One of the most frequently asked questions I receive about my chickens is “What do you do with them in the winter?”. This especially important since we live in New England where you never know what winter will bring. With the recent blizzard we had (albeit, hyped up to sound way worse than it was), I figured now was as good a time as any to share our winter chicken keeping tips.
No, I don’t use a heat lamp, space heater, or anything crazy. Just stop and think about it for a few minutes — chickens have been around for forever, and were kept successfully in decades without electricity or fancy heating elements! In fact, those heating methods can be more dangerous for your chickens than the temperatures themselves. A curious chicken can (and most certainly will) peck at a heat lamp bulb if it is within reach. You don’t want your beautiful bird getting a face full of glass, or worse! There is also the risk of fire with heaters — you’re basically putting something REALLY hot in a building made of wood that is stuffed with wood shavings and hay . . . not the best idea.
So I figured I would share what we do to ensure our girls have a warm coop for the winter, hopefully it will help all those who are considering keeping chickens one day, or who are looking for new tips or tricks.
1) Plastic Sheeting
This stuff is our #1 defense against the cold for our girls. Worse than the actual temperature is the wind. I buy a roll of sheeting every year (although last year, I actually cut and reused the plastic bag our new mattress had come in and that worked just great!) and staple it over all the openings. You want to make sure you are careful to overlap over any seams or openings, but still allowing for access to the interior. I completely covered over one of the front doors, and then cut around the latch on the other side so I could still clean out the upstairs level and refill their water. The better job you do, the less wind and water that can get it!
It is important to remember that the coop still needs ventilation however. An air-tight coop can lead to respiratory issue, so make sure they are able to get fresh air from somewhere. We drilled a few holes in a post that is covered by the roof’s overhang, so they can get airflow but the wind won’t be blowing directly in, carrying snow or rain with it. Our girls also have 24/7 access to their yard (which is secure from predators) so they can go out and about when they want to.
Maybe this seems obvious, but it’s so true. Hay is your best friend! My husband and I buy two bales from a local farm every fall. Since there is a gap between our chicken coop and the stockade fence around our garden, I stuff hay in there like a mad man. Don’t be shy when stuffing either — if you don’t stuff enough, it will sag over time and you’ll find yourself out there in negative temperatures stuffing more in! I use a hoe to help pack it down, and literally climbed up on top of the coop and stuffed more in. I kept checking inside the coop to make sure there weren’t any gaps.
I then give the girls a generous amount of hay in their nesting box, laying box, upstairs and downstairs levels, and I refresh this as needed throughout the winter. It’s adorable to watch them build their little sitting nests and snuggle in during cold days.
3) Heated Cable
My husband came up with this plan to keep the waterer from freezing, and it works like a dream. The cable only lets off enough heat to keep the water above freezing, but isn’t a danger to the chickens. We run an outdoor extension wire along the fence (so it’s not pretty, but hey it works!) and through an unused dryer vent to a socket in the basement. The cable wraps around the waterer, with a portion laying directly in the tray. Super simple and cost effective as we didn’t need to invest in anything expensive.
The first year we tried the cookie-tin/light bulb idea that you may have seen, but found it would only keep the tray from freezing which meant nothing once the top had frozen solid! It was also hard to find a lightbulb that fit, but didn’t throw off too much heat.
4) Know your Chickens!
You know your chickens best, and are the expert on their quirks and personalities. If you notice that one of your hens isn’t acting like her usual self, check her out as soon as possible. A chicken’s comb should be upright and bright red, indicating a healthy blood flow. If you go out and your chicken has a pale comb, and it is flopping over, you’ll want to start looking her over to find out what is wrong.
This is another reason that you are the best judge. 3 out of my 4 hens have bright, bold red combs, while my Rhode Island Red (Pogo) has a low-profile, paler comb. It’s just how she is, but it’s important to know what is normal for your chickens.
You should also monitor their feet for color changes or injuries. Their feet should be clean and a healthy color — no yellowing or black. Again, it is important to know your chickens because my California Gray (Morgan) has feet and legs that are naturally more yellow than those of her sisters.
Attitude, movement and diet are also good indicators. If you chicken is moping around, won’t nibble on even their favorite snack, or hardly moves, these are good signs that something is a miss.
Experienced chicken keepers know that the above are good indicators that something is wrong, but can also be warning signs for multiple reasons. This again why you as the chicken-mama are so important! You know where they have been, what they have been eating, and their living conditions. Make sure that if you see something wrong, you evaluate the situation first: Do they have plenty of food and fresh water? Remember that chickens need additional protein to keep the bodies warm, so it is a good idea to supplement their feed. My husband I grow fodder for them, using a mix of oats and red barley, and they get one healthy tray full every day. We also give them plenty of veggie/fruit scraps and sunflower seeds.
Make sure the coop is dry, safe and most importantly – clean. Don’t let their waste pile up inside, that’s just asking for problems. Sure it sucks to scoop poop out on cold days when you’re standing knee-high in snow, but hey, that’s what chicken-raising is!
I hope my tips can help some new chicken keepers out there! We learned a lot by trial and error, and had our own mini freak out of “what do we do?!” when we fell in love with the hens we were originally supposed to eat, and now had to figure out how to winterize the coop. Each coop and yard set up is different too, so tweak these ideas to work for you, and share your successes!
All in all, it’s a little prep work that goes a long way towards keeping those chickens warm all winter! We’ve been very lucky that by keeping them cozy, and upping their fodder intake, we get a consistent quantity of eggs throughout the winter versus having the hens quit laying entirely until Spring, which is normal.