Preparing your Laying Flock for Winter, Part 1

If you have a flock of laying hens, there are several important steps you can take to prepare for the colder weather and shorter days that winter brings.  These steps will help you keep your layers in the best health and encourage them to lay well right through winter.

Temperature

Photo by Wendy Weinacker

The first thing that comes to mind, with the approach of winter is colder temperatures.  In any climate, you will need to provide a dry, draft-free shelter for your chickens.  In mild climates, an uninsulated coop is adequate.  In colder climates, with temperatures near or below 0° F, you will probably need an insulated coop.  In extremely cold climates, you may need supplemental heat.

Chickens lay best when the air temperature is above 55° F.  In temperatures colder than that, their egg production will decline.

Many factors affect how well your chicken coop retains heat and how well your flock stays warm:

  • Coop design
  • Coop construction – a tightly built coop will be less drafty, but may be more subject to moisture build up.
  • Coop exposure to wind – the wind cools your coop in cold weather and can also make it drafty.  Windbreaks help.
  • Exposure to sunlight – this affects how much heat your coop will absorb from the sun.  Latitude and cloudiness are also factors.
  • Breed of chicken – some breeds are more susceptible to frostbite than others, and some breeds have warmer feathering than others.
  • Flock size – a large flock makes more heat and can stay warm more easily than a small flock.

If you live in an extremely cold climate, it is important to check on your flock regularly to see how they are responding to the cold weather.

Ventilation

Even though you want a draft free environment for your chickens, it should also be adequately ventilated.  Chickens put off a lot of moisture, and it’s important to have enough exchange of fresh air to keep this moisture from building up.  Damp air is much more conductive than dry air, and it draws away warmth from your chickens’ bodies, making them more susceptible to frost bite.

One way to visualize the right kind of ventilation for the chicken coop is to think about your own home on a cold winter day. Suppose you want to air out your home to freshen up the air a bit. If you open windows on both the front and back of your house, particularly if your house faces the wind, you may get a strong enough wind inside to send papers flying and quickly make it uncomfortably cold.  This cross ventilation is not what you want on a cold day in your own home, and it’s not what you want for your chickens in the cold weather either.

Instead, if you open one window on only one side of the house, preferably the downwind side, then you’ll get a gentle air exchange that removes the stuffiness and lowers the air temperature a little, but not too much.  This type of ventilation is what you should give your chickens. Provide a right-sized opening on the downwind side of the coop, and open it enough to let air circulate as much as needed. This will remove dampness and mustiness.

[To read part 2 of this article, see Preparing your Laying Flock for Winter, Part 2.]

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35 Responses to Preparing your Laying Flock for Winter, Part 1

  1. Mike from Michigan says:

    Since it gets dark at 5:30 pm, I use an LED light that comes on at 2:00 am and off at 8:00 (it’s light by then). I also put my base water heater on a timer. To conserve electricity, it’s set to come on at 4:00 am and off at 6:00 pm. I started using the light in November; a couple weeks later I started get eggs every day.

    • fred says:

      [...] I live in British Columbia, Canada on Vancouver Island. I have six Golden Laced Wyandottes, and in May through Aug (the longest days) up to today, February 27, all through the winter’s shortest days, all six of our chickens have been laying a egg a day with out extra light. Every one that knows chickens says that’s rare. I thought it was normal.

  2. Nancy Merry says:

    I am concerned about putting my 8 week old chickens out doors at this time of the year. Is it safe to put them in a coop so young? Do I insulate or put some heat inside as they have been under a light part time now.??? Their home is going to be part of our garage add on and will be approximately 8X12X6ft. high. I need to enclose it some more as the temperatures here have been as low as 20 already (East Cost – Ma.) First time owner and do not want to make a mistake.

    • McMurray Staff says:

      Nancy, once the chicks are fully feathered, with no more downy feathers, they can normally go without additional heat (depending on the climate and time of year and location). Since you are in a cold climate, and since the chicks are still quite young, it would be best for their coop to be draft-free or insulated.

      The best indicator of whether to add heat to their coop when temperatures are very cold will come from the chicks themselves, and how they are acting. If they seem to be chilled, or if they are huddling together, then you will want to add more heat to the coop. A small wattage bulb (40-60 watt) is usually sufficient for added heat, along with their body heat in the coop.

  3. paulaPaul says:

    Really great info. I live in Florida, so I guess other than humidity we have it pretty good. I started selling my silkies, etc. about 2 months ago, so I wonder if this is part of my laying issue (I am very hands on with my birds so they are more pet than livestock). I tried light for a week and after the first night, they decided to sleep outdoors of their coop. However since June/July they’ve laid no eggs, when prior they were super. They get layer feed corn, pellets for boredom, pasta, grass, and vegetables/fruit. They have been wormed, and I even tried antibiotics for 7 days in case there might be something bothering them. I guess I have to wait it out.

  4. jeff schenck says:

    Thanks for the tips on the prep for the cold weather.

  5. Angel Mountin says:

    This fall I seem to have a lot more Owls ans Hawks than before. I’m attributing this to the Cold weather and the oil in the LA area. I’ve had to start reinforcing my cages and coop with small holed heavy wire because the predators are tearing down the screening. I’m expecting more wildlife this year in the south.

  6. Margaret Terrell says:

    I love reading all these great tips. Can’t wait to read part two. Margaret Terrell

  7. Fatma Gul says:

    I bought flock (25) of Cochin brahma chicks beginning of September. We live in close to Denison, Texas on the Texoma Lake. I am concerned about their tolerance to winter whether. We have mild whether most of the winter but we get cold fronts will bring temperature down to 10’s. Our coop is very durable, Do I have to provide heat and when?

  8. Craig says:

    I enjoy the exchanges of information on here so I thought I would post my winter experience. I live in the mountains of PA and we drop well below 0 and in the teens very often through winter. I keep flock of about 18 that includes exotics and farm breeds and have had great bird health through the winter by using a 4 foot by 1 inch hollow copper pipe wrapped in a heat tape used to keep pipes from freezing. You can buy them cheap at Lowe’s or Home Depot, and they are thermostatically controlled to only come on in freezing weather. I wrapped the heat tape in a shiny metal duct tape and I mount them to one inside wall of my coops and I run an extension cord to those and to a heat plate for their fountain which is kept under a tin roof in winter months.

    Although they lay less, I use no light on them, and they seem pretty cozy in their coops as the heat rises up to their roosts. I have not noticed a big change in the electric bill as a result either, and the flock had no cold related ailments or deaths last winter. Hope that helps those deciding on what type of low maintenance heat they may try as this has worked great for me. I may experiment with filling the copper tube with vegetable oil and capping each end so it retains the heat longer and radiates.

    • Angel Mountin says:

      I use radiator type oil heaters in my coop in winter. They work great, though they do add to the electric bill. I’m looking into solar solutions for the future.

    • fred says:

      I thought they were ready to use as they came out of the packing. Why would you have to wrap the the tape on to the pipe with shiny metal duct tape. Could you just use pieces of wire twisted on to hold the tape instead, or is there another purpose for using duct tape?

  9. Ericka says:

    I’m new at this chicken business. I have 15 hens, only 5 are laying right now. The rest are soon to lay. I built them a 6×6-8ft. high coop, got their nest boxes set, and put their roosts high off the ground. I also have a 12×16 run for them. I’m outside watching them daily seeing if there is anything that I can do to make them happier. So, I felt sorry for them cause I didn’t think they had enuff room in their coop and extended it out another 6 feet. So, now it’s a 6×12-8ft. high. My question is: How many more chickens can I get to fill the space? I don’t want to overcrowd them, but I want more. I enjoy caring for them…

    • Brad Kear says:

      I have a similar size and I have 25 birds. They are quite comfortable with the coop and I have a 15 x 15 outdoor run as well. So I would think you could add more birds.

  10. paulaPaul says:

    I have hatched up a theory that my chickens are not laying because they do not have direct sun. Husband says no. Our coop sits under a large shade tree, bordering on woods on two sides. They are safe, free-fed, fresh watered, coop & run kept and very friendly (used to lay reliably when I got them). Help needed to settle the dispute.

    • Ericka says:

      My coop is in about the same area as yours is. I don’t think it’s the direct sun affecting them. They seem to know when it’s daylight whether the trees are in the way of it or not. I don’t think it’s necessarily the sun-it’s the light. I guess as long as they can see – they think it’s daylight.

    • Eowynrohan says:

      It might be just coincidence, but sounds like you moved laying hens. Every time I’ve done that, they stopped laying until after their next molt. Even 5 month olds that had just started to lay… Very frustrating. Ours seem to settle in and start laying after the winter. Hang in there and next time start with chicks.

    • Oreste Ona says:

      Give them all the sun light they can get. They need it to get it through their eyes to enable them to lay eggs. Give them a shade area also.

    • Suzette says:

      As your chickens get older they will lay less, If you have been lighting your chickens, your chickens need a rest from laying. This is how to do this. During the shortest days in the winter take the light away for 1 month. When you add the light back they should start laying well again, but not as well as they did when they did when they were younger.

    • Angel Mountin says:

      PaulaPaul, you didn’t say where you live. Other than 14-16 hrs, of sunlight or artificial light temperature is a factor. My birds do not lay below about 72° F or above 102° F or a little less. They cannot live over 103° F and are sensivite to environment and stress, cats, dogs, etc.. I like them to rest, as laying puts a strain on the hens, and they need calcium to their diet.

    • fred says:

      Read my comment near the top (32 responses to preparing your laying flock for winter) where it says:

      Fred says: the only thing I can add to that is we can hardly see the sky for trees. Our half acre has over forty big big big fir and ceder trees. It keeps out the eagles and hawks and any thing else that flies. It also keeps sun light to a minimum. My chickens are laying an egg a day all winter no extra light of any kind, and in winter it’s dark out at 4pm and light at 8am. They never get any more 9 hr of lite in December and January and 10hr in February and March, but they never miss a day. P.S., no heater, and sometimes it’s -20°(C).

  11. Janice says:

    Last winter I had my flock of 30 in an open-south-side coop, insulated on the north, with a bit of lighting to extend daylight hours. For the first time ever I had only one problem with frostbite… I attribute this success to the lack of humidity achieved when I opened the south side. In the past, I tried to seal them up well, which I learned created problems due to the humidity… When we had a crazy (for Kansas) long cold spell with -27F windchills I hung a few blankets over the south side and ran a milkhouse heater on very low at night, but they still free-ranged all day, slept well at night, and layed regularly right through the winter months.

    I did learn one very valuable thing last winter … I had ended up with a donated, relatively insane Crested Polish rooster and huge Red Leghorn, both of whom had ridiculously long waddles… Without a good coating of vaseline they tended toward frostbite. When their waddles swell, they can’t get their beaks into the water, and when the crazy Polish decided he was NOT roosting inside one night and I gave up fighting him, he and I both learned the thick-vaseline lesson quickly. He spent a few days in my bathroom getting water (and Bach Rescue Remedy) from a dropper as his waddles went from black to purple to blue and finally back to red, and gradually decreased from their 3-times swollen state to normal. Once he was able to drink water again I let him back out to his hens, much to his delight. Amazing…

  12. Joanne Hartley says:

    This will be our Speckled Sussex hens’ first winter. We are afraid to insulate their coop for fear of cutting off the air, but we have no electricity to the building either. We have put up a solar light, and will also use a battery operated one if needed. However, we are concerned about the dampness as we are in the NW rainforest here in WA state. The nine hens seem to be ok ranging even on rainy days, but it is just now getting cold in the mornings. How will we know when they are in distress?

    • Tim says:

      We are on the west side of Puget sound as well and have kept chickens for about 15 years. Most breeds seem pretty comfortable even in 30 degree weather. I find they are okay even in the rare times we get down to 15 or 20 degrees as long as they don’t have a draft and can be in a place where they can warm themselves at night. (Vaseline on their wattles really helps.) I wouldn’t bother with a solar light since those are usually LED lights and don’t put out any heat. All the extra light will do is encourage them to lay which might make it a little more stressful for them.

    • Chris Byers says:

      Listen to them, when they are unhappy they will make unhappy sounds. Sounds a bit odd, but when you listen to chickens if it soothes you, they are happy. If you listen and it starts to put you on edge, they are in distress or some other problem needs to be addressed.

      If you have a place for them to get out of the wet, they will be fine most of the time. Mine would not even go into the coop once they became use to laying in their nest boxes outside of the coop and roosting in the trees next to the house. Never became sick, laid lots of eggs and avoided becoming dinner.

      Chickens love to talk, not all of us take the time to listen to what they have to say!

    • Will says:

      I’m in Fall City, and have have had chickens for near seven years, with a one year break in the middle somewhere.

      I had a flock of 32 at one time, but now have two flocks (age separated) of 2 years, and one.

      Winter time, the largest issue is the water fount freezing. Fount heaters are the solution, and sure beat trudging out in slippers to pour the tea kettle into the waterer.

      Light is the other issue. I have one 40 equivalent CFL on a timer in both of the 4x4x8 enclosures. A 15W or 7.5W even incandescent would work in an enclosure of this size.

      Stretching out the “day” to 15 hours has consistently kept me in eggs, with only a slight fall off when the temps hit the 20’s.

      Heating isn’t an issue with my enclosures; the roost is 29 usable inches wide, and three evenly spaced bars. The birds that close together generate enough communal heat that no additional is required. And the 4x4x8 construct helps a lot.

      And yes, they do have yard access; I’m not keeping them boxed up but at night. Fenced, 1″ wire, 18″ laid out flat at the bottom, and buried all around. (dig under this). And wire over the top of one, gill netting over the other; not to keep them in, but to keep hawks, etc out.

      I have 5 in the older flock, and 12, soon to be reduced (straight run roosters) in the younger hatched flock.

  13. Nancy-Jo White says:

    I love this series of articles. Anything that helps me make the lives of my chickens better, is a good thing. I am definitely looking forward to part II.

  14. Rachel says:

    We are almost completed with a nice 4×8 by 4-5 ft tall sloped enclosed chicken coop (for protection from predators & weather at night) that is within a 10×10 by 6 ft tall caged run. I would think Virginia (Newport News in particular) is a typically mild winter, but am I underestimating the cold in this region? We have 12 “cold hardy” hens (Black Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Welsummers, Golden Laced Wyandottes, Plymouth Barred Rocks and Light Brahmas. Should we in fact insulate our fully enclosed (with proper ventilation) coop? Our coop is built onto our shed.

  15. Lissa says:

    I have a mixed flock of 17 laying hens; they are now one year old. From about 8 months on, we would collect 10-14 eggs per day! Now, we’re only getting 3 a day. What’s happening???? (They have been molting for about 6 weeks… is this it?) They seem very healthy and happy.

    • Lissa, hens will usually stop laying when they molt, which they will normally start doing in late summer or fall, as the number of daylight hours per day begins to decrease. Hens need 14-16 hours of daylight to lay well, and the number of daylight hours in Virginia at this time of year is approximately 11 1/2 and decreasing. To maintain egg laying through the winter months, you can use artificial lighting in the coop. It doesn’t take a lot of lighting – they just need about 1/2 foot candle of light. We’ll discuss winter lighting more in part 2 of this article.

      You can look at the number of daylight hours at any latitude using this daylight hour explorer tool.

  16. Sandy says:

    Very informative, thank you.
    What kind of chicken is that in the photo by Wendy?

  17. I have 5 Polish pullets and this will be their first winter. They are housed with 4 Dark Brahmas.
    Are there any special tips for the Polish surviving Massachusetts winters?

  18. Cathy says:

    Thanks for the information!! It is very appreciated!!!

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