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:

8 Responses to Q&A on Preparing Your Chickens for Winter

  1. Shirley says:

    I have 7 assorted hens and they are all cold hardy breeds as we live in North Eastern WA state close to Canada. I call my hens Diva Chicks because they are not only beautiful but spoiled. We get a lot of rain in the fall and winter and I noticed that while my diva chicks were experiencing their first season of rain that they’d be soaked before they would ever have a mind to come into the dry coop. They would all gather in a line in a very small and barely covered area and they looked like they were waiting for the bus to arrive! Then I had a brilliant idea. I created what I now call the Mall for my divas and they love it.
    The Mall consist of 4 large and tall plastic storage bins and a wood pallet. So imagine, if you will each one of these bins is flipped upside down so the open part is on the dirt. Then on two of the bins I cut doors on one end and on the other two bins I cut a door on the side. Now I arranged the bins in a large square and used the wood pallet over the top of the bins to create a ceiling. I covered the top part from warping by adding and stapling thick tarp and the inside of this mall has the bins arranged so the divas can go on from any direction and if it’s raining or snowing they can go inside and be dry but it still feels like they aRe outside. I also added a 4×4 four foot piece of wood on the ground inside the mall so they can perch if they like or walk around and be outside. It be dry. My divas love it and it gives me much pleasure to see them enjoying it. They run back into the chicken house just long enough to lay their eggs and then they come back out and go back to the Mall…lol!!

  2. Elena says:

    My hens quit laying in October. I had some young hens that were coming into lay and some 1 yo hens that were molting. They quit laying all at once. I only had one hen out of 34 who kept laying like a champ every day. Since there were several factors involved at the same time (new and old hens coming together, shorter days, colder temperatures, many hens molting and I changed their laying mash (which is pretty expensive, since I buy non-GMO and soy-free) to a mix of grains, boiled eggs, oyster shell, vitamins in water, and grass/bugs from free-ranging), I was completely perplexed as to what could have caused such a drastic reduction in egg production. I gave them extra light, I treated them form some lice I found on them. I did everything I could, and they looked happy and healthy, yet not laying. I decided to change back to my laying mash that I used to feed them, and I feed them only in the morning, enough to last them for a couple of hours, and then give them scratch grain in the afternoon. As soon as I changed their feed back to laying mash (didn’t increase the quantity, just changed the feed), within a couple of weeks (since it takes time for their laying cycle to restore), they started laying, almost all at once. Within another couple of weeks all of them were laying, so now, in the middle of winter I get 24-28 eggs from 34 hens. I still do not understand exactly what it is in the laying mash that I can provide them with just using a mix of grains, supplemental scraps, vitamins and free-range, but I am not going to experiment anymore. As long as a little bit of laying mash in the morning keeps my hens in production I’ll be buying that mash.

  3. KEN says:

    What do you do when the combs get frost bite and turn black, should they be cropped or what, I hear it is painful for the chickens?

  4. Richard H. Mack says:

    Wanda-the hen’s time is up.Their laying time is over. You may get an occasional egg or two but they can’t lay forever. Now they are known as “spent hens,” and its time for the crock pot. When I was a little kid the chicken guys always got a new batch of chicks when the older ones were a year old. They always had producing birds. When the old birds tapered off the new ones were coming into production and most people only had a flock of a dozen birds.

  5. Scott says:

    at least 16-17 hours of lite in the coop works the best. i use a timer like you would use in your house to turn the lights on and off during the day lite hours, good luck……….

  6. Jerry says:

    My girls are doing the same thing but it’s just the natural way they do it. Mine are also ending the molt and new pin feathers are half way through their process. This also stresses the hens. I feed them the best grains, greens , grit and oyster shell I can find. They need super nutrition right now. I never feed laying mash but you could add that to their diet and you can see some increase in egg production. You can also add light by having a bulb on a timer starting about 4:00 AM to perhaps 8:00 AM. I don’t do either of the last two things because I just want them to be natural. They know what’s best for themselves and right now it’s not egg production, it’s getting their bodies ready for winter. I live in South Central PA.

  7. Wanda says:

    My five hens have stopped laying. Started slow down over six months ago. I got one egg…then one more…then none. They are two years old this past May. There poop is large and some look like there is the start of the making an egg? I let them in the yard all day. And, give them access to plenty of food and water. What will make them lay again?

    • Colleen says:

      Make sure your hens haven’t established a “new” nest somewhere in your yard. I had some hens that moved their nest when we gave them a bigger yard to roam in. Two year old birds still lay on between 3-5 eggs per week so you may find the mother load of eggs somewhere!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *