How to Keep Chickens Warm in Winter: Our Cold Weather Care Tips and Tricks
Many chicken owners – experienced or otherwise – find themselves wondering how to keep chickens warm in winter. Chickens are hardy creatures that can adapt to very low temperatures, so with a few fortifications, they can thrive in any season. That doesn’t mean you should leave them all alone to fend for themselves, though; most chickens need a little help to get through the coldest days of winter unscathed.
Currently, Little Onion Farm is located in Western Pennsylvania, not far from the city of Pittsburgh. Our local micro-climate keeps most of our winter days above freezing (or very close to it). However, even here, we usually see a few subzero days during the coldest part of the year. In this post, we’ll share our most effective care tips and tricks to combat snow, biting wind, and ice.
Winter Dangers for Chickens
Chickens are thought to descend from Red Jungle Fowl, a wild bird species native to southern Asia. They’re tropical birds, meaning they don’t have much of a cold season to deal with in their native range. However, today’s domesticated chickens are quite far removed from their great-great-great-Jungle-Fowl-grandparents.
Over thousands of years, we’ve selectively bred breeds for better seasonal resistance. While some breeds, like the Hedemora, have more advantages in winter than others, any chicken breed can do well with enough help. Of course, this depends on just how cold it gets during the winter where you live.
Wind and Water
Two main threats emerge as chickens’ main enemies during wintertime: wind and water. As long as your chickens have protection from wind and rain, they’ll thrive without supplemental heat in most climates. With those requirements met, your chickens will maintain a good quality of life all on their own.
Severe wind will quickly drain your chickens’ body heat, making it impossible for them to keep warm. Many chicken breeds have thick feather coats that keep them warm in the winter, but their feathers don’t always protect well against wind. That’s why you need to provide shelter from the wind for them. Imagine a sweater versus a windbreaker – one blocks the cool wind from reaching your skin, while the other does not. The sweater keeps you warm and toasty as long as there’s no wind, though. A chicken’s coat of feathers is like a sweater.
We don’t recommend completely closing your chickens into their coop during the winter, unless temperatures are set to be truly horrible. Their run should always be accessible to them as weather permits. Closing them in completely – without any ventilation or airflow – can also increase their susceptibility to frostbite.
Instead, we recommend adding a wind barrier to their run. Many people like to use clear plastic sheeting for this. It’s cheap and works well, but it doesn’t always stand up to severe winds and very low temperatures. When the air gets too cold, the plastic can become brittle and shatter.
In our area, we’ve had the most luck with thick vinyl tarps for tough wind protection (not the clear ones – clear vinyl can also shatter). We’ve also used feed bags in a pinch! If your run is small, you can zip-tie feed bags to the fence to create a light-permeable wind break. It’s by no means a pretty solution, but it’s resourceful, quick to deploy, and a great way to recycle.
Wetness, on the other hand, can be far more insidious and hard to protect against than wind. Wet ground is basically inevitable during winter, but your chickens can handle it to an extent. However, they need a place to go that’s warm and dry to recover from moisture, too.
Water alone isn’t a danger to chickens, as long as they can get dry. Water compounds the effects of the cold and wind, sapping away your chickens’ body heat. Hypothermia can set in with humans very quickly when our clothes get wet; the same is true for chickens.
Keep your chickens’ run free of mud and water when possible. We’ve found that straw is the best way to do this, as it’s compostable and it’ll keep your chickens away from the wet ground. You can also try spreading straw on snow if your chickens won’t walk on it!
Finally, be extra careful to make sure your chicken coop is free of mud and water on the inside. As long as they have a safe, warm place to dry off, they’ll do just fine. Proper ventilation is key, too – without good airflow, your chickens’ warm coop can suffer from a buildup of humidity.
One final note: some chicken breeds are more prone to hypothermia from getting wet than others. We’ve noticed that silkie-feathered chickens are especially vulnerable, though they tend to do well in the cold as long as they stay dry. Chickens with feathered feet can also struggle in muddy conditions, as it can get caught in their feathers and cause problems.
Frostbite and the Supplemental Heat Debate
There’s one more thing that can throw a wrench when the worst winter weather strikes: frostbite. While frostbite is more likely during windy and wet conditions, your chickens can fall victim to it even if you’ve tackled those two issues. Even a chicken in a protected coop can develop frostbite under the right conditions.
Some chickens are more resistant to frostbite than others, as we mentioned in the blurb up above. A lot of home remedies exist to protect your chickens from frostbite, like rubbing petroleum jelly on their combs (we haven’t found this method to be very effective here on the Farm). These are the four ways that we’ve used to avoid frostbite:
1: An insulated chicken coop that your chickens can keep warm enough with their own body heat.
2: Supplemental heat for the coldest days of winter.
3: Select chicken breeds with more resistance to frostbite.
4: Bring your chickens to a warm area (i.e., a heated garage, basement, or shed) during temperature extremes.
Method 1 is the best, since it allows you to raise any chicken breed without worry. However, building your own chicken coop isn’t a task to be undertaken lightly. To work without any supplemental heat, your chicken coop needs to have the perfect combination of space, size, insulation, and airflow – a balance that is hard to get perfectly right. That brings us to method 2.
Method 2 works well for many people. However, when you add electrical components to your chicken coop, that creates the potential for a fire. Different heat sources present different levels of fire risk, but no matter what you choose, the risk is always there.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t provide supplemental heat. Here on the Farm, we firmly believe that you should provide extra heat if you feel like you need to. Under ideal conditions, chickens can keep themselves healthy and warm in an insulated coop without supplemental heat, but life usually doesn’t match “ideal conditions.” If you happen to have a chicken who’s already under the weather, suffering from parasites or a nutritional deficiency, or is otherwise just weaker than the rest of your flock, they might not be able to keep themselves healthy in the cold. In a case like that, supplemental heat can mean the difference between life and death.
If you do choose to add supplemental heat to your coop, we recommend watching your chickens and your coop carefully while it’s active. It’s never a bad idea to install fire detection measures, too. Smoke detectors are inexpensive, and you can even buy models that’ll send notifications directly to your phone or the authorities. We also recommend using a radiant heater that minimizes fire risk, like the Sweeter Heater (it’s made by a fantastic, USA-based small business).
Method 3 is a great option if you live in an area that regularly experiences single-digit or subzero temperatures during winter. However, you must do it before starting your flock. If you’ve already started with other breeds, you’ll have to go with one of the other methods or start a new flock.
Method 4 is what a lot of us end up doing when a winter storm is on its way and we’re not prepared for it (we’re not ashamed to admit that we’ve been there). If you very rarely experience severe winter temperatures in your area, this method may be sufficient, but we don’t recommend it as a long-term or frequent solution. Your chickens won’t enjoy being confined indoors during bad weather, and you likely won’t enjoy having them there, either. Their droppings are stinky and they produce tons of dust. It’s a fine solution for temporary, freak weather conditions, though.
Your chickens’ combs and wattles are the most prone to frostbite, but their toes can be affected, too, especially if they walk in snow a lot. As long as your chickens have a dry roosting area out of the mud and snow, their toes shouldn’t fall victim to frostbite, but it may be a good idea to check for signs anyway.
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While many predators hunker down in their burrows or even hibernate through winter, many species exist that do not. These predators can grow desperate during winter, when other food sources can be scarce. They may try harder than before to break into your coop – or, if you free range, they might stalk your birds and try to pick them off one by one.
Fall is the best time to reevaluate your safety measures, but the second best time is today. Keep an eye out for signs of a hungry predator, like tracks on your property or surrounding your coop. Watch for chicken wire that looks like it’s been tested. Be vigilant for predatory birds hanging around your flock or your coop, and make sure to lock everyone securely away at night!
Make sure to check your chickens for parasites during the winter months, too. Cold temperatures and snow already put extra stress on your chickens’ bodies – any extra hangers-on, like lice or mites, makes that stress exponentially worse. Your healthy chickens can become infected during winter, too, making it all the more important to check their health regularly during this time.
Finally, make sure to keep watch for other small coop invaders during winter- specifically, mice and rats. They may find ways to plunder your chickens’ food as other food sources are hard to find. they may even find places to stow away in your warm, cozy coop!
Eggs and Chicks
This isn’t necessarily a winter danger, per se, but it’s something you should be aware of during the winter season. Low temperatures can impact your chickens’ eggs in many ways, depending on how long they stay outside. The most common thing you’ll see is frozen eggs that split open. You can thaw and eat these eggs, but we don’t recommend it – instead, give them to a pet or scramble them and feed them back to your chickens as a nutritious snack.
Of course, if you collect fertile eggs for hatching, wintertime weather can affect them, too. Fertile eggs can stay viable at surprisingly low temperatures, but not for long, and certainly not after freezing all the way through. If you want to hatch any eggs during winter – which we don’t recommend, as winter can be very unkind to young chicks – make sure to collect them promptly.
If you do end up raising a clutch of chicks during winter, make sure to wait until they’re fully feathered before introducing them to the outdoors. Most chicks are fully feathered at around 6-8 weeks of age, but this can depend on breed, too. Wait until all of your chicks have lost all of their chick down to bring them outside.
Even then, don’t just throw your chicks out into the elements – your chicks need to acclimate to winter temperatures before they can survive on their own, even if you add supplemental heat. To acclimate your chickens, bring them outside for steadily increasing amounts of time for one to two weeks. So, for example, you might leave them out for an hour during the day on the first day, then leave them out for eight hours on the eighth day. Eventually, their systems will adapt to the temperatures enough that they no longer need to come back to their warm brooder after.
What did you think of our winter weather tips? Do you disagree with anything, or have any tips of your own to share? If so, send us an email! Here’s hoping that you and your flock have a problem-free, cozy winter!
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