If you’ve got pet chickens, then the first winter with them can be a little nerve wracking. You’ll be wondering how you can ensure that they don’t get sick or frostbite and how to keep them producing eggs in the cold too. The good news is that taking care of your chickens in the winter is pretty easy and we can share everything you need to know.
In our guide, “Seasonal Pet Chicken Care: How To Keep Her Warm In Winter”, you’ll learn why chickens and heaters don’t mix, whether to use heat lamps or artificial lighting, how the deep litter method works to keep chickens warm, what you need to do to their roosts, how to protect them from frostbite, about chicken jumpers, what food they need, how exercise can help, how to build a warm room, why snow and chickens don’t mix and how chickens can take care of themselves.
Chickens And Heaters Don’t Mix
We completely understand the urge to put a heater in the chicken coop. You see your birds looking all cold and dejected and you decide to give them a helping hand by putting a little heater in there – what could go wrong?
Well, sadly, these are chickens we’re talking about and their coop is full of dust, feathers and bedding, all of which when combined with a heater are a recipe for fire. If you really want to cook your chickens, there are more humane ways to do it than this.
So, please don’t put heaters in the coop because all you are likely to achieve is a blazing chicken coop and a visit from the fire brigade.
Are Heat Lamps Safe For Chickens?
No, heat lamps might seem like a better choice than an actual heater but, in fact, they represent exactly the same level of risk for your birds. In fact, we’ve heard of chickens flying directly into such lamps, setting themselves on fire and then landing on their flock mates and turning them into part of the inferno too.
Chickens are pretty hardy creatures, as long as your coop and your roosts are set up properly, they ought to be able to huddle together for warmth effectively, feathers are a surprisingly good insulator thanks to all the air they catch in their layers.
Supplemental Lighting For The Chicken Coop
Now, some chicken owners do, however, add what’s known as supplemental lighting to the chicken coop over winter. This is not for the purposes of generating heat but rather to help the chickens lay eggs effectively.
Again, any heat source in the coop is a bad idea.
How Hens Lay
Hens aren’t really designed to lay eggs in the winter. Their bodies like to produce eggs when they perceive the days to be as long as possible. This isn’t because your chickens are divas that think they belong on the French Riviera but rather because the light stimulates their pituitary glands.
It’s this gland which sends out the hormones needed to trigger ovulation in the hen. If your chickens don’t see about 12-14 hours of daylight, their bodies won’t produce the hormones in sufficient quantity to trigger ovulation.
And clearly, without ovulating – there will be no eggs (though in our experience egg laying just drops off quite dramatically rather than stopping completely).
This is, of course, something of a pain because most people don’t buy chickens for their conversational ability, they buy them to make eggs. And the solution can be as simple as adding a little extra light to the bird’s lives in the coop.
In a small chicken coop (that is one that’s under about 100 square feet), you’re going to want a 40-watt bulb and you need to suspend at the top of the coop. In bigger coops, you might want to go with a slightly higher level of wattage (say 60 watts, 80 at the most in a huge a coop).
Now, you can’t just leave this on all night because otherwise your chickens won’t sleep. Chickens with insomnia are not famed for their ability to produce eggs either. So, you need to put your light on a timer. You do this by gauging roughly how many daylight hours there are and then adding x more hours of artificial light.
It’s better to extend the day early in the morning rather than at night. Why? Well, chickens are not blessed with good night vision. If they find themselves in the coop in the pitch dark when the light goes off – there’s a good chance they won’t be able to find the roost, again resulting in chicken insomnia.
It is very important that this supplemental lighting is provided on a consistent basis. That means if you decide to skip the timer and switch that light on manually – you will need to get up early every single day of winter to make sure it goes on. That is, if you want those eggs.
The Argument Against Lighting In The Winter
Now, that we’ve got the argument for lighting up the coop out in the open – it’s probably best to acknowledge that many chicken owners are against using supplemental lighting in the Winter.
They argue that your hens are going through a natural cycle and that their bodies are programmed to seek rest in the dark winter months. They suspect that the health and long-term wellbeing of the birds depends on this downtime.
Now, we’ve seen no evidence that birds with lights kept on during the winter experience any ill-effects. In fact, it seems highly unlikely that they will, but we can also acknowledge that we’ve seen no long-term studies into the effects of lighting on chicken wellness, whatsoever.
That means you might want to be guided by your own conscience. If you think that the eggs are the most important part of keeping chickens, you might choose to light up your coop with confidence. If you’re more about the “in tune with nature” aspect of keeping chickens, you might not.
Though if you decide not to, you may have to start buying eggs from the local market for a few months, instead.
The Hybrid Lighting Approach
Some chicken owners choose to split the difference, they let the chickens get a rest during the fall and then ramp up the lighting in the coop once Mid-Winter has passed. This seems to be a reasonable balance between the two positions to us.
The Deep Litter Method: Keeps The Coop Clean and The Chickens Warm
We want to stress that the deep litter method of dealing with your chickens bedding and waste is firstly, something of an acquired taste and secondly, something that you need to make a real commitment to.
The principle is simple: you take advantage of natural processes to allow droppings and beddings to decompose in the coop and in such a way that’s both safe for your birds and not unpleasant for you (smells are managed).
However, if you don’t pay attention to implementing it and maintaining it, you’re going to end up with a giant mound of rotting chicken poop in the coop and that is quite clearly not healthy for any person or chicken involved.
So, it’s an all or nothing method. You either go all in with the deep litter method or you don’t do it at all.
The Benefits Of The Deep Litter Method
The deep litter method is something that farmers have used for centuries. You’re going to allow the bedding and poop to become natural compost on the floor of the chicken coop.
That means you’re mixing browns and greens just like in any other form of composting. The chickens themselves are the source of the “greens” – yes, their poop.
Chicken poop is very high in nitrogen which means it can make superb fertilizer but… it also means that you need to pay close attention to the browns and greens mix because you need less greens than in most compost recipes.
The browns are the organic matter which you use for bedding. Typically, when using the deep litter method – you will add pine shavings or other recommended materials to the coop to kick start the composting process
Your chickens love to scratch at the floor and that means they can add the air to the compost easily enough without you getting involved. If they need some encouragement to scratch – throw a little corn on the coop floor, they’ll be scratching around in no time.
Then about once a year (or maybe twice) you clean the coop out thoroughly. That’s pure fresh compost too, which you can use on your garden – though if any of it looks particularly “new” you should separate it and put it in your regular composting bin, that nitrogen rich poop can burn plants if it hasn’t properly broken down.
You can’t use this method in overcrowded coops though – you need exactly the right mix of greens and browns and you’ll get too many greens if there are too many birds involved.
Why do people do this?
- It’s a lot less work than cleaning the coop on a regular basis – weekly cleaning is probably every chicken owner’s least favorite task.
- You get a bunch of compost – in this era of eco-friendliness and recycling what could be better than your birds giving back to the garden that feeds them?
- Scratching is good for the chickens – the living bacteria in the compost is healthy for your chickens, it can keep other less healthy bacteria at bay.
- It doesn’t smell (as long as you do it properly) – this is important, we think if it stank, you’d get much fewer people getting into the deep litter method
The Preferred Floor Covering For The Coop
The main ingredient for your deep litter method is the material you mix with the bedding. Most people swear by pine shavings (you don’t need to shave any pines, ask at your local feedstore, they can provide this for you).
Please make sure you don’t accidentally buy cedar shavings – they’re poisonous to chickens. Seriously. What about a coop made of cedar, why not read one of our recently written articles Is Cedar OK to build Chicken Coop?
Try to avoid hay or straw on the coop floor because they seem to trap too much water in them to break down easily with the deep litter method. It can also lead to mold and fungi which can make the chickens sick.
The litter should be 4-6 inches deep. As it composts, it’s going to lose volume – if it does, just add more litter. You may need to make a lip at the coop door to prevent the litter from being kicked outside as the chickens leave the coop.
Avoid Diatomaceous Earth
Whatever you do, when using the deep litter method, don’t use diatomaceous earth (in fact, we recommend not using it around chickens at all – the “health benefits” are greatly exaggerated and chicken medicines work and are cost-effective – it acts a drying agent. This will make it impossible for the litter to compost and the bacteria and other microorganisms involved in composting will die off.
If you can smell ammonia, the deep litter method is not working properly. You need to check the moisture level of the litter and the ventilation in the coop and fix them.
One Last Thing About The Deep litter Method
While you don’t want to clean the coop on a regular basis when doing this (and, in fact, it would render the deep litter method pointless because you’d never get the compost), if your chickens become diseased, you must clean out the coop and start again from scratch or you risk reinfection of your flock.
Get Rid Of Cold Drafts
You should also check the coop for any cold drafts, these can make your chickens sick or even kill them, if they bring about an extreme change of temperature. It shouldn’t take very long to go around the coop and make sure that any holes are sealed properly.
Pay particular attention around the door and the windows which can warp over the course of a year and create spaces which weren’t there the last time that you checked.
Pay Attention To The Roosts
One thing that’s really important during the winter months is the roost. Chickens roost together. They huddle down for warmth. Your roost should be away from the cold earth (we’d recommend about 2 feet above the ground) and it should be over a soft surface (chickens are prone to hurting themselves on hard surfaces).
If your chickens get too cold at night you will need to be careful that they aren’t piling on top of each other as this can be dangerous, please read our article Chickens Piling On Top Of Each Other – What’s Going On?
There should be enough room for all your birds to get together comfortably on the roost – you may need to check this with a flashlight at night if you’re not sure. It’s easy to tell – if there’s a chicken on the floor of the coop, there’s not enough space.
Vaseline For Frostbite Protection
Just like people, chickens are prone to frostbite and just like with people, the implications can be serious though most of the time, it’s more likely to cause a little cosmetic damage and some discomfort to your chickens.
The areas prone to frostbite are the wattles and the comb. It’s easy to prevent frostbite on freezing cold Winter nights for chickens, get some Vaseline (petroleum jelly not any of the fancy scented moisturizers sold under that brand name) and smear it all over the wattles and combs.
Waterer Care For Chickens
One area to pay real attention to in the wintertime is water. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to ensure your chickens are well catered to in this department.
Move them Outside
Your waterers should be moved outside of the coop during the middle of Winter, this stops them from adding moisture to chickens and/or their bedding and then freezing which can make the chickens seriously ill or even kill them.
Don’t Let Them Freeze
However, now that your chickens can’t get a drink at night, you must ensure that they can get a drink during the day. This is impossible if the water freezes over – so you may need to buy a cheap water heater or even make one yourself. You’re not looking to boil the water, mind you, so a kettle’s no good for this.
Monitor Chickens Drinking Habits
You want to ensure that each chicken is drinking at least twice a day throughout the winter months, they should generally be expected to drink more than normal because they’re not drinking at nighttime. If your chickens go off their water at all, you need to work out what’s wrong, they can’t live long without it.
We did find one lady online who knitted her chickens jerseys/jumpers to get them warm in the winter. We don’t recommend this, though we did think it was very sweet.
Your chicken’s feathers are great for keeping them warm and if you cover them in a jersey, you interfere with the layers between them and could, in fact, potentially make them colder than they were before.
In general, we don’t like dressing up pets anyway. It feels wrong to us.
Food For Warmth
There’s something to be said for a nice glass of wine and a full belly when dozing in front of a fire on a winter’s day. Well, the same is true for chickens but as we’ve already seen – they can’t have fires and a glass of wine is probably not a great idea as drunk chickens would probably inspire animal cruelty charges.
You can, however, feed them and a full belly makes for happy, contented chickens in the roosts at night, so give them some of their favorite snacks as treats and let them warm up from the inside out.
One last thing on this: you don’t need to fatten chickens up for winter, and in fact, research suggests that most pet chickens are carrying a bit of an unhealthy spare tire already. Chickens, just like people, can die of obesity related conditions and according to vets, they already are and in record numbers.
Chickens Can Jump For Warmth
No chickens can’t play basketball, but it shouldn’t come as any real surprise to learn that if you can get your chickens to do some vigorous exercise – their body temperatures will rise a bit and they will feel less cold.
We like to hang up some corn cobs or a head of cabbage from the roof of the coop on some string. They then go berserk jumping up and down trying to peck at the food. This is basically as close as your chickens will ever get to the NBA but it’s a lot of fun to watch and you won’t need to pay them millions, either.
Build Your Chickens A Warm Room
If you want your chickens to get a little natural warmth in the winter, you have two options. The first is to take them on holiday, unfortunately, we’ve found that this is both impractical and not much fun for chickens because they really hated to be moved around.
So, it’s better to go with the second options which is to build them a sort of special sunroom. The good news is that you won’t need a degree in carpentry or a large budget to make this for them. All you need is some bits of wood and some clear plastic.
Firstly, construct a frame (leave a door in the side) which is a bit taller than your chickens and has enough room for them to get inside. Then cover it with the clear plastic. This basically acts like a greenhouse but for chickens.
They shuffle inside and soak up some of the sun’s rays whilst sharing their body heat to keep each other warm. It looks like so much fun that we’ve been tempted to build one for ourselves, but we think the neighbors would talk.
No Snow For Chickens
We feel like there’s the title of a good movie buried in “No Snow for Chickens” but as we don’t make movies, we’re going to give you some advice about snow and chickens, instead.
Chickens are averse to wandering about in the outdoors when temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. They don’t like snow because of this.
If you want to, you can help make the snow a bit more bearable and throw some straw (or hay) over the snow, which will insulate them a little from the cold.
However, once the temperatures get into the low 30s, chickens aren’t that bothered by snow and will happily run around in it.
Chickens Can Take Care Of Chickens
One last thing about chickens and the winter, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to spend too much time worrying about your chickens. While they’re not the brightest birds, chickens have had centuries of practice at being chickens and they’re quite good at it.
That means they’re quite capable of working out when it’s too cold outside and heading into the coop to huddle up for some warmth with the other chickens. You don’t have to rush outside at the first hint of rain and snow and chase them inside, they’ll be very happy to do it themselves.
Spring Care Of Your Chickens
Once the Spring rolls around, there are a couple of new chores you might want to add to your list:
The first chore we tackle when it comes to Spring is to give everything a good clean, we don’t use the deep litter method but if we did, we think this is the perfect time to cart out all that lovely compost and smear it on your soon to be vegetables in the vegetable garden.
Also, get around everything your chickens come into contact with and just bring it all back up to a good state of repair, pay particular attention to nesting boxes which are likely to get more use now that the natural light is back all the time.
Also, give the run a clear out and make sure it’s completely fit for habitation.
Discouraging Broody Hens
Broody hens can be a bit of a pain to manage and if they’re allowed to, in Springtime, the hens will get broody. The easiest way to stop them from doing this is to make sure you collect their eggs as soon as possible and gently encourage them to get and about and not sit in the nesting boxes all day long.
We hope that our “Seasonal Pet Chicken Care: How To Keep Her Warm In Winter” guide has been useful to you and that your chickens stay warm and happy throughout the winter. It’s worth making the extra effort because it means that your chickens keep producing those yummy eggs all year round, which is probably why you decided to keep chickens in the first place.