Keeping Chickens in the Winter: Everything You Need to Know
Keeping chickens in the winter doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.
When our first winter arrived with chickens, I had no idea anything about keeping chickens in the winter, and I stressed out.
What if my chickens froze to death?
Can chickens be outside in freezing temperatures? What do I do if my chicken has frostbite?
I had so many questions, and it made me stress out. I knew that keeping chickens warm in the winter was important, but how warm do they need to be? Obviously, keeping chickens healthy in the winter is a priority as well, but what does involve?
If you feel like this, I understand totally. Don’t be intimidated by chicken care in the winter. Let’s take a look at what you need to know about taking care of chickens in the winter.
- Do Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?
- 11 Tips for Keeping Chickens in the Winter
- The Most Common Concerns about Raising Chickens in the Winter
Do Chickens Lay Eggs in the Winter?
Yes, chickens lay eggs in the winter, but their egg production slows down. That can be frustrating for backyard chicken owners when their egg supply decreases.
A common myth is that hens stop laying in the winter, and that’s not true, but their egg production drastically declines. I have raised chickens for six years, and all of my chickens continue to lay eggs but at a much slower rate.
The reason why egg production slows in the winter is due to lack of daylight and cooler temperatures, sending a signal to their bodies to rest.
On average, chickens need around 12 hours of light to stimulate egg laying, but some breeds do better with 16-17 hours of light. It’s said that the light needs to be constant.
If you want to keep your hens laying consistently, provide supplemental light inside of the coop. That’s a personal chicken owner’s decision; we opt not to provide light because I believe that their bodies need the rest. Since our homestead doesn’t rely on egg production for a large portion of our homesteading income, it’s no big deal.
Recap: What to Remember about Chickens Laying Eggs in the Winter
- Chickens need around 12-17 hours of daylight to lay an egg; it depends heavily on the breed.
- Egg production naturally slows in the winter as a period of rest for chickens.
- Owners can provide supplemental light inside of the coop to increase egg production.
- Some chickens stop laying eggs entirely in the winter, and others lay at a much slower rate.
11 Tips for Keeping Chickens in the Winter
Raising chickens in the winter comes with a lot of stress. I used to worry about things like – can my chickens freeze to death? Learning how to properly take care of chickens in the winter is essential.
1. Winterize Your Chicken Coop and Run
One of the most important things to do is winterize your coop and run. A properly built and maintained coop is essential for raising chickens in the winter.
Here are the main points to remember about winterizing a chicken coop.
1. Keep It Draft Free
Coops need to be draft free but not sealed completely. Air circulation and ventilation is a MUST in the winter to stop ammonia build-up.
How do you provide ventilation?
Keep a top vent or high-up window open, allowing fresh air to come in each day and the stale air to leave.
2. Do Chicken Coops Need to be Insulated?
Insulation is a good idea, but it also can be pricey. Ideally, you’d have insulation between the walls of your coop, but if it’s too expensive to buy real insulation, layers of cardboard or straw bales works as well.
3. Provide Plenty of Roost Space
Chickens huddle together on the roost, sharing body heat and staying warm together. If possible, make sure you have plenty of roost space for your chickens to fit together. The more body heat, the better for your flock.
4. Consider Making a Dry Space Outside
Chickens typically go outside when it’s cold, but snow and many chickens aren’t friends. If you’re worried about your flock spending too much time inside, consider making a cover space outside. All you need is tarps to create a makeshift roof and a wind break around one or two sides of the run.
2. Don’t Use Heat Lamps for Chickens in the Winter
It’s tempting to put a heat lamp or a heater in your chicken coop for the winter. Heat lamps are a significant fire risk; my husband is a firefighter and has responded to several chicken coop fires in our rural area.
If you’re wondering do chickens need heat in the winter, the answer is NO. Chickens don’t need heat in their coop; they huddle and stay together for warmth.
You might not realize that chickens are naturally warmer than humans. A chicken’s body temperature ranges from 104-106 degrees Fahrenheit naturally, so they withstand colder temperatures than we might. Not to mention, chickens have a protective layer of feathers covering their bodies to stay warm.
I understand some chicken owners worry about warmth. If you MUST provide heat, DON’T use a heat lamp. Here are some safer alternatives.
Both of these use radiant heat rather than a heat lamp. They have a lower fire risk and use less energy than heat lamps.
You only want to increase the temperature by a few degrees if you use heat because large differences make it harder for chickens to regulate body temperature.
3. Try the Deep Litter Method for Warmth
I’m a fan of using the deep litter method for bedding when it comes to generating warmth for your chickens. It allows bedding material and poop to build up over time, creating heat as the materials compost down. If you’re wondering how to keep chickens warm in winter without electricity, this is something to try.
It’s important to learn how to use the deep litter method properly, or you’ll end up with a stinky coop.
4. Consider Lights for Your Chickens
Chicken owners debate about whether or not you should use supplemental light for chickens in the winter.
Remember, chickens need between 12-17 hours of daylight to lay eggs – it depends on the breed. If egg production drastically declines, some chicken owners provide supplemental light inside of the coop to help encourage your flock to lay more eggs.
The downsides to using supplemental lights to increase egg production?
- Your chickens might end up stressed out; winter is the time when chickens are supposed to get a break from laying eggs.
- Supplemental light can shorten their laying life. Each chicken only has some many eggs to lay; that’s determined at birth, similar to how many eggs a human female has is determined at birth. An average hen lays up to seven years, gradually decreasing over time. Supplemental light will cause her to lay more eggs in the beginning.
5. Know What to Feed Chickens in the Winter
Chickens have different feeding needs in the wintertime than they do in the summer. Hens eat 1.5 to 2 times the amount that they eat in the summer, so make sure you’re prepared for all the feed that they need.
Hens eat more because they need to stay warm. Staying warm requires energy, so stock up on feed. You don’t want to run out.
So, what do you feed chickens in the winter?
Keep your hens on layer pellets or layer crumbles throughout the winter. They have all of the key nutritional requirements for chickens.
Along with their layer feed, consider adding cracked corn or scratch grains. Feeding corn to your hens before bed fills them up and keeps them warmer.
Don’t overdo it; you don’t want obese chickens. Their diet shouldn’t consist of only cracked corn or scratch grains. These don’t provide all of the needed nutrients and vitamins.
Also, keep grit for your chickens. Hens spend a lot of time foraging, and since they don’t have teeth, grit helps to break down and grind their food. Many commercial feeds contain grit, but if yours doesn’t, toss grit on the coop floor or out in the run.
The most important thing to remember about feeding chickens in the winter is that they eat 1.5 times the amount of food. Be prepared to offer double what you do in the summer, as well as scratch grains or cracked corn each evening.
6. Stop Your Chicken’s Water from Freezing
If you ask any chicken owner what is most frustrating about keeping chickens in the winter, most will tell you it’s figuring out how to water chickens in the winter without it constantly freezing solid.
Seriously, no one wants to walk outside when the wind chill is in the negatives and break up frozen water.
The problem is that most chickens need more water; their energy levels are higher in the winter as they stay warm. So, what’s the solution for watering chickens in the winter?
1. Use Water Heaters
Perhaps the most common solution is using heated waterers for chickens. You have a few options if you want to use heated waterers.
- An electric dog bowl is an excellent option and one that seems to work the best. The key is to find a size that works for your flock size; Farm Innovators 1 1/2 Gallon is one of the largest options.
- If you prefer plastic waterers, Farm Innovators Heated Plastic Fountain provides your flock with three gallons of water. It stops water from freezing down to 0 degrees.
- You also can get heated bases, but make sure you look to see what they can be used with. Farm Innovators Metal Heated Base can only be used with metal waterers.
2. Use Large Rubber Black Tubs
Another trick that we have tried is switching from traditional waterers to deep, black, rubber tubs set in the sun. Metal waterers freeze fast because the metal gets cold.
Black rubber absorbs the sunlight, and the wide surface area helps to stop it from freezing as fast. These rubber tubs are cheap and last for years, making this an economical choice.
3. Try Ping Pong Balls
We also tried the ping pong ball trick. Put a few into your rubber tub and the wind will move them around, preventing ice from forming.
In my experience, this only works for so long. If the temperatures are too long, the ice freezes around the ping pong balls.
7. Provide Your Chickens with Winter Snacks
Their feed should be their main food source in the winter, but handfuls of scratch grains help to keep your chickens warm overnight. Their bodies create more energy as they digest the grains.
Your kitchen is full of healthy snacks for chickens in the winter. Aside from making your own scratch, here are some other winter snacks for chickens.
1. Healthy Greens
Since winter means your flock has less access to grass and other greens, egg yolks might look pale, and the chickens might not feel as great. Greens are easy winter treats, no matter where you live. Not only can you grow greens in most winter gardens; greens tolerate cold temperatures, but grabbing bags of chickens at the store is relatively cheap.
2. Mealworms and Other Sources of Protein
Many chickens face fall molting closer to winter than the fall, and growing back feathers require extra protein stores. It’s essential that you offer sources of protein for your flock. Mealworms are an excellent source of protein for chickens, but they’re expensive.
Other sources of protein for chickens include:
- Scrambled Eggs
- Cooked Fish
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
- Sprouted Lentils
3. Warm Treats
Chickens like warm comfort foods just like humans. Try warming up oatmeal with dried fruits as a breakfast snack. Make soup with leftover vegetables; why let them go to waste? Save scraps to create interesting, warm dishes for your chickens.
Gut health matters,e even for chickens. That’s true in the winter when chickens are unable to forage.
Yes, powdered probiotics are an option, but chickens love yogurt. Plain yogurt is best, and you can mix sunflower seeds, dried fruits, or scratch to get the flock used to yogurt.
8. Collect Eggs More Frequently
Freezing cold temperatures cause eggs left in the coop to crack. When eggs freeze, the contents expand, leading to cracks. Part of keeping chickens in the winter is collecting eggs more often.
Make sure you learn if it’s safe to eat cold eggs left in the coop or not.
9. Provide Fun Indoor Activities
Many chickens prefer to stay inside when it snows; cold temperatures rarely deter adventures but snow is a different story to many chickens.
Provide activities and things for chickens to do in the coop. There are plenty of ideas, especially if you’re creative. Here are some of my flock’s favorites.
- Chicken feeder balls that you fill with scratch and they roll around eating the food that falls out.
- Pecking blocks last for a long time even with a larger flock. If you don’t want to buy a pecking block, check out how to make a DIY Flock Block from The Prairie Homestead.
- Veggie balls that I put heads of cabbage or lettuce into and hang from the ceiling. The chickens love to peck at these.
- Chicken swings are always fun for chickens. You can buy premade chicken swings or make a DIY version with chains and scrap lumber.
10. Keep It Dry with More Bedding
Wet or damp coops are bad news; it creates a breeding ground for bacteria. Wintertime is the time when you need to provide more bedding than usual, creating dry places for your birds to stay cozy and happy.
11. Protect Combs & Wattles
Frostbite is a serious concern for chicken owners. Mild cases are nearly unavoidable even with all precautions taken, but severe cases lead to pain, decreased egg production, and disfigurement.
One simple step you can take is to apply a coat of petroleum jelly or other non-moisturizing products on their combs and wattles at night. Make sure it’s above the freezing point of the product.
Instead of petroleum jelly, many chicken owners SWEAR by Musher’s Secret Dog Paw Wax. Yes, it’s for dogs, but it works on chickens as well.
Related: Dealing with Frostbite on Chickens: What You Need to Know
The Most Common Concerns about Raising Chickens in the Winter
Here are some of the most common concerns and questions that chicken keepers have about winter care for chickens.
Can Chickens Freeze to Death?
It’s natural to worry that your chickens are going to freeze to death when it’s bitter cold outside. The answer is yes, chickens can freeze to death, but it’s rarely simply due to the cold.
A chicken that freezes to death typically has underlying health problems that you didn’t catch beforehand. The other reason would be that they don’t have a coop prepared for winter.
Healthy chickens with a prepared, winterized coop rarely die simply because it’s freezing cold. Chickens live in all climates and survive.
What Temperature is Too Cold for Chickens?
Chickens survive well in low temperatures down into the teens; they all generate heat to keep themselves and their flock warm. Chicken owners in cold regions, such as Alaska, raise chickens without added heat, and they do fine.
Can Chickens Stay Outside in the Winter?
Yes! Your chickens can stay outside in the winter and most prefer it that way. This is especially true if you raise cold-hardy chicken breeds.
Despite the cold temperatures, chickens regulate their body temperatures with the help of their undercoat of feathers and increased food intake. Bad weather leads to them seeking shelter, but cold temperatures alone aren’t a problem.
In fact, cold temperatures is easier for chickens than high heat. Since chickens have a higher internal body temperatures, it’s easier for them to stay warm in the winter; staying cool in the summer is much harder for them.
Can I Let My Chickens Free Range in the Winter?
Absolutely! If you’re able to allow your chickens to free range in the winter, it’s great for them. Don’t be worried about them walking around in the snow. Chickens rarely have frostbite on their legs or feet.
How Can You Tell if Chickens Are Too Cold?
It’s possible for chickens to become too cold, leading to stress. Here is what to look for when wondering if your chicken is too cold.
- They’re huddled together and not moving around
- Fluffed up more than normal
- Standing on one leg with the other under his belly feathers for warmth.
Raising Chickens in the Winter Isn’t Too Bad!
Don’t feel too stressed about keeping chickens in the winter. Chickens handle cold temperature and winter climate better than excessively high summer temperatures.
Remember to provide them with a dry, well-ventilated coop and extra feed throughout the winter to keep your flock happy and healthy.
I have a question. I spoiled my chickens, I guess and have had a light on, at night. First it was just to keep them warm, but, now, they won’t go into the coop at night unless there is a light on. I know they need darkness. I am not sure what to do.