How To Care For Chickens In The Winter Basics

by From Scratch Farmstead
snow covered chicken tractor in suburban backyard

You have backyard chickens or are thinking about getting them but there’s one BIG question – How to care for chickens in the winter? Don’t fret! It’s much more simple than you may think. We’ll share our top tips for keeping your chickens safe and healthy during those frosty, snowy months.

From Our Suburban Backyard to Our Homestead

We’ve kept chickens for over 7 years now. It began with 6 backyard chickens on our 1/3 acre suburban lot. And now some 50 feathery friends free range about our 5 acre homestead property.

We’ve also had a variety of coop setups.

Our first coop was kit coop form Costco that we received as a gift. When we wanted to expand our suburban flock, we converted a wooden kids playset into an A-frame portable chicken coop.

Instead of having a standalone coop currently at our homestead, we decided to build a coop inside our pole barn, which has worked out great!

pole barn chicken coop

In all these scenarios and in our northern Illinois winters (which can be harsh!) we’ve never lost a chicken due to winter conditions. That’s not because we never made mistakes or always knew exactly what we were doing. We’ve learned a lot as we went!

But we went for it, troubleshooted as needed, made adjustments, and tried to be more prepared the following year.

You can raise chickens in the wintertime too! Here’s what you need to know.

How To Care For Chickens In The Winter – Top 5 Tips!

Chickens really are hardy birds that are built for the winter. Their full feathery coats and higher than average body temps make them well suited to brave the cold. But there are some basic steps on your part as a chicken keeper to help them thrive.

1. Minimize Drafts In The Coop & Run

Exposure to frigid winds is one of the greatest threats to your chickens in the winter. We’ve all experienced the “feels like” temperatures that drop well below the actual temp due to windchill. Creating a windbreak or even insulating your chicken’s coop and run is a must.

Many coops are already sealed up pretty well. Be sure to close up any vents on the coop without cutting off ventilation completely. It’s important to not have your coop completely sealed off to avoid excess moisture build up, which can lead to frostbite.

Chicken runs, however, are usually open and exposed to wind. There are a couple options. One that we used is to staple thick plastic sheeting around the walls of your run. This is a quick and easy way to seal off your coop. We always used a 4-mil or 6-mil clear plastic sheeting that you can find at a hardware store.

chicken run covered in plastic during the winter
plastic sheeting around the chicken run to keep drafts out

Another alternative to plastic sheeting would either be screwing on plywood or metal panels. Whichever windbreak materials you choose, be sure to apply it to at least 2, if not 3, sides of your run to give your chickens good relief from the wind.

Another option is to stack straw bales around your chicken coop or run. Straw bales can act both as insulation and make an excellent windbreak.

2. Keep It Dry

When temps dip below freezing, a dry hen is much less susceptible to frostbite, disease, and any other wintertime woes that can pop up. Two options exist.

First, you can clean your coop regularly. This is best suited for smaller coops that can’t handle a lot of buildup of bedding and manure. With the kit coop we had that fit 6 chickens, I was able to add a few layers of fresh bedding like wood shavings, mulch, or straw to keep things fresh and dry. But at least once a month the moisture buildup got too intense for the small space and I needed to go in there and do a full clean out and start new.

Your other option is what’s called the Deep Bedding or Deep Litter method. This bedding method is where you continually add fresh layers of carbon on top of manure and leave the layers in place. Carbon can be straw, wood chips, wood shavings, or even leaves that will absorb moisture and give your birds a clean, dry bedding under their feet.

extra bedding in the chicken coop during winter

The key to this method is applying enough carbon. When applied at the right ratio, fresh bedding completely eliminate any odor from manure buildup. Another significant benefit is that the lower layers will eventually begin composting, which naturally produces heat in your coop.

The Deep Bedding or Deep Litter method is best suited for larger coops, runs, or chicken tractors that can handle a buildup of many bedding layers throughout the winter. We’ve had a lot of success applying this method to both our A-frame chicken tractor and barn coop over the years. 

And as a bonus, come springtime you’ll have plenty of compost for your garden when you clean out your coop! Or better yet, put your coop on top of your garden and they’ll till, weed, and fertilize your garden so you’re all set for the spring.

3. Keep Water From Freezing

Chickens always need access to fresh, clean water. This can be a major challenge in the winter. The most common way to prevent water from freezing is to purchase or build a heated base for your chicken waterer.

You can purchase a heated chicken waterer base. This is a fine route to go, but just know that they typically only guarantee the heated bases to work if you pair it with the double-wall insulated metal waterer from the same manufacturer. If you are wanting to save money and go the DIY route, a couple options exist.

One common option is the cookie tin with a lightbulb. After trying this method, I don’t recommend it. A lightbulb trapped in a tight, high moisture area led to many frozen finger lightbulb changing adventures that winter.

Instead, I came up with an Easy DIY Heated Chicken Waterer base that has worked great. It’s a quick project, uses common parts you can find at any hardware store, and is an overall affordable option.

4. Have Extra Food On Hand

Chickens, like most mammals, utilize digestion to maintain and control body heat. Making sure they have enough food and the right type of food on hand during the winter is essential.

You are likely already feeding them a layer crumble or pellet. This is fine to continue giving them during the winter. One consideration if you typically only give them a ration of feed in the morning is to also start giving them an extra ration of feed in the evening during the winter months. This will help them keep warm during those long, cold nights.

Adding extra protein or carbohydrates can also help keep your chickens hardier and more robust in the cold. Consider supplementing with extra food along the way like meal worms or cracked corn to help boost your chicken’s energy.

The bottom line is to plan to have extra food around during the winter and don’t skimp on the rations!

5. Prepare In Advance and Observe

As we’ve discovered, the hardest part of keeping any animals is having to troubleshoot and react once problems arise. This is especially true in the dead of winter! Preparing ahead of time and taking time to observe your chickens and react to problems quickly can save a lot of headaches down the road.

Go out and secure that plastic around your chicken run when weather is nice in the fall so you’re not caught off guard when that early winter storm rolls through.

Have electrical run to your coop well in advance so you’re not struggling with frozen fingers to unroll a stiff extension cord to your coop when their water starts freezing.

Stock up on some extra bags of feed or bedding so you don’t run out during that 3-day blizzard!

chicken tractor in suburban backyard during winter

And then spend time out with your chickens and pay attention to their cues. Are there signs of frostbite setting in? Do I need a better windbreak or is there too much moisture in the coop? Will they be happier if I give them more food than I have been? 

Keep watch and act quickly when you notice that something seems off.

Winter Chicken Care – Frequently Asked Questions

Will chickens still lay eggs in the winter?

Yes! Chickens will continue to lay eggs all year. But the frequency that they lay is dependent on the amount of daylight. Chickens like at least 12 hours of daylight, and some breeds like closer to 14 or 16 hours. They will continue laying when daylight dips below these thresholds, but at a reduced rate.

Some chicken keepers leave a light on inside the coop to simulate extra daylight and keep egg production up. We’ve chosen not to do this to honor the chickens’ natural rhythms to slow down and rest during the winter months.

frozen backyard chicken egg in winter

You’ll also want to collect eggs more frequently during the winter. The colder it is the quicker eggs can freeze and crack open. To avoid this check for eggs every few hours, especially when it’s well below freezing.

Should I be worried about frostbite for my chickens?

Frostbite is a concern and will most commonly target your chickens comb and wattle. These areas are vulnerable without feather cover. Keeping your coop dry and draft free is your best prevention against frostbite, which can be caused by excess moisture combined with frosty wind and freezing temps. 

Another preventative measure chicken keepers have used is to spread Vaseline (or a natural alternative) on your chicken’s comb and wattle as an extra barrier against the cold.

rooster in the winter

You’ll want to be observant and try to avoid frostbite as it is rather uncomfortable for your chickens. But if minor frostbite does occur, it’s not the end of the world. Our rooster had some on his comb this past winter, and a month into spring you couldn’t even tell it was there.

Are heat lamps necessary in my chicken coop?

Nope. Chickens are built for winter. And if you take all the steps above to give them a dry, draft free coop with plenty of food and water they’ll be able to rely on their instincts to know what they need beyond that to handle the winter fine.

But it’s also not the end of the world to give them a source of heat. We did have a heat lamp in our coops while living in the suburbs. We mainly pointed it at the waterer to help keep it from freezing since we didn’t yet have our concrete block heated waterer base.

small backyard chicken coop in winter

One thing you’ll want to consider is that heat lamps have a VERY high fire risk! So proceed at your own risk. Other safer options exist like this chicken coop heated pad.

Can my chickens free range in the snow?

You bet! They’ll have just as much fun getting out and scratching around in the snow and cold as they do on a nice spring day. Thick snow cover can limit of prevent their ability to free range.

free ranging chicken in the winter

Consider shoveling out an area or path for your chickens to give them room to roam. Chickens can get stressed and irritated with each other when cooped up. So giving your chickens the chance to roam, even throughout the winter, can help keep your flock happy and calm.

What are the most cold hardy chicken breeds?

Most heritage chicken breeds are well suited for winter conditions. We have had some 10-15 different breeds over the years, which have all done well over the winter. While this list is not exhaustive, some of the main cold hardy winter chicken breeds are:

  • Barred Rock
  • Rhode Island Red
  • Buff Orpington
  • Ameraucana
  • Easter Egger
  • Salmon Faverolle
  • Wyandotte
  • Delaware
  • Brahma
  • Australorp

These breeds tend to have thick coats of feathers and higher body masses. Some even have smaller combs and wattles or feathers on other vulnerable areas like their feet. Even less cold hardy breeds can do fine during the winter if you keep conditions favorable. We have a few White Leghorns that have weathered the winters just fine in our current barn coop setup.

You Can Raise Chickens in the Winter!

Just remember: block the wind, keep it dry, figure out a good wintertime water and food situation, and be proactive.

With just these few basic measures, your chickens will take it from there and handle the winter like they were made for it. Because they are!

So don’t let wintertime hold you back from getting that backyard flock you’ve always wanted. You and your gals got this!

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