Winter and Your Backyard Chickens
Sabrina Schirtzinger, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Knox County
Tim McDermott, DVM, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Franklin County
Raising chickens during the winter has challenges: decreased egg production, frozen water, and possible frostbite. However, there are management strategies that will keep your flock safe during the winter. Winterizing your chicken coop and daily monitoring of your chickens will help to keep your flock healthy, happy, and warm.
Choose Cold-Tolerant Breeds
There are several breeds of chickens that winter better than others. These include Ameraucanas, Ancona, Black Australorps, Black Giant, Brahma, Buff Orpingtons, Cochins, Delaware, Dominique, Langshan, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Red, Speckled Sussex and Wyandottes. While these breeds are noted for their hardiness in withstanding cold, note that a larger comb or wattle present in a breed or roosters of most breeds can be a location for the development of frostbite in an otherwise cold-tolerant breed. Strategies to avoid frostbite will be discussed later in this fact sheet.
Check the doors and windows of the coop for drafts. Make sure the doors and windows can be sealed tightly and locked as needed to maintain temperature. Inspect your coop for holes where air, moisture, or vermin can enter. To check for holes, turn the lights on when it is dark and walk around the outside of the coop inspecting the structure for visible holes. Address repair and maintenance of the structure in the warm weather in preparation for the upcoming winter. Ensure that spray foam insulation or caulk used to seal holes is not accessible to the chickens.
If you purchased a coop with several open fenced sides, consider purchasing heavy plastic or a tarp to cover the fenced sides. This heavy tarp is an effective temporary wall to prevent wind and moisture at the ground level of the coop and can be added or removed as needed. When blocking drafts, do not completely eliminate ventilation, but control the airflow to prevent humidity and ammonia accumulation.
While most chicken breeds can tolerate cold, even sub-freezing temperatures, complications can arise when wind and moisture are accompanied with cold temperatures. It is important to protect the birds from drafts and excess wind while still allowing ventilation. Maintaining air quality in extremely cold temperatures is critical to the health of the flock.
The buildup of ammonia from litter in a tightly sealed coop can cause problems over time such as respiratory diseases. While the buildup of humidity in a poorly ventilated coop will predispose the chickens to frostbite as humid air creates more frostbite risk than drier air. If a heavy plastic tarp was used to block drafts, ensure that the sides do not extend to the roof level to prevent adequate ventilation and allow excess moisture buildup.
Address drafts, snow, and rain with tarps or heavy plastic being careful not to extend the material to the roofline. Photo by Annika McKillop, DVM, MspVM, DACVP, McKillop Poultry Medicine.
To prepare the coop for winter, remove all used bedding and clean the coop prior to adding a large quantity of new, dry bedding for the winter. Bedding materials may include wood shavings or chips, straw, soft hay, ground corn cobs, or shredded paper. This bedding keeps the flock warm through an insulation effect.
Deep bedding can increase humidity levels, so litter management is critical in the winter months. Check the moisture level in the coop daily; when adding large amounts of bedding you will need to clean the coop more often and regularly adjust, mix, or fluff the bedding levels to provide a warm and dry coop.
Chickens will eat less in the winter than the summer. Each laying chicken requires 2 pounds of feed per week. Dual-purpose chickens require more, where bantams will eat less. Mature laying chickens need to be fed a pellet or crumble containing 14-17 percent crude protein during the winter. Chickens enjoy scratch, which is a mixture of grains (such as oats and wheat) and cracked corn. Feed a small amount of scratch late in the day to help chickens to stay warm throughout the night as egg laying chickens need more carbohydrates for warmth and egg production.
With winter weather, frozen water is inevitable. Change the water twice per day, and change the water more often on colder days to prevent freezing. Check the water source in the evening for frozen water so the birds have water available for the full 24-hour time. Even automatic waterers can freeze if not heated or insulated. Check these waterers for leaks that can contribute to increased humidity problems in the coop. Heated water bowls or containers help to keep water from freezing; however, be cautious as these devices may malfunction and cause a fire.
Encourage Egg Production
A decline or stop in egg production is natural during the winter because chickens require 14 hours of daylight. By providing 12-14 hours of light, you will help increase egg production. To provide light for the chickens, use a 60-watt incandescent lightbulb or 13-watt compact fluorescent or comparable LED bulb that is hung at approximately 7 feet with a downward reflector. This method will provide enough light for a 200-square foot coop area. Lights may be left on continuously or turned off manually or automatically with a timer.
Collecting eggs once or twice a day will help prevent eggs from freezing. Most eggs are laid in the morning. Time egg collection with water management checks. Discard eggs that have frozen and have possibly cracked.
Injury from frostbite occurs most commonly on extremities such as feet, combs, and wattles. Frostbite causes the cells in this area to freeze, causing cell death and subsequent changes in color and texture. Gray, black, or brittle areas are indicators of frostbite.
To avoid frostbite, remove the snow from the chicken run or straw areas to protect their feet when outdoors. Inside the coop, make sure that all the chickens are able to roost off the floor at night. Roosting allows the chicken to lie on their feet to avoid standing all night. Provide at least 6-8 inches of roost space per chicken. Roosts should be 1½ to 3 inches in diameter.
If you notice frostbite on a chicken, there are some basic treatments to attempt. Bring the animal into a warm space, slowly warming the affected extremity back to correct temperature. Do not attempt rapid warming of the affected area as this may cause further damage. Gentle use of warm—not hot—water foot soaks to warm the feet may be beneficial, but do not attempt on the comb or wattle. Monitor the affected extremities carefully for infection and contact your veterinarian if you suspect infection. In some extreme cases of frostbite, the loss of the extremity can occur.
Heating the Coop
Supplemental heat may or may not be necessary in the coop. Chickens are hardy animals with the ability to withstand substantial cold temperatures if drafts and excess humidity are eliminated and they can find a warm, dry spot in the coop. Prepare the chickens by allowing them to acclimate to the cold naturally as winter approaches. This builds up their natural tolerance to cold.
Insulating the coop can be an effective way to maintain warm temperatures without the need for electricity. Make sure that insulation material is not accessible by the birds. If supplemental heating is required, make sure the electrical feed to the coop is sturdy, safe, and not accessible to the chickens. Take care when using space heaters, radiant heating, or heat lamps to avoid excess heat, carbon dioxide buildup, or a fire hazard situation. Cold tolerant chicken breeds acclimated to the weather living in an insulated, dry coop with adequate ventilation do not usually need supplemental heat.
Key Management Strategies
Key points for keeping your flock healthy are to increase the frequency of monitoring the coop as needed to address and prevent problems promptly. Monitor for spilled feed and water. Controlled ventilation and air circulation that prevents ammonia and moisture buildup while allowing the birds and the coop to maintain temperature is critical.
- Damerow. (2017). Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, 4th ed., North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
- Damerow. (2002).Barnyard in your Backyard. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Jacobs, J. (May 5, 2015). Frostbite in Chickens. Retrieved from: articles.extension.org/pages/70255/frostbite-in-chickens