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.]