an area that consistently drops below freezing in the winter.
Here’s our list of the top cold-hardy chicken breeds:
- Easter Egger
- New Hampshire Red
- Speckled Sussex
If you’d like to know more about these breeds, be sure to check out our post The Best Cold Hardy Chicken Breeds!
How Chickens Stay Warm in the Winter
When chickens start feeling the cold, they fluff up their feathers. This behavior creates a warm pocket of air between their feathers and their skin. This pocket holds the warm air radiating from the chicken’s body and keeps them comfortable on even the coldest of nights.
Chickens also naturally know to stay indoors when it’s too cold out. You may notice your chickens don’t use the run too much in the winter and don’t like to free range when it’s cold and snowy outside. Your birds naturally know that they need to stay in the coop, where they have insulation and protection from cold wind.
Chickens also like to warm up in the winter by cuddling together on the roost or seeking a higher roost in the winter. Our chickens always change up their roosting behavior when winter hits. Many of them fly up into the rafters of the chicken coop, where the air is warmest.
Winterizing the Chicken Coop
If you’re anxious to take some steps to make your chickens more comfortable in winter, they sure would appreciate it! There are several simple things you can add to your fall chores that will keep your coop warmer and provide a healthier environment for your flock.
Insulation can be the difference between an easy, comfortable winter, and a miserable one. Insulating the coop protects the interior from cold. A properly insulated coop will ensure you don’t need to add heat, and can even keep your water founts from freezing!
Using spray foam insulation or fiberglass insulation is a great way to go about winterizing the coop, but do make sure the insulation is completely covered before you let the chickens back inside. As I’m sure you know, chickens love to peck at and eat things that aren’t edible, and insulation would be mighty tempting for those beaks!
If you want to go a cheaper and easier route to insulating the coop, you could hang tarps or plastic sheeting on the walls to keep the warmth inside. Many chicken keepers also stack bales of straw along the wall for added insulation. Do this at your own discretion, as straw bales could also harbor mold over the winter. And your chickens would not be able to resist playing in the straw, so it may not last the whole winter.
Deep Litter Method
We’re big fans of using the deep litter method in the chicken coop during the winter. This method not only cuts down on winter chicken chores, but it can also add a little heat to your coop in the winter. The basics of the deep litter method are to stir up the bedding on the floor of the coop once a week and add more fresh bedding on top of it. The bedding will get thicker and thicker over the season, adding some nice insulation to the floor of the coop. The combination of chicken droppings and litter will also naturally compost over the winter, letting off a bit of heat and creating a good environment for healthy microbes for your flock.
If you do decide to do the deep litter method this winter, do make sure you’re doing it correctly! Attempting deep litter but doing it wrong will certainly put your flock at risk. A deep litter should never stink or give off excess moisture.
Eliminating drafts is one of the most important things you can do for your flock in the winter. Drafts eliminate a hen’s most important defense against the cold, feather fluffing. If a draft is constantly blowing on your birds, it will disrupt their warm air pockets between their feathers and their skin, causing a chill. At the very least drafts lead to uncomfortable chickens, and the worst, they lead to hypothermia and death.
To eliminate drafts in the coop, ensure all windows and doors are closed on cold days. Seal up cracks and crevices that are on the same level as your birds when they’re walking on the floor, in nesting boxes, or on the roost.
Ventilation is super important in the winter. Many people work so hard at eliminating drafts in their coop that they seal up every gap and crevice so tight that air can’t get in or out. This is a huge no-no! With the coop closed up tight, moisture, ammonia, dust, and carbon dioxide get trapped inside. That can lead to a myriad of health problems in your flock.
So yes, eliminate drafts that blow directly on your chickens, but make sure there is plenty of air circulating in your coop. We like to suggest either drilling holes in the coop wall near the ceiling or cutting some windows up at the top of the coop. Cover them with hardware cloth to keep out pests and predators. This will allow stinky, polluted air to escape, and clean, fresh air to come in.
Check out the Roosts
In the winter, your chickens will naturally avoid any roosts that are close to windows or doors. They’ll also shy away from roosts that are too small or too big for their feet. Chickens keep their feet warm in winter by covering them with their bellies while roosting. If your roosting bar is too big or too small, the hens may not be able to properly cover their feet.
Heating the Chicken Coop, yea or nay?
We’re asked this question by worried chicken keepers every winter, and our answer is always the same. Unless you live in an area that drops below zero (Fahrenheit) for more than a few weeks in the winter, you should not heat the chicken coop.
The risk of coop fires
This is the most obvious and worrisome reason why you should not add heat to the chicken coop. Heat lamps are the leading cause of coop and barn fires. No matter how careful you might think you are, there’s always a significant risk of a heat lamp causing a fire. Heat lamps are notoriously difficult to secure and can be easily knocked down by flying chickens.
You never think it’s going to happen to you until it does. We’ve had several terrifying close calls with heat lamps, and it was enough to make me say, “never again.”
Acclimation to temperature
Another reason you shouldn’t add heat to the coop is that if the heat suddenly goes out, the flock is in serious danger. Think about it… heat lamps break, power outages cause your heat source to lose power, heating systems break. Nothing is guaranteed to work all the time. If your heat source dies unexpectedly, the temperature in your coop will drop severely. When your chicken’s bodies have become acclimated to the heat in the coop, they may go into shock and hypothermia will start when the temperature suddenly drops.
If you’re still on the fence about heat in the chicken coop, this post might help you to decide!
Hearty Winter Foods
Giving your chickens special treats in the winter can help them to put on a nice layer of insulating fat (not too much!) It will also keep them busy and entertained. Boredom is one of the biggest causes of flock fights and bullying. Chickens who have nothing better to do will fight and pick on each other. That can lead to lots of health issues and bad juju in your flock.
Feeding these treats to your flock in the winter will keep them moving. Movement helps them to keep warm and keep them busy. Not only that it provides them with a little happiness and entertainment during the long winter. We like to toss treats right on the coop floor. The chickens will spend the entire day kicking through the straw to find every morsel!
While it’s fine to give your chickens a few extra treats in the winter, don’t take it to the extreme. Chicken obesity is a thing. Allowing birds to put on too much fat will be more of a detriment than help this winter.
Winter foods for chickens:
- Cracked Corn
- Flock Block
- Cooked Oatmeal
- Chicken Crack
- Soup or Chili
- Chicken Scratch
- Winter Squash and Pumpkins
- Lettuce Heads or Cabbage hanging from a treat ball
Dealing with Frozen Water
When the temperature drops below freezing in the chicken coop, you’ll have a big challenge on your hands, dealing with the constantly freezing water fount.
Frozen water founts are pretty much the bane of the chicken keepers existence. It’s always important to keep fresh, clean water available for your flock. But it can be so tough to do that when water freezes over each hour on bitter cold days.
There are several ways to keep your chickens water from freezing, our favorite of which is the base heater for the water fount. This baby plugs into any outlet and provides just enough heat to keep the water in it’s preferred liquid state. This is far and away the easiest way to take care of watering your chickens in the winter.
If you aren’t able to put a base heater in the chicken coop, you’ll have to haul water to and from the coop for your birds. To avoid spending time thawing a frozen fount, which uses a lot of hot water and takes a lot of time, you can buy two water founts for the winter time. Keep one fount in the house full of water, ready to go. When the fount in the coop freezes, bring it inside and exchange it with the fresh one waiting. You can keep switching the founts back and forth, saving a lot of time and frustration for you.
Egg Laying in the Winter
If the temperature drops below freezing inside the coop, it won’t be only the water that freezes, the eggs will freeze too! When eggs freeze, their insides expand and cause the eggs to crack from the stress. If you want to ensure you don’t have frozen, cracked eggs, you’ll want to take time to check the nest several times a day to collect eggs as soon as they’ve been laid.
Another issue with eggs in the winter time is that there just plain aren’t as many of them! Chickens naturally decrease their egg laying in the winter time. As is true for most animals, the winter is a time for hibernation, slower movement, and lower production. Chickens take a break entirely or at least slow down on laying eggs for the entire winter.
Many chicken keepers allow their ladies to take a break in the winter, and simply eat fewer eggs or buy their eggs from the store.
If you need your chickens to keep laying eggs through the winter, you can add supplemental light to the chicken coop for a few hours a day. This will trick the chicken’s bodies into thinking winter is over, and they’ll get back to laying. This process isn’t for everyone… Many argue that it stresses out the chickens and puts too many demands on their bodies, cutting their life expectancy and leading to illness.
Adding Supplemental Light
Chickens need 14-16 hours of light per day in order to lay the same as they would in spring, summer, and fall. If you want to add this supplement light, make sure you do it gradually and safely. A simple 40-watt bulb turned on for an extra 4-5 hours per day will trick your chickens into laying again in the winter. The key is to try to mimic nature as much as possible. When we lose daylight in the winter it doesn’t happen all at once. The days gradually get shorter as time goes on. Just the same, you should gradually increase the number of hours you have the light turned on in the winter until you get up to 14-16 hours of light per day.
If you do choose to add supplemental light to the chicken coop in the winter, you might consider getting a light timer to automatically turn the lights on and off at the appropriate times. Timers are very inexpensive and will save you the time it takes to turn lights on and off. (As well as the burden of having to remember to do this daily chore.)
For an in-depth article on all you need to know about supplemental light in the winter, check out this one from The Prairie Homestead!
Common Chickens in Winter Questions and Answers
Should I get my chicken a sweater for the winter?
This one is a resounding NO. Chicken sweaters sure are cute, and even we like to giggle at pictures of chickens sporting adorable knits. But don’t even think about putting your flock in sweaters this winter. As we already stated, chickens warm themselves by fluffing up their feathers. Chicken sweaters impede that natural behavior. The result is your chickens being colder than they would be without a sweater.
I live in an area that drops well below zero for most of the winter, should I add heat?
Yes, probably. Unless your chicken coop is very well insulated, if you live in an area that gets this cold, you should add some heat. However, we still have to insist that a heat lamp is not the way to go. If you want to heat the coop, you should either have a professional install heat to the coop, or purchase and install a flat panel heater, which is much safer than a heat lamp.
What’s the difference between ventilation and drafts in the coop?
Ventilation is the constant circulation of air, pushing dusty, stinky air out of the coop, and bringing cool, fresh air into the coop. Every environment needs proper ventilation for its inhabitants to thrive, even your home! Bad air must get out, good air must get in, that’s ventilation.
Drafts are like setting up a fan in front of your chicken roost and leaving it on all winter long. Drafts blow cold air directly onto your birds in a constant stream. Look for drafts to come from open windows, doors, or cracks in the walls at the same level as your chickens when they’re walking around, roosting, or nesting.
My chickens don’t want to come into the coop in the winter, should I leave them outside?
Remember, your chickens aren’t the boss, you are. They may not want to come inside. But if you want for them to survive winter, you must get them inside. Chickens can be pretty smart, but sometimes they don’t know what’s best for them, you do. Do whatever it takes to capture them and get them into the coop before winter hits.
Leaving your chickens out in the chicken run or out in the great outdoors is a very bad idea in the winter. Not only are they at risk of freezing to death, but they’re also at risk of getting eaten by predators at night. Predators are simply more desperate in the winter. Chickens can get into bad habits of sleeping in places where they shouldn’t. It’s up to you to move them to the safest place.
Should I close my chickens up in the coop when the temperature drops?
Our general rule of thumb is if the temperature drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, the chickens get locked into the coop. If it’s above that temperature, we keep the door to the chicken run open during the day so they can go out of they choose. We give them the opportunity to free-range in the great outdoors on days that are above freezing and the snow isn’t too deep. They do enjoy stretching their legs once in a while.
Can I keep chickens in a raised coop in the winter?
Yes, if you can manage to block off all drafts that could blow on your birds. If any part of your chicken coop is made of chicken wire or hardware cloth instead of solid wood or plastic, you’ll need to fix it before winter. Simply attaching a piece of plywood to cover any open areas will make a big difference. Otherwise, the constant blowing air through the wire will absolutely cause misery for your flock. They need four solid walls, a roof, and a solid floor to survive winter.
I brought my hen into the house to warm up, how do I reintroduce her to the coop?
Do it as gradually as possible. The shock of going from a toasty warm house to a frigid coop is enough to kill a hen. If you have a garage, mudroom, or porch that is cooler than your house but not as cold as the coop, move your hen there for a few days before moving to the coop. It would also help to move then hen back to the coop on a warmer or sunnier day. Every bit of warmth would help her to acclimate back to the outdoors.
Whew! I know that was a lot of information on keeping chickens in winter. But I do hope it was helpful for you! As always, I’m available to answer questions, just leave a comment below. Or if you just want to say hi, I’d love to chat chickens with you!
For the love of chickens,