Tips for Caring for Chickens in the Winter

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

As the temperatures drop into the single digits and the days become shorter, hens can become stressed. The winter months are hard for chickens, but there are ways to help them overcome this cold period. Some varieties, such as the Australorp, have a thick plume of feathers that help deal with the cold. However, there are other ways to keep chickens happy through the winter. Our chickens tend to lay considerably fewer eggs from November to February, so we try and do everything we can to make sure they are as healthy as possible.

Surprisingly, chickens can handle some pretty extreme temperatures. In Butte, it is common to have a week or so of temperatures consistently dropping below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. We have yet to lose a chicken to the cold, and this is likely because of our well-insulated coop. Chickens produce a lot of heat and in numbers they can raise the temperature inside a coop significantly when it is well insulated. Pilling in an extra layer of straw will help, too.

A few winters, ago our flock was down to around 10. Fearing that they would not produce enough heat to withstand those extremes, I set up a heat lamp to run during the coldest hours of the night. Though this likely helped, heat lamps can run the energy bill up quickly and they also pose a slight hazard. When they turn on in low temperatures, they can shatter. Because of this, I would recommend that you keep a sizeable flock so that their own body heat keeps them all toasty throughout the cold nights.

Heat lamps and extra straw can help chickens cope during cold winter months.
Heat lamps and extra straw can help chickens cope during cold winter months. Photo: NCAT

Chickens have poor eyesight, especially at night. This is why they head in to roost at night. Unfortunately, with less daylight, they spend less time eating. One way to help them eat more is to add extra light. By the end of November, we will be receiving around nine hours of daylight. Hens optimally want 14 hours of daylight. This allows them to get enough food throughout the day to keep their egg production at maximum. The best thing to do is set a timer for a light to come on well before the sun comes up so that they can see to eat. An LED light will work well and keep electric use to a minimum.

Maintaining good nutrition is important during the winter. As carnivores, chickens need lots of protein. Without bugs to eat, they rely on what we feed them. This is when I give more supplements to the feed and increase the amount of oyster shells that I mix in. I also give them scratch more often just to keep their spirits up. Because our chickens are very picky, I have stopped mixing in crimped oats because they seem to like them best. They will pick around the layena pellets, which have more protein than the crimped oats. During the summer months, I just make sure they finish it all before I top off the food again. However, I would like them to eat as much as possible during the winter because they aren’t feeding as long.

Hygiene is also important during these cold winter months. Because the chickens are going to be in the coop more often, the coop will need to be cleaned more often. Chickens can get sick if their bedding soaks up too much ammonia. I recommend changing out the straw often and keeping it extra thick. However, this can cause some complications. We have had the water feeder get clogged and found eggs in mysterious places; however, it is still best to flood the coop with fresh straw.

If you take these steps to ensuring your chickens are happy during winter months, you will see an increase in egg production. Though your chickens will likely produce fewer eggs than in the summer months, you will ensure that you keep your flock healthy and strong. Give your chickens a little extra attention over the next few months.

Posted on: November 19th, 2018