This post may contain affiliate links. See our Disclosure for more information.
While many snow birds are enjoying the warmth of their destinations, the northern chickens are toughing it out. Winter chicken keeping can prove to be challenging so here is what I do to keep my flock happy and healthy during the cold months.
1. Free Range when Possible
Whenever there is a sunny and moderately warm day I open up the enclosure door for any adventurous soul. Usually the Svart Hona’s and May (the Cochin) take advantage and go dust bath under the coop. If there is any grassy patches in the yard I select a few special chickens to get some greens in! Letting them free-range gets the blood flowing which helps with circulation. Good circulation means they will be able to stay warm easier.
2. Prevent Frostbite
Chickens that have tall combs and long wattles need extra care on cold nights to keep them from getting frost bite. Hens and some roosters will tuck their heads in their wings which helps, but tall combs still stick out. I put unpetroleum jelly on those that need a little more protection during the single-digit nights.
Frost bite is caused not only by cold, but predominately by moisture. To keep moisture to a minimum in your coop do a few simple things:
- have good ventilation
- don’t heat the coop
- avoid excess water surface area
For tips on how to prevent and treat frostbite, be sure to check out my post on Frightful Frostbite.
3. Don’t Supply Additional Heat
Don’t heat the coop! No matter what you think, don’t place heaters or heat lamps out in the coop unless under extreme conditions! Heaters and heat lamps create a fire hazard. Also, if the electricity goes out, the chickens are exposed to sudden coldness. A chicken that has been used to heat, will not survive very well if suddenly exposed to cold temperatures. The more chickens you have the more heat they will produce. Usually the temperature inside your coop will be a few degrees warmer then outside because of the chicken’s body heat.
For tips on how to keep your chickens warm throughout the winter without adding supplemental heat, check out my post on Keeping Chickens Warm during the Winter!
4. Pick Hardy Chicken Breeds
Part of raising chickens in colder regions is picking cold hardy breeds. Some chicken breeds are bred for tolerating cold temperatures and other breeds to better in a warmer climate. In general, American, English, and Asiatic breeds are more cold tolerant where as Continental and Mediterranean breeds are more heat tolerant. Cold hardy breeds usually have more feathers and/or small combs and wattles. A chicken fluffs out it’s feathers to capture warm air against it’s body. The more feather’s it has, the more warm air it can trap. Feathered shanks and toes also help prevent frost bitten toes. Here are a few good cold hardy breeds:
5. Provide Perches
Added perching space is always welcome in the winter months. Providing perches with a flat top but rounded edges helps prevent frost bite on the toes. When the chicken perches it can cover it’s feet with it’s feathers. My chickens love perching on the various roosts I have in their enclosure. A few perch ideas that my chickens love are:
- stick ladder
- tree branches
Also, chickens do not need heated roosts. They may sound like a nice accommodation but the same rule about not heating the coop applies to the roosts as well.
6. Offer Warm Treats
On cold, windy days I make sure to bring out a warm treat for my flock. Increasing carbohydrates in the flock’s diet also helps them stay warm in the winter. Whether its a few more handfuls of scratch or a cup of sunflower seeds, the extra energy will be used to replace the energy lost trying to stay warm. Here are some warm treats that I like to give my chickens:
- Oatmeal- in moderation
- Heated meat scraps
- Leftover squash skins
- Heated feed- take the chicken’s regular feed and mix it into some boiling water, let it simmer until it turns into a thick porridge. This is the ideal treat since you are technically giving them what they would normally eat, they like it just as much as oatmeal!
Just remember, give treats in moderation! Treats should make up no more than 10% of a flocks diet, which is roughly 2 tblsp. of treats per bird per day (ideally not every day). I like to give my flock treats in the late afternoon or evening which gives them time to get their fair share of layer feed before having dessert. Treats before bed can help chickens stay warm as their body metabolizes the food. Sometimes I bring out warm treats in the morning if it is extremely cold out.
7. Use Straw
Every fall I start to put straw out in my enclosure for my chickens. A thick bed of straw provides extra warmth and entertainment. Chickens love scratching around in the straw looking for bugs and seeds. When the straw starts composting, the bacteria and other processes occurring during the composting creates heat. Once the chickens have scratched and trampled the first layer of straw down, just place a fresh layer on top.
8. Provide Entertainment
Boredom is a key thing to prevent in the winter months. Bored chickens will start eating more and start picking on each other. A few fun good boredom busters include:
- homemade suet (go easy on the fat)
- pine boughs
- popcorn and cranberry garland
- shiny CDs and mirrors (be careful with a mirror if you have a rooster, they may think the other rooster in the mirror is a competitor and start ‘fighting’ it).
My chickens love popcorn and they also love mealworms. I like to sprinkle some of those treats in the straw that’s in the enclosure, which provides them with lots of entertainment as they scratch through the straw to get the treats.
Hopefully with these 8 winter chicken keeping tips, you will be able to keep your flock happy and entertained this winter! Have fun with your flock!