In this article I’ll explain everything you need to know to keep your chickens happy and productive this winter.
I’ll include 48 ways to easily overcome the problems posed by the colder weather.
I’m also including a FREE Winter Happiness Checklist here and at the bottom of the article.
Let’s Ask How She Wants To Be Treated?
Let’s consider how the “Little Red Hen” herself might want to be kept this winter by looking at what she would do if she were a “free bird”.
Karl Hammer, founder of Vermont Composting, found out exactly what she would do if set free.
She spends her nights in the provided shelter and days roaming his commercial compost piles indulging on the biota and food scraps.
Karl’s birds are free to leave but they don’t.
Why? Because he’s introduced a system he calls, “Welcome to stay where she’d like to be”.
Hammer makes them happy by providing all that they need to thrive.
Not only is his flock satisfied, they’re producing abundant eggs and meat without any purchased grain!
The Secret to Winter Success!
To understand Karl’s success, and to formulate a great winter happiness plan we must 1st understand what the chicken needs and doesn’t need.
What makes her happy?
Chickens are much hardier and easier to please than you might imagine.
They’ll be extremely comfortable down to 40 degrees and just fine well below freezing.
It’s Not the Cold, It’s the Moisture!
It’s not actually the cold weather you should be worried about, it’s the moisture!
This hidden danger, is all around them. They generate moisture by just breathing, and 85% of their manure is liquid!
In nature, the ground is almost always cold and wet in the winter.
Naturally, chickens want to stay off of earth during the coldest and wettest times!
Great ventilation goes a long way in reducing the moisture content. It’s key to have as many vents as possible above their roosts.
Yes, warm air rises and will escape through those vents, but it will also take moisture with it; and that’s exactly what we want!
There are only 4 areas of special interest that include water, food, housing and exercise.
We’ll break those down in a moment, but let’s go ahead and dismiss what she won’t be needing:
7 Things Your Chicken Doesn’t Need:
1. A sweater – Your beloved family member has several natural ways of staying warm that includes: heat from other birds, wings as blankets, a digestive system that warms her and she’s got enough sense to stay dry and out of the wind.
2. Petroleum jelly – It’s said to prevent frost bite and it may or may not work for that, but your classically treating the symptom, not the cause. Focus instead on keep her dry and well ventilated. Besides… it’s PETROLEUM! It’s toxic. If you or your birds shouldn’t eat it, then you shouldn’t put it on their skin. If you absolutely must have something gooey then use the natural counter part: un-petroleum jelly.
3. Straw bales – A lot of folks recommend straw bales for extra insulation but it’s overkill unless your further north than Pennsylvania. If your not careful, they can collect moisture and grow mold, therefore causing respiratory problems. If your going to use them, keep them on the outside of the coop.
4. Overload your light sockets – All the light socket sizes are standard, but light bulb ratings can be drastically different. You can easily overload a socket with a heavy duty bulb and cause blow out, and even a fire.
5. Teflon Coated light bulbs – They put off toxic fumes! Watch out for the following labels: protective coating, rough service, safety coated, teflon-coated, tuff-kore, tefCoat. Look to the fine print on the back of any light you choose. I noticed a fine print notice on a bulb the other day that said, “not fit for inside use”! Probably toxic. Look for clear light bulbs instead.
6. Heat or heat lamps – They aren’t necessary. They’re dangerous and can cause perspiration that could lead to chills and frost bite.
7. Use continual light – I bought some hay recently from an organic chicken farmer. I asked him if he was getting any eggs now that the days were shorter. Confidently he said, “yep” and he pointed to a light over head. Oh yes… lights. Many folks do this, but it’s not natural and can messes with their hormones and might even contribute to cancer.
2 Things to Consider Before You Start:
If you don’t have chickens yet, there’s a couple things to consider for winter management before you even start.
1. Think about what breed might work best for your area. If you’re in a cold temperate climate consider well equipped breeds like the Australorp, Brahma, Java, Buckeye, Chantecler, or Orpington.
Basically what your looking for is a “fat” build with lots of “puffy” feathers. You can also take a look at the comb. Combs are used to expel heat from the body, so smaller combs are typically more efficient in the cold weather.
2. Consider placement of their house: It should face the sun.
All your openings, including any windows and doors should be placed on the sunny side and the back walls should be equipped to block winter wind completely.
If you do have a flock, one of the 1st things you’ll want to do is Cull. Culling is basically a selective slaughter. I highly suggests culling extra males and older hens.
It doesn’t make sense to go into the winter feeding non-productive members of your flock. If you’re not interested in slaughtering you could try selling or giving away the extras.
Now to our 1st area of concern for winter management …
- Always have it available. The #1 health factor to a chicken is water. If they go just a few hours without water, then it can be weeks without eggs.
- Keep it clean. Generally, if you wouldn’t want to drink it, neither will she. You’ll need to make a habit of cleaning their waterer once a day and more when needed. I suggest keeping their water off the ground by resting it on a block or something similar to keep the chickens from fouling it up.
- Keep it warm. One of the biggest struggles with water in the winter is keeping it UN-frozen. Standing water at night will be your biggest cause of freeze. Remember that, once a chicken settles on her perch at night, she won’t get down until the morning, therefore you don’t have to keep water out all night.
I remove the waterer when I tuck my girls in and put it in my basement near the furnace.
I live in zone 7 in the mountains of NC and the water rarely freezes during the day.
With this method, however when it get’s extremely cold (low twenties), I’ll have to change out the water once or twice during the day.
If your not up for this kind of labor, consider a water warmer. You can make your own water warmer or buy one if you don’t mind using the electricity.
I built this quick and easy sunroom to encourage my chickens to get out on cold days and to keep my water a bit warmer:
12 Amazing Winter Food Options
Obviously, food can be a challenge because it’s cold and the days are shorter. There’s much less live material like bugs and grasses for their dinning pleasure.
However, you might be surprised at just how much live material you can scrounge up for them. Here’s some creative and healthy winter food ideas:
Food option #1: Vermicomposting
Worms can be grown all year and they’re a great source of live protein. Depending on the size of your flock and your ambition you can practically grow as much as you like. There’s multiple DIY or purchased options. Size can also range from small bins to old bath tubs to large pits dug in the ground.
Sprouting seeds can ad tremendous value to something you’re probably already feeding like grains and legumes. Not only does sprouting increase the digestible protein levels up to 37%, it increases enzymes and vitamins of any seed.
Food option #3: Weeds- Green weeds like Dandelion and Yellow dock can be uprooted with a spade and consumed entirely by you or your chickens.
Food option #4: Green house – Folks can have cold hardy vegetable all year round under a greenhouse, cold frame or low tunnel.
Food option #5: Cover crops – If you plant your garden or field in a hardy cover crop you can certainly cut and carry this to your birds throughout the cold months.
Food option #6: Mulch your winter run – Bare ground is nature’s scar. If you keep your run covered you’ll be working with nature and you’ll be blessed. If you make it deep enough the ground will stay warm enough to encourage worm and other chicken appetizers for automatic and continual feed.
Food option #7: Sow ground – You can plant some special areas just for winter grazing. This fall, plant things like barley, wheat, rye, mustards, turnips, and alfalfa and in the early winter you’ll have premium feeding grounds.
Food option #8: Animal products- I’ve got a family cow, so I’ll share surplus milk with my birds. You can also feed back eggs, egg shells and other animal meats and offal.
Food option #9: Tree crops – Seeds like acorns are bountiful in the fall. If you have a feed grinder, you can grind them to mix with your other feeds. Without a grinder, you can put them in some jean or other tough material and easily smash them with a sledge hammer.
Food option #10: Compost
Certainly one of my favorite methods for feeding chickens all year round. It’s actually my primary feed source.
Simply allow your chickens access to compost piles and keep re-stacking and turning the piles to keep them active.
The chickens will enjoy scratching the piles and eating the abundance of biota the piles produce. Read my article, “How I cut my feed cost by 100%!” for more info.
Food option #11: Food from the winter garden
Cabbage, Comfrey, Kale/collards, winter crops, squash, fermented foods anything you can grow and just about anything you can eat. If your throwing the food scraps to the chickens and they don’t eat it, don’t worry, it will compost if your throwing it on a compost pile or a mulched run.
Food option #12: Predators or road kill
If you’ve had to kill a “bad guy” or you find some fresh road kill. You can chop it up, if you dare, and feed that to your carnivorous birds.
Don’t forget these guys are close relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex! They are omnivorous! That’s why it’s so funny to see eggs touted as vegetarian fed. Poor birds.
15 Tips for Winterizing Your Housing:
Housing tip #1: Trust your chicken. Give her the option to stay in or out.
Housing tip #2: Put deep littler down on the floor of the houses. Apply at least 4” of any carbon absorbent “brown” material.
I use wood chips because my town happily delivers all that I want for FREE! You can also use stuff like wood shaving, straw, dried leaves, corn cobs etc…
Housing tip #3: Install vents in high places, above the perches.
Housing tip #4: Make sure all your openings on the dark and windy side are covered to protect from the wind.
Housing tip #5: Cover any windy side slits at roost level.
Housing tip #6: Make sure there’s enough room. A good rule of thumb would be 3 square feet inside and 3 square feet outsider per chicken.
Housing tip #7: Ensure enough roosting space. A general rule is the width of your “surfs up” hand signal or about 8-9”.
Housing tip #8: Block any rodent doors.
Housing tip #9: Make sure they have light in their coop during the day. Preferably natural sunlight, but if needed, electric lights.
Housing tip #10: Have your Windows and doors facing south, towards the sun, if possible. If needed, move the coop or make new openings.
Housing top #11. If your chickens have to get up or down make sure you have ramps with cleats. It’s the going down that they need help to prevent hitting and bruising their butt.
Housing tip #12: Bedding should be dry. Add “brown” material as needed to keep moisture balanced.
Housing tip #13: Water should be kept outside because any spilt water will create moisture.
9 Ways to Keep Your Birds Active:
You must provide your chickens with adequate space for maximum health. Typically there’s a fenced in area outside the house that most folks call the run. We’ll go with that. Here’s some ideas to fully equip your area.
1. Add logs or stumps for the chickens to stand on to get up off the cold, snowy ground.
2. To encourage your chickens to get out of the coop you could ad a wind block feature.
Lisa, of Fresh Eggs Daily suggested the addition of a Juniper or Butterfly Bush.
I added a juniper myself. You could see how a whole row could create an entire wall of windbreaks.
Not only do these guys provide winter wind protection they offer shade in the summer and hideouts from arial predators! If bushes won’t work for you, you could build some kind of wind blocker.
3. Add a “sun room” to your run if possible. This could be a small “greenhouse” type structure utilizing plastic.
I actually have my eye on a very large rock that could not only be a sun collector for warmth, it will protect from wind and offer them something to get them off the ground.
Until I can borrow a tractor to move that rock, I’ll settle for an old glass door I found in our re-useable pile.
I made a lean-to out of it with some scrap lumber. They absolutely love it!
4. Chickens hate walking in the snow. If snow happens then you could lay out some straw or similar material to encourage venturing out.
5. Set out boards and even outdoor roosts to encourage outdoor activity.
6. Don’t feed them through a feeder. Throw it out instead. They love to scratch and it’s great exercise.
7. Hang a head of cabbage for them to pick at. I drive a tent stake into the bottom and hang it up by the hook. You could also get a hay net and hang out hay or alfalfa to keep them busy.
8. Deep mulch is essential in your run. Put down 4” to 8” of any organic material you can find (grass clippings, wood chips, garden weeds/plants, leaves etc…) They will thank you for it with finished compost come spring time. They’ll scratch it all winter looking for food, ad their fertilizer and it will soon be black gold.
If you can have your run where you’ll plant your garden, it will be ideal. Move the chicken out in the spring and plant your patch! They weeded, composted and mulched!
9. Last, but should be first, put them to work.
Put them in an area you need tilled to prepare for the coming year’s garden.
Throw in organic matter as they till to establish a nice mulch bed.
If possible have their run where the garden will be and move them out in the spring and plant your veggies!
That completes my exhaustive winter tip list. Download our FREE winter happiness action plan.
A Quick Word on Production:
Finally, we’ve met all of the “Little Red Hen’s” needs.
Now it’s time to eat her pie, right? Maybe not just yet. It’s still baking!
You’ve probably noticed that egg production has dropped. Here’s why.
3 Reasons Your Hens Aren’t Laying Eggs This Winter:
1. Late fall and/or early winter she went through a molt.
This is where she looses her old feathers and grows new ones for the winter.
Although they look terrible during this, it’s perfectly natural. Bad news for us is that this effort takes a ton of protein, so we’ll hardly see an egg.
2. The day’s are getting shorter and she needs at least 14 hours of day light to produce.
Remember her chief goal in life is to produce offspring.
Winter is no sensible time for her to raise some chicks. Wait a couple of weeks after the winter solstice and she’ll likely pic up again.
3. She may be too old.
They only consistently lay eggs till about 2 and half years old. After that egg production can drop dramatically by 50% or more.
If you MUST keep up production you could put on an automatic timer. DO NOT keep more than 14 hours of light on her a day. Be sure to set the timer to come on early in the morning, not at night. If there still walking around at night and the light suddenly goes out, their already poor night site will be even worse and they’ll have a hard time getting on their perch.
Chickens must absolutely have at least 8 hours of darkness to keep their reproduction and immune systems healthy.
If you do get any winter eggs, they might freeze.
It certainly needs to be 28 degrees or lower for it to happen. If this is your case, you should check your eggs at least twice during the day and never let the eggs sit overnight.
If it does freeze you can eat it right away or give it to pet or throw it in the compost pile.
Think in terms of a different kind of production… work…. If she’s given a choice to leave, she would roam further in the winter than in the summer. Food would be more difficult to find, therefore she’d have a further range.
Trust “the Little Red Hen”, she knows how to cook. She’s baking her “pies” and because you’ve helped her “cook” she’ll give you plenty of eggs this coming spring, summer and fall. Let her rest.
Download your free winter happiness checklist here to quickly put these tips into practice.