The Cold Hard Truth – Chickens in the Winter

Winter can be tough on everyone.  The bitter cold bites at your lungs while the howling wind cracks your hands.  Frozen tears cry for warmer weather while layers and layers of bundling limit your mobility to a stay puft marshmallow man.  I am not a fan of winter. 

The elements of the winter season are embraced by many I’m sure.  While I certainly enjoy a good Winter Olympics, sled riding with the kids and of course that white Christmas that Crosby sings about every year, I would much rather have a limited exposure to it.  When it comes to our animals outside, limiting their exposure is exactly what we need to do.  We certainly learned a few lessons this past winter in caring for our chickens.  Some things, quite frankly, I took for granted during the warmer days and others we were lucky enough to learn or be told about that we will incorporate into next season’s preparation.  

Water:  Oh how I longed to be able to turn on the hose outside at 5:00 am  to fill the waterers in the coops.  With six or more inches of snow on the ground and negative temperatures for days, the spigot unfortunately was not going to spew.  A three foot long icicle hanging from the spigot quickly told me I should have done something differently.  Watering the chickens now consisted of filling several pitchers of water to fill the three gallon waters in the coops.  I had to do this in the dark on most days as I dare not wake up the little ones who needed several more hours of sleep.  I learned quickly to pay attention to not spill any water on my hands as I turned the filled waterers upright in the coop.  The first time I reached for the door knob to the garage with wet hands I found myself breathing as much hot air as I could on my hand that was now frozen to the door knob.  Several times my index finger would freeze to the metal latch of the coop door and I kept thinking about how this just happened the day before – how can I keep making the same mistakes?  I chalked it up to early morning delirium.

Coops:  Kim at the hatchery here was wowing me with her stories of her glorious coops she had in the past.  She told me about the shutters on the windows and the curtains she sewed for them.  She also talked about how she built the coop with insulation.  I thought she was getting a little extreme with the insulation until I moved to Iowa and felt the cold hard truth of the winters.  As winter came in, I thought my chickens would be okay.  I have hardy breeds such as Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks and the like.  Chickens have been around long before insulation I reasoned, surely they will be fine.  Hold that thought. 

During a visit to Joel Salatin’s place he showed us his deep bedding philosophy in action and I quickly got an appreciation for this as I watched the chickens scratch and bed down in the thick bedding.  Joel mentioned that while he loved the egg production of the Red Star’s, he preferred the hardiness of the large breeds like the Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds.  He had found that the Red Star’s just didn’t take the winter as well as these other breeds.  A week after our trip to Joel’s, there in my coop was my Red Star, Ester, lifeless.  I was devastated.  My kids were devastated.  And it was my fault.  My mind flashed back to Kim talking about insulating her coops, it flashed to Joel talking about deep bedding.  For my small coops in the backyard, I needed to do something different.  I quickly added a lot more bedding, put heat lamps in each coop and put thick plastic around all exposed windows of the coop and the runs.  I should have done this already – I’m not sure what I was (or wasn’t) thinking but I know now – unfortunately this was a costly lesson to learn.

Feed – I was in the habit of feeding the chickens in the morning but with the cold weather, the chickens will need to eat more to maintain their body weight.  I switched to feeding them twice a day (or at least ensuring they had food in the feeders in the evening.).  I learned again that walking to the coops in the yard was something I took for granted.  With a few warm days periodically throughout the season, it was just enough to melt some snow and then refreeze it into this uneven treacherous frozen tundra.  One day in particular I was walking a loaded feeder back to the coop when I found myself gliding down the yard like a downhill skier!  Panic set it quickly as I tried to maintain the fully filled feeder while riding the roller coaster of this ice path.  The trip came to an abrupt end with the feeder in the air, my tush landing hard on the ice, my eyes glaring up at the starry night sky and the chickens squacking at me as I lay there doing a quick limb check.  Feeding in the winter can be dangerous.  Next year, I’m keep a nice, clear patch shoveled to the coop.

I always tell new chickens owners that chickens need three basic things:  Food, Water and Shelter.  Unfortunately for me, even with having owned chickens and working at a hatchery, I let winter come in like a lion and chase my common sense away this time.  Winter can be tough on everyone, and it was especially for me this winter.  As I proved, exposing our chickens to the elements can be deadly if we are not prepared.  While I know we are getting to the end of winter now, later this week I’m going to share a quick list of some winter tips that Kim put together for us.  One of the best ways to prepare for exposing our chickens to winter, is getting ourselves exposed to the hard lessons learned by others.

With Spring upon us now, I look forward to the warm weather and look for ice only to be my tea.

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16 Responses to The Cold Hard Truth – Chickens in the Winter

  1. Bev says:

    I am currently trying to convince hubby insulating my coop, pre-bird, would be a great idea! Thanks for sharing and better luck next winter!

  2. betty dedman says:

    Sorry about your loss of your hen. I STILL haven’t built a coop, but I have a barn, and my birds have had 3 years of winter quarters in the east side, 12′ x 16′ stall that I had promised to my QH, “Buster Brown.” My barn is wooden and sided and when you put 2 horses and almost 30 chickens in it and it can be 20 degrees warmer than outside, even with the front door (east) open and a window open.
    Early on I bought a heated dog water bowl for my birds. Unlike horses, the birds will not play with the coil that encases the cord, so they are pretty safe. I even put ice in it and it melts for them–saves toting water! I also use a heat lamp on a 13 hr. daytime timer so that I can guarantee some eggs every day.
    You might want to do some reading up. Here is a very good article about a book written in 1914 regarding supplying enough fresh air for your chickens in the winter. … lation.asp
    (Don’t worry too much about Buster Brown. He gets the 16′ x 19′ shelter for the winter and is quite comfortable. The shelter is adjacent to the barn and has a window to socialize with my other gelding, who has a 12′ x 12′ stall inside of the barn, and my mare, who has a 12” x 8′ stall.)

  3. Ann Mesinger says:

    I have 3 hens- 2 Red Stars and one leghorn. They all molted early winter, and restarted laying as the days became longer. The leghorn has started laying thin shelled eggs- more like a membrane. All 3 share the same feeder, I give them extra calcium, and the red stars have fully formed eggs. When the shell isn’t formed, I find the egg near the door of the coop- otherwise her formed eggs are in the nesting box. Lately there have been more unformed eggs and I can’t figure out why- thoughts?

  4. Bill Wiltshire says:

    Dear Chris,
    I’m sorry to hear that you lost your beloved chicken to cold weather. I live in Middleburg, Florida and it can get cold here as well-low 20’s at times. I have just built my coop in preparation for a 50 chick shipment from McMurry on 5/11-5/14 of this year and I insulated it bottom, sides, and top. Even though we don’t experience the bitter winter weather you do, I believe a comfortable chicken is a productive chicken, an so I leave nothing to chance. may the chicken gods smile upon your hens next year.
    All the best,
    Bill Wiltshire

  5. Dorothy Miner says:

    Hi, We to have chickens in the winter and we live almost as bad as Iowa, Upstate NY. Where it can be 80 one day and snow the next. With our chickens.. we have an insulated coop we built for them. We do not use a heat lamp, because if the power goes off the chickens freeze. We use a 100 w light bulb. it will give off enough heat along with the heat from the chickens to keep them from freezing. The light bulb also dries out the moisture from the chickens.. Chickens put off a lot of humid body heat. Also during the winter I give as a treat is Cooked oatmeal with nothing on it.. just plain the warm oatmeal is great for their belly’s. I also give them plain yogurt. Filled with Lots of calcium for them and they just love it… I know chickens can get bored cooped up all winter so we take a head of cabbage and sting it on a wire… so it will hang and swing… they love it food and a toy.. As another treat I give them the rest of the bread ends hear and there…. but not a lot…. it really isn’t good for them… make sure its crumbled up small.. it will stick in their throat.. another protein I give them is left over meat… like hot dogs.. beef… pork ,, chicken… yes chicken.. its protein but Nothing on it…. Nothing.. Plain even if you have to wash it off.. and remember SMALL PIECES. There is so much more I could tell you… our neighbor’s call me the Chicken Lady…LOL …. Good luck and have fun…

  6. Louis Brumaghim says:

    I built my coop on a old pop-up camper. It has 1/2 inch insulation board covered on the inside with 1/4 inch luan plywood as the chickens will peck the insulation board. Two Large windows on one side, to let in plenty of light. Metal nest on opposite wall and roost in the one end and people door on the other. Winters cold here in upstate N.Y. Waterer has pan style heater under it and is thermostatic controlled. I have 18 hens and one rooster, only because I like to hear him crow and also when the hens are outside he keeps a keen watch for any intruders. Plenty of bedding to keep the floor warm.

  7. Ed Bruske says:

    We just started our farm last year on 25 acres in Upstate New York and this was one of the harshest winters here in 30 years with temperatures sometimes plunging to 15 below. One of the first things we did was run electric and water lines to a permanent livestock paddock and it was in this vicinity–just over a wire fence in the orchard–that we parked the mobile coop we built with 28 Rhode Island Reds. There they’ve been for the last five months and, other than a little frostbite, thriving. With an outdoor electric outlet nearby, I was able to run a line to an heated base inside the coop for our 5-gallon waterer. I fill the waterer from an outdoor hydrant we had installed next to the electrical (or buckets from the kitchen when the hydrant froze). The heater has worked like a charm and has been a real life saver. I can’t imagine keeping chickens in winter without it.

  8. Codi says:

    Yes about winter: I have about 30 chickens, Dominiques, Cookcoo Marans, Welsummers, Barred Rocks (who started laying Septermber of 2013), and a few older birds (Silver Laced Wyandots, a Maran and an Easter Egger) from previous years (I’m letting them live out their lives. They don’t lay any more though.) One year I let my older Marans out too soon, while some snow still lay on the ground. One of them died the next day. I can only image that she ate too much snow ( since I caught her scarfing it down several times) and couldn’t handle the cold.

    I have also two male Mallards now chomping at the bit to get out of the hen house, to play in the duck pond. But the one, whom I named Grey Beak for obvious reasons if you took one look at him; is more than upset that I won’t let him out yet. So I finally got the idea to pick him up, take him to the door and show him that there was snow on the ground. You should have hear the grumbling them. Now he just sticks his head out of his room when I come up to feed and check for eggs; just to look out the door to see if the snow has gone yet. When he sees the snow is still on the ground he slumps back to him cozy room grumbling. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he can finally come out to swim.

  9. Scott says:

    This was my first winter with chickens too and the one thing I learned beyond what you’ve mentioned is that chickens need their space. If for no other reason, than to get away from the bullies. By the time I learned that my snowblown path from my deck to the coop wasn’t enough it was too late. Three of my girls had bald patches above the base of their tail and another had that plus all the feathers pecked clean from her tail down the back of her legs. I felt so bad for them. I did some more snowblowing in the backyard and the situation improved some, but the damage had been done and now they have to wait for their first molt. Live and learn.

  10. Julie Russell says:

    Question: Do you let the chickens out of the coop in winter, or do they need to be kept in?

  11. Love this article. Haven’t had chickens for a few years but remember similar scenarios back in the day. I am starting my chicken family again with 25 baby chicks arriving in April. I had already planned to be better organized for the winter next year with all your suggestions and more. It’s always nice to hear of others trials and tribulations. vlmauer

  12. Stephanie says:

    My chickens are out all winter here in Northern, New England. Water is the biggest concern and what I found is that I have 3 chicken watering containers that I rotate. I fill one with warm water, go out to the coop, switch out the frozen with the warm then leave the frozen on the counter to thaw… and this is the process. I find that the coop can get pretty messy so I have a great deal of bedding inside and take advantage of every “warm” (relatively speaking) day to change out the bedding. Frozen eggs are pretty common. I do sweep a snowy area and this year we have had over 70 inches of snow so I was running out of space but the girls do NOT like to be kept in and letting them out allows them to make a decision.

  13. Tim Rott says:

    We live in ND, where it certainly can be colder than IA. We’ve got a mix of 9 Red Stars, 2 Black Stars, 1 Rhode Island Red, and 4 White Leghorns. The totals are 12 brown egg layers and 4 white layers. Our coop in insulated but it still got cold enough that we had frozen eggs if we didn’t get to them fast enough.

    The point I want to make is that the ratio of brown/white layers was 3/1, yet all winter long our ratio of brown/white eggs was 5/1. We’ve never had trouble with our Red Stars not liking cold weather, although we are switching over to Buff Orphington’s and Rhode Island Reds, but only because Stars can’t reproduce if needed.

    We use no heat lamps in the coop, and the lights aren’t left on, just the natural light from 4 windows. The waterer has a heater in it. We’ve never had a laying hen die, although 5 of the older girls are going into the freezer in 3 1/2 months.

    I do firmly believe that northern chicken raisers should use brown layers though as they do much, much better in cold weather.

  14. Tina B says:

    While admittedly winters in New Mexico are much balmier than where you are, I started thinking about winter well ahead of time, luckily. Some tips we can share with you:

    We strung electric to the coop early. We did use a heating lamp for light and some warmth, but we also set up a ceramic heater. It is low energy, warms slowly and keeps things at a nice steady temperature.

    We made sure to have a storage area in the coop. That way at night (and morning) in the freezing cold we had everything we needed at our fingertips. My husband filled several plastic gallon jugs with water and used the wheelbarrow to put them in the coop. That way in the morning or night there was always water to fill a waterer. And with the feed bin right there it was easy to scoop food for them at any time. Any time a jug emptied he would bring it in and fill it and put it back next time we went to the coop.

    Can’t help you with ice, but for us lighting the way to the coop helped a lot. For water, a pack of disposable gloves in the coop helps with all sorts of messy chores and can keep your hands water free!

    Thanks for the article!

  15. Karen Knowlton says:

    Hi, I thoroughly enjoyed your article as it gave me many chuckles reliving this past winter with ice, snow and sledding on two feet! The tundra is what I call eastern WA in winter….I think you have it worse! After this past winter and watching the weather across the US I feel blessed for the winter we had….could always be worse!

  16. Wesley Kirby says:

    Yes indeed!!! Winter can be hard on humans and chickens. I was prepared for winter this year. I have a good size poultry house with lots of smaller pens built inside. The building is well built, partially insulataed and free of drafts.
    I bring all my chickens into the poultry house just before the first freeze. With this years 2 below zero a couple nights, I did not get any frozen combs or wattles. My hens and pullets laid through all the cold weather. They seem to have enjoyed the weathre whether cold or not.
    My advise after over 65 years with chickens, is to have a poultry house free of drafts and keep their water unfrozen and feed before them at all times. I do not use any artificial heating. On sunny days the house warms up really good.
    Thanks for all the advice given to us from McMurray hatchery. They are number one in my book.

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