Preparing a Backyard Flock for Winter Is a Breeze—No Matter How Cold That Breeze Gets
One of the most common questions I get about keeping chickens is “What do you have to do for them in the winter?” Surprisingly little, is the answer. For this to be the case, we first made sure to get cold-hardy hens: golden- and silver-laced wyandotte, buff orpington, New Hampshire red, ameraucana, black minorca and black australorp. While they may not enjoy frigid temperatures—and definitely don’t enjoy walking in snow—they’re well insulated by birthright. (My Pet Chicken has a great guide to choosing the right breeds for your needs.)
Our cold-weather coop preparation takes all of a half-hour. Around when we set the clocks back, we plug in the coop lamp (a weather-tight fixture with a cage cover and a 100-watt incandescent bulb, around $20 at Home Depot), which is set on an automatic timer from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. to provide “sunshine” and a bit of warmth. Yes, we trick the hens into laying eggs, for which they need around 16 hours of light a day. I only feel a little bit guilty about this, since they all take an annual month-long vacation from doing so to molt in the spring or late summer.
Any additional heat source is unnecessary and inadvisable, according to our veterinarian, who loosely covers his own coop with a tarp for the winter. The hens will roost together for warmth, and going from a heated indoors to the freezing-cold run or yard is too stressful on their health, not to mention the danger to the hens if they’ve acclimated to the heat and the power goes out.
In addition to being the only reasonable way for a fairly lazy suburban farmer to handle (rather, avoid handling) chicken poop, the deep litter method of allowing crap to compost on the coop floor is a fine source of additional heat—natural gas, no fracking required.
Next, we add plexiglass insets to the screened windows to reduce drafts. The coop is by no means airtight, nor should it be. A lack of ventilation in the winter creates dampness in a coop, the perfect conditions for frostbite and possible respiratory infections from a buildup of ammonia fumes.
To keep snow out of the run, I pile a layer of pine boughs over its mesh wire top. I happened upon this solution last winter, again out of laziness. The coop stands between the front of our house and the compost pile, where I was planning on dumping a pile of garlands just untwined from the porch railings, post-holidays. It had begun to snow, so I tossed the branches atop the run as a temporary barrier. They remained until spring, blocking snow and diverting downpours, yet allowing light through.
While there are water-heating units akin to tiny hotplates available, I find it just as easy (and not a potential fire/electrocution hazard) to bring the girls lukewarm “tea” every morning, sometimes adding a couple tablespoons of unfiltered apple cider vinegar to their water, which supposedly slows it from freezing and is an overall health tonic. We use a plastic, as opposed to metal, waterer. All I can picture at the thought of freezing-cold metal is the triple-dog-dared kid in A Christmas Story with his tongue stuck to the flagpole. I don’t know if that could happen to a comb or waddle, but would rather it remain a mystery.
Speaking of these fleshy bits, Lissa from My Pet Chicken says, “For birds with large combs, a light layer of something like petroleum jelly on the combs can help them from getting frostbite (since chapped skin is more susceptible to frostbite).”
A good additional point about waterers from Dan at The Green Chicken Coop: “Keep their water supply outside of the house, as moisture causes condensation in the house.”
Incidentally, his company makes a clever A-frame run, an especially easy shape to cover with a tarp (secured with small shock cords). “Pull the tarp back and shovel the snow away from the run so when it melts it won’t flood the run area,” he says. “If the run area gets snow covered, shake some bedding [pine shavings] over the snow.”
We use pine shavings versus straw in the nesting boxes all year round, and increase the amount in each box (as well as on the coop floor) this time of year to keep the moisture levels—and ammonia smell—down. My other must-have dehumidifier is food-grade diatomaceous earth. (The food grade qualification is important—I’ve seen the type used in swimming pools at the feed store, but this shouldn’t be used anywhere around animals, or by humans without ventilation masks.) Using a flour sifter, I dust the nests, floors, perches and run with the stuff. A desiccant, it’s also an excellent treatment for flies, fleas and ticks in the summer.
All coops should have perches for the chickens to roost on, and this is especially important in winter so they can “come down on their feet to keep their toes warm,” Dan says.
Finally, in addition to their regular layer pellets and people-food scraps, a late-afternoon snack of “scratch,” or dried corn, gives the girls some extra calories to use through the night. And they always appreciate a hot treat of oatmeal or other grain cereal on especially cold mornings.
That’s it! For more chicken info, for this or any time of year, check out the endless (and endlessly helpful) discussion threads in the Community Forum at BackYardChickens.com, and the Chicken Help pages at My Pet Chicken.