Raising Chickens in Winter Weather

Last night as we were hauling water out to our chickens in the dark, it reminded me it might be a good time to post about winter weather.

Yesterday the chickens were out all day, and never once did it occur to me to check their water.  I have several teenage frizzle chicks outside that I was a little worried about, and I decided to bring them in around 8:00 PM (because why NOT wait until it’s dark to do things?).  When I put them in the garage it was a mad frenzy for the water.  Alarm bells started going off…

My birds have been without water all day.

I go outside and grab the water hose…frozen.  So, we resort to filling up five-gallon buckets with water in the shower and hauling them out to the coop.  Our watering system consists of a large barrel, and PVC drippers wrapped with insulation.  Heat tape runs the length of the drippers and around the barrel.   This has worked well for us, and had never frozen until last night.  We were very fortunate not to have lost any birds.

So, that being said, here are some things to remember when winter weather strikes:

Water – Check your watering system every day to make sure it hasn’t frozen.  Heating devices can malfunction, and 24 hours without water can be disastrous to your flock.

Food – Make sure you have plenty of food available for your birds.  During the winter, there aren’t as many opportunities for them to graze and when they do there simply aren’t as many living bugs and plants for them to eat.  To offset high feed costs, you might consider planting a small area of wheat grass in the coop, but you will want to protect your tiny garden with hardware cloth a few inches above the ground, so the birds don’t destroy the root system.  Raising your chicken feeder slightly off the ground will also help preserve feed since chickens like to scratch it out when it’s at floor level.  Just be sure your shortest chicken can still reach it.

Drafts – Putting up plastic sheeting around the yard can help prevent drafts, but don’t seal your coop up so tightly that moisture can’t evaporate and don’t enclose the top with plastic sheeting or tarps (if you enclose the top it will stretch out your wire if it rains or snows).  Cold is better than wet.  Don’t keep your chickens cooped up, but if you have a large door to your coop, you may want to consider installing a smaller one to use just in cold weather.  A large door may make the coop too drafty for the birds that choose to stay inside.

Moisture, Mold and Mildew – you want your coop to be warm, but not completely sealed in.  Moisture needs to be able to evaporate.  A wet coop can cause real health problems.  Also, don’t put off cleaning the coop when it’s cold.

Frost Bite – Flat perches can help prevent frostbite on your birds’ toes because the birds can sit on their spread feet and keep them warm.  If you live in an especially cold climate, make sure you are buying birds that are cold-hardy.  Birds with large combs are especially susceptible to frost bite.  That being said, cold snaps can happen no matter where you live.  A little petroleum jelly on your birds’ combs may help prevent frostbite.

Safety in Numbers – Chickens huddle together for warmth.  If you only have one chicken, get another one (you’re welcome).  More chickens = more body heat, just be sure you aren’t over-crowding.  Over-crowding can be even more stressful on your birds.

Fragile Breeds and Youngsters – Some breeds, such as frizzle-feathered chickens or silkies, may not do as well in the cold; particularly if they are young or the environment is wet.  The decision on whether or not to bring them inside is a hard one, since once they are inside it may be a while before the weather warms up enough to put them back outside without shocking their system.  If you decide to bring some of your birds in, be prepared to keep them there through the rest of the season if necessary.  Never take a bird out of a warm house or garage, and put them into a cold environment; they may die.

Eggs – Check them often or they may freeze.

Protect Them From Predators – Just like your chickens, food sources for predators may be scarcer in the winter, which means they may be harder to keep away from your birds.  Be sure there are no holes in your coop, and it’s always a good idea to bury wire around the coop and yard for those predators that can dig.  If you are free-ranging, you’ll want to keep a closer eye on them; never leave the house while they are out (OK so this is true pretty much any time, but ESPECIALLY in the winter).

Check and Double-Check – If you are free-ranging, when you put your birds up at night walk the perimeter to make sure there are no stragglers.

Boredom – In the winter, when the birds may be cooped up more than normal, boredom can set in, and if left unchecked this may lead to bullying, lost feathers and bloody patches.  Once you start going down that path things can go south pretty quickly.  So, be sure you keep your birds occupied.  There are loads of ideas on preventing chicken boredom online, but some of my favorites are:

Scenery – I like putting tree limbs in the coop with lots of branches, then throwing scratch under and around them.  This makes the scratch harder to get too, and gives them some new scenery to take in too.  You can also add logs, rocks or anything you can find in nature that the chickens will take interest in, and change it up slightly every once in a while.

Lettuce Balls – Just tie a head of lettuce from the ceiling of the yard or coop and watch them go nuts.  You can buy balls for the lettuce to go in, or you can make your own.  You don’t have to use lettuce, there are plenty of solid vegetables and fruits you can simply thread twine through and hang up, like apples or cucumbers.  Just be sure whatever you are using is safe for your chickens.

Flock Blocks – Hard blocks of feed and binder.  These can be purchased or you can make them yourself at home.

Other ideas?  Please comment below.  We’d love to hear from you!

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3 thoughts on “Raising Chickens in Winter Weather

  1. Might I suggest the plastic-backed insulation strips to wrap the water PVC with. If you use the naked insulation, the birds will just peck it until it’s it’s all over the ground in bite-sized pieces. Then you have a huge mess in your pen AND water pipes are susceptible to freezing. #lessonlearned

  2. I use to have a white frizzle hen,my other chickens pecked at her, I found her new home,I like the frizzles,how can I keep my other chickens from picking,like to get more frizzles,only if my other chickens would not bother the frizzle. Can you help me?

    • Unfortunately any time you add a new member to your flock the “pecking order” has to be reestablished. Sometimes that takes a week or two and unfortunately some chickens just never fight back. I have a feeling this has more to do with your individual chicken than the breed itself, though some are more docile. There are a few things you can do to minimize pecking:
      -Always introduce new flock members at night.
      -Coat any wounds with Blu-Kote or something similar.
      -Keep the other chickens occupied with treats, tree limbs and/or anything new you can add to the coop to distract bullies.
      -Make sure there is plenty of food and water at all times. If they run out this could promote bullying.
      -Ensure you are using a laying feed with appropriate protein levels (16% minimum, we like to use 20%)

      Thank you for your inquiry.

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