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How to Keep Chickens Warm in Winter

Keeping your chickens warm in the winter shouldn’t be intimidating. My easy, proven techniques have helped thousands of chicken owners raise happy and healthy chickens for eggs and meat in frigid climates.

Chickens eating produce in a greenhouse with a man in the background.

If you live in cold climates, your backyard flock needs time in outdoor air. Read more to learn how to keep chickens warm in the winter without electric heaters.

Keeping Chickens Year Round

Our family has enjoyed raising backyard egg layers, raising chickens for meat, and butchering our own chickens for over a decade. 

We enjoy watching our chickens scratch the ground, looking for insects and tidbits of food in the mulch and compost piles. In turn, chickens help till and fertilize our garden spaces, which is a great example of how we use the permaculture approach for our chicken flock.

Living in very cold parts of the country with wind chill at -30°F, I have learned proven techniques on how to keep chickens warm in winter without electricity. 

Thus I have been nicknamed the “Crazy Chicken Ninja.”

Some of my ideas may seem a little backward, but I can assure you many winters have passed, and we have kept our chickens in production mode in the coldest conditions.

7 Things Your Chickens Don’t Need

There is so much to learn from chickens. They are community-oriented; they puff up their feathers and snuggle up to stay warm. They naturally know when and how to protect themselves from the frigid cold.

Their genetics and instincts make chickens far more resilient than you may think. Before looking at how to keep chickens warm in winter, it’s worth considering what they DON’T need.

  • Sweaters – Your beloved family member has several natural ways of staying warm: heat from other birds, wings as blankets, a digestive system that warms her and she’s got enough sense to keep dry and out of the wind.
  • Petroleum Jelly – It’s said to prevent frostbite, and it may or may not work for that, but your classically treating the symptom, not the cause. Focus instead on keeping her dry and well-ventilated. Besides…it’s PETROLEUM! It’s toxic. If you or your birds shouldn’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on their skin. If you absolutely must have something gooey, use the natural counterpart; Un-Petroleum Jelly.
  • Straw Bales – Many folks recommend straw bales for extra insulation, but it’s overkill unless you’re further north than Pennsylvania. If you are not careful, they can collect moisture and grow mold, causing respiratory problems. If you’re going to use them, keep them on the outside of the coop.
  • Overloaded 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 a blow-out, even a fire.
  • Teflon Coated Light Bulbs – These put off toxic fumes! Look at the fine print on the back of any light you choose. I once noticed a fine print warning on a bulb that said, “not fit for inside use”! Probably toxic. Look for clear light bulbs instead. Watch out for the following labels:
    • Protective Coating, 
    • Rough Service 
    • Safety Coated 
    • Teflon-Coated
    • Tuff-Kore 
    • TefCoat 
  • Heat or Heat Lamps – They aren’t necessary. They’re dangerous and can cause perspiration that could lead to chills and frostbite.
  • Continual Light – I once bought some hay 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 pointed to a light overhead. Oh yes…lights. Many folks do this, but it’s not natural and can mess with chicken’s hormones and might even contribute to cancer.
Chicken on a log.

How to Keep Chickens Warm in the Winter

Now that we have established what chickens don’t need let’s take a look at a practical and realistic approach to keeping your chickens warm.

Choose Hardy Winter Chickens

We have found that having the right breed of chickens for the frigid winter months is optimal if you want to have these farm-friendly birds all year. 

We have great success with cold hardy chickens such as Icelandic and Australorp, as well as Rhode Island Reds. They are a traditional, cold hardy, dual-purpose chicken good for eggs and meat. Other cold hardy breeds to consider are the Brahma, Java, Buckeye, Orpington, and Chantecler.

When choosing the breed of chicken for you, this comparison chart from Sage Hen Farm is helpful.

You’re looking for a “fat” build with lots of “puffy” feathers. You can also take a look at the comb. Combs expel body heat, so smaller combs are typically more efficient in cold weather.

Pro-Tip: If you do have a flock, one of the first things you’ll want to do is cull. Culling is basically a selective slaughter. I highly suggest 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.

Inside of a chicken coop.

Keep the Chicken Coop Dry

It is not the cold weather that negatively affects chickens; it’s the moisture. Chickens create a lot of moisture, and when they are in a damp environment, they can develop serious problems. Keep your chickens dry!

The chickens’ wattle, beaks and feet can get frost-bite because of the moisture that can build up inside the coop. 

Chickens leaving a chicken tractor.

South Facing Coop

Place your chicken coop with the door facing south. If you are in the Northern hemisphere, the south is where the sun will shine the longest on cold winter days.

With the door open, the coop will be warmer and dryer, and the chickens will appreciate it. If it is consistently -30° F for several days, I would shut the door and keep the wire sides open, but anything above that will be fine. 

A man and woman in a chicken run.

Deep Litter Method

The chickens need deep bedding in the coop during winter, at least 6-10 inches deep with carbon material. I use wood shavings because we have plenty, but you could use dry leaves, untreated hay, corn cobs or a mix. 

Remember, moisture is the enemy; holy chicken squat (AKA poop) is 85% moisture, so we use a material that absorbs well. 

Ventilation in a chicken coop.
My ventilation above the roosts in my coop.


Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean we want to deprive the chickens of good airflow. There is a balance between too much cold air blowing in directly on their perch and controlled air circulation to help with moisture and ammonia fumes from the chicken manure.

I don’t insulate the coop to the point of closing off ventilation. Airtight is not a healthy place for chickens to live; they need fresh air. I keep a 1-2 inch gap around the top of my coops, not so much that the chickens are cold when they are on the perch, but enough to provide airflow. 

Warm air rises, and the manure that settles on the straw, compost and other organic matter (6 -10 inches deep) built up on the bottom of the coop will provide some heat for the chickens. 

The ventilation gap at the top keeps the air circulating and dry but gives the fumes a place to escape without freezing your birds. Just remember, air in and air out.

Chicken waterer behind plexiglass.

Keep Chickens Hydrated

The #1 health factor for a chicken is water. It can be weeks without eggs if they go just a few hours without water, it can be weeks without eggs. 

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. 

Generally, if you wouldn’t want to drink it, neither will your chickens.

One of the biggest struggles with water in the winter is keeping it UN-frozen. Standing water at night will be the most significant cause of the 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. However, when it gets extremely cold (low twenties), I’ll have to change out the water once or twice during the day.

Consider a water warmer if you’re not up for this kind of labor. You can make your own water warmer or buy one if you don’t mind using electricity.

Alternatively, you can build a quick and easy sunroom (pictured above) to encourage your chickens to get out on cold days and to keep their water a bit warmer.

Chickens eating from a feeder.

Proper Feeding Times

We usually feed our chickens in the morning. Winter cold weather changes that option to a morning feeding and another feeding in the late afternoon. 

Ration out some of the morning feed for the afternoon; they will fill their crops and digest it through the evening, helping keep them warm.

Food Options

It’s essential to understand the nutritional needs of chickens to provide them with a diet that gives them what they need. Chickens can benefit from eating a variety of foods. You can learn how to create this diversity by checking out my tips on feeding chickens without using grain and how to mix your own chicken feed.

A young boy dumping chicken feed onto a pile of cow manure.

Put Chickens to Work

Chickens need options to keep them moving. They will choose whether to stay inside or go outside in the coldest part of winter. You just need to give them the option of an open door. Don’t lock your chickens up. It may seem backward; trust me on this point, it works! 

They need to get outside and scratch around, moving and exercising. An open ground area, a manure pile with grasses to scratch about, is ideal. Once again, I would put some water and food outside to motivate them to get out and move around.

You can even add some feed on top of manure piles to encourage them to scratch and peck for bugs.

Keep Their Feet Dry

If you live in snow country, chickens don’t like walking on snow. They don’t like their feet cold and wet. I spread out a decent amount of untreated hay, placing it in a path out the door and then making a nice perimeter area with it so they can walk around and scratch in it. 

A man letting a goose and chickens out of a mobile chicken coop.

Design Tips for the Coop

Chickens need a suitable solid ramp to get inside and outside their coop. They need to be able to access the roosting space provided. They should be off the cold ground inside the coop to keep dry. 

Pro-Tip: Nine inches per bird is perfect spacing to have the room they need and help retain heat and help keep each other warm.

For a more in-depth guide to the necessities of a chicken coop, check out the basics of a chicken coop and the five chicken coop methods I recommend

A man pulling a portable chicken tractor through a field.

Move the Coop

If you have a portable coop like a DIY chicken tractor or the ChickShaw, move it around so the chickens have a new area to scratch and rough up. They can be so helpful working in a place where you might want to plant a garden come spring. 

If it is stationary and there is no snow on the ground, use the chickens to scratch up the ground and let them spread around any manure or organic matter you can throw in there for soil enrichment.

Chickens in a field with a chicken coop in the background.

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Hi, I'm Justin

I share from a love of teaching and the sustainable movement. Here, you’ll find exhaustive permaculture articles, plentiful photos, cinematic educational films and business tips and tricks.

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