Q&A on Preparing Your Chickens for Winter

Photo by Vera Ting

Photo by Vera Ting

1. Should I heat or insulate my coop?

With their thick coat of feathers, chickens are naturally much better insulated people. As long as they can stay dry and out of the wind, they can tolerate very cold temperatures.

If you live in an area with mild winters, you probably don’t need any supplemental heat in your chicken coop, and you also probably don’t need to insulate your coop. If you regularly experience temperatures that dip down to 0 (F) or below, then you probably will need to insulate your coop, but still it’s unlikely that you will need to add supplemental heat. If you experience extremely cold weather, then you may need to add supplemental heat.

As always, be careful with anything that generates heat in your chicken coop. Bedding, wood and feathers are all combustible. Heat lamps have and can easily start chicken coop fires as can other types of heaters. Extension cords should be in good condition and have their points of connection well-protected from moisture and from the elements.

Chickens produce a lot of moisture, both in their manure and in the air that they exhale. If your coop doesn’t have enough ventilation, this moisture will build up in the coop. Since humid air conducts heat better than dry air, it will tend to draw heat away from your birds, making it harder for them to stay warm and increasing the chances of frostbite. The solution to this problem is to have plenty of ventilation — even in winter.

On the other hand, it’s not good to have a draft in the coop. What do we mean by “draft”? Simply, air that is blowing on the chickens. It’s okay to have some air moving through the coop well above where the chickens are, such as up near the roof, but cold wind blowing directly on the chickens will tend to chill them.

A good approach to ventilation is to have an air vent down low, through which cold, fresh outside air can enter and a vent or window up high, where warm, moist air can exist. Both vents should be on the same side of the coop, and they should be on the downwind side. This layout will allow a gentle flow of fresh air into the coop, upward and out of the coop. In warmer climates, the vents or windows can be larger, and some climates in the U.S. have mild enough winters that the entire front of the coop (the downwind side) can be made of mesh, such as hardware cloth.

Good ventilation also solves another problem, air freshness. In a tightly closed coop, without enough fresh air exchange, ammonia will quickly build up in the coop, making it intolerable both for you and the chickens. Any hint of ammonia in the air is unhealthy for the chickens. Fresh air exchange through proper ventilation prevents this problem.

2. How can I keep my chickens’ water from freezing?

In places where the temperature consistently stays below freezing, this can be a problem. Not only do the chickens’ waterers freeze, but water hoses freeze, making watering a real chore.

Here are a few approaches that will help:

  • Place the waterers inside the coop rather than outdoors in the chicken run. Depending on your weather, the number of chickens you have and your coop, the heat produced by your chickens may be enough to keep the water from freezing.
  • Bring out buckets of warm water each morning to thaw and fill the frozen waterers. This is somewhat labor intensive, and you may have to do this several times a day.
  • Store the waterers in a heated location overnight then bring them out back out to the chicken coop or pen each morning. Some people use two sets of waterers so they can rotate them. This works but is messy and somewhat labor intensive.
  • Use a heated waterer base. These can be used with any galvanized poultry waterer and are an effective way of keeping the waterers from freezing as long as you have a way to get electricity out to the coop. Heated dog waterer dishes are also relatively inexpensive and will work for chickens.

For more suggestions, see the comments listed below our article: Keeping the Chicken Water from Freezing.

3. Are there any changes I should make to their diet during the winter?

When it’s cold, your chickens will have to generate more heat to stay warm. The energy they use to produce heat comes from the food that they consume. Calories are a measure of energy — during cold weather, your birds will need to consume more calories. Make sure that they always have adequate access to good quality feed. You may also want to sprinkle a little scratch grain on the floor of their run or coop toward the end of the day so they can go to bed with a full crop and a little extra energy. This should be done in moderation.

4. Is it normal for them to lay fewer eggs during winter?

Yes. There are several reasons for this. First, is day length. Light stimulates laying, and when the days get short enough, hens will stop laying or their laying will slow. As we discuss in the article: Why Aren’t My Chickens Laying (Lighting), you can add supplemental lighting to encourage them to lay. Some people choose to do this, others don’t because it does interfere with the rest period that a hen would normally get during the winter.

The second reason is lower temperatures. Hens lay better when temperatures are moderate, between about 55 (F) and 85 (F). Hotter or colder than this, and their laying can decline.

Other questions?

If you have other questions on winter care for your chickens or other topics, please enter them as comments (replies) to this article and we will try to answer them, as time allows, on our blog and in future newsletters.

For more information and practical tips about caring for your chickens during winter and preparing them for winter, please see the following articles: