Winter Chicken Care

Getting your chickens through the winter, especially if you live somewhere that gets below 20 degrees or so routinely, as we do, can be a challenge, but it’s not too hard once you know a few basics. If you’ve had problems in the past with your chickens getting frostbitten combs, not laying eggs through the coldest months, reducing their feed intake (which leads to further cold stress), or succumbing to illness, read on for tips on how to help them make it through to spring happy and healthy. And as a bonus, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh eggs all winter long!

1. Heat Lamps

A heat lamp installed over the roosts in your coop offers multiple benefits

The first and most important thing we do for our chickens as soon as we have a few hard freezes (which this year was in October) is to install a heat lamp in the coop. This not only offers the obvious benefit of raising the temperature, it also tricks the chickens’ bodies into thinking the days are longer than they really are, thus inducing them to continue laying eggs. I’ve heard many stories from other folks who say that they never get any eggs from November until about April, but we have always enjoyed eggs all winter long with the multiple flocks we’ve raised. The trick is the heat lamp! You will want to make sure you turn the lamp on before it gets dark every afternoon, by about 4:30 or so, and leave it on until it’s daylight, which for us around 8:00. I unplug our heat lamp during the day if the temps are expected to rise above the mid-30’s. If it’s colder than that, I’ll leave it plugged in day and night.

There are a few things to keep in mind when installing a heat lamp inside your coop:

  • Be sure to enclose your heat bulb inside a metal housing with a wire guard over the opening. These can be purchased at any home improvement store.
  • Hang the heat lamp from the ceiling; do not mount it on the wall. You will want to have at least 1 foot of clearance around the lamp on all sides, to prevent any surfaces near the lamp from getting too hot. Make sure the lamp is at least 2 feet above the roosts.
  • Wrap all cord connections with electrical tape. This ensures that the cords will not come apart, and also keeps moisture out to prevent a short.

2. Heated Chicken Waterers

When it comes to providing water to your flock through frigid days and nights, you obviously need something that is heated. Our nights can dip down to -20 at times, and I have had regular water founts break in those temps. Heated fount bases are available, but I have not tried them due to the fact that I’ve heard the heating elements are not very reliable. It might be worth trying for you, but they cost $40-$50, which is not cheap for something that may fail and that you only use for a few months out of the year. We have found an easier, more reliable, and less expensive option that serves us well every winter. We use a heated pet water bowl. You can find them for around $20 at most hardware stores or online. The entire bowl is surrounded by a heating element, and the cord is wire-wrapped for safety. When installing your bowl, make sure that it the cord is secured well above the bowl, and that you aren’t setting the bowl anywhere the plug-in! The one caveat to this bowl, as opposed to an actual poultry waterer, is that it’s open, so the water does not stay clean as long as it does in a closed system. We just unplug the bowl and dump the water out every couple of days, filling it with fresh water.

3. Window Control

A common misconception about keeping chickens warm through the winter, especially without an external heat source, is that the coop should be buttoned up tight every night to help them stay warm. There are a couple problems with this idea. The first is that all types of poultry need plenty of air flow in order to get the fresh air they require to avoid respiratory problems. The ammonia in their droppings produces fumes that impair the air quality in the coop, and closing the coop windows locks those fumes inside. Coupled with the moisture produced from both their respiration and droppings, the closed-up coop, while warm, quickly becomes a hazard to their respiratory health. The second reason that the coop does not need to be closed up is that chickens actually produce quite a bit of body heat on their own, in addition to the insulation provided by their feathers. When they huddle together on the roost, chickens stay comfortably warm at temps down into the teens. As mentioned above, we utilize a heat lamp more to lengthen the daylight than to provide extra heat. Because we do use a heat lamp, though, I always keep the windows open (our coop has two), no matter how cold it gets. On the worst nights, when it’s well below zero, I will close one window and keep the other opened about 4 inches. Air flow is just so important to keep your poultry healthy that you don’t ever want to impede it. It’s even more important for them to have fresh air than it is to stay toasty warm.

Those are our top three best practices for winter chicken-keeping. Let me know what you do keep your chickens happy and healthy through the winter in the comments section!

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