Chickens and Winter - 6 key elements

Now that the weather is warming up (yay!) I’d like to wrap up winter with my experiences keeping chickens in one of the most extreme winter locations. 

Please note that all temperatures referred to in this post are in degrees Celsius.

This was my first winter with chickens, and I’ve got to say it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. All my girls survived and are doing so well considering the extreme temps they endured. Here are my top six "observations/best practices" for winter:

1. An insulated coop does wonders!

In the Canadian prairies, -40 temperatures are not a matter of “if”, they’re a matter of “when”. When it did get that cold, opening the run was not an option, but the girls wouldn’t go out anyways (they’re smart girls). I really didn’t know what to expect with the coop temperature, but while it was in the -30’s and -40’s (with accompanying windchills that made it feel much colder), their coop averaged -12 and never got colder than -16. From what I had read, this breed was very winter hardy (a big reason why I got them) and could handle -20 temps. Luckily it never got that cold in there. Keep in mind that out of the five windows in their coop, I kept two windows open all the time, and two windows cracked open for ventilation. I kept one window shut all winter (it’s right beside where they roost), and would only close another window if it was really windy. 

2. Frostbite

It’s counterintuitive. When it’s cold out, the last thing you should do is close all the coop windows to keep your chickens warm. Ventilation is an absolute must, because when you close everything up, you create a lot of humidity. The humidity comes from their poop, body heat, and breathing. You wouldn’t think that a few chickens could accumulate that much humidity, but trust me, they do. And you know what cold and humidity creates? That’s right, frostbite. 

Overall, my girls did pretty good with this, but a few still got some white colouring on their combs, and one had a little black spot at the end of her comb (basically dead skin). Even when you apply all the rules and give your best effort, frostbite can still appear. I felt really bad, but my approach was to just let them heal on their own. While some chicken owners will apply Vaseline as a coating on their combs, my opinion is the less touching of those areas the better. Now that it’s warmer out, it’s all disappearing and they’re totally fine.

3. Energy

First thing to note: Keeping warm in winter is a 24/7 job for chickens. If you have egg layers, their efforts to keep warm can reduce the number of eggs laid, as they need to use their energy wisely. Second thing to note: if chickens are not getting the right amount of nutrition/protein to keep warm and/or lay eggs, they will seek it from other sources. I was shocked that I still got 8-9 eggs a day from 10 chickens all winter (more on that below), but when I saw them start to eat their own feathers I knew something was off. The answer – protein. 

Commercial feed will already have the proper amount of protein a chicken requires (mine is 17% protein, and I wouldn’t go below 16%), but when it’s cold out and they’re using more energy to keep warm, they need an extra boost. So, I started providing cooked eggs - it sounds weird, but it’s a high source of protein, and because the eggs are cooked, it will not encourage them to eat raw eggs. I didn’t want to use all their eggs up, so I got a good mix figured out now. I now have a supplemental mix of chicken scratch (grains and crushed corn) with black oil sunflower seeds, which are very high in protein. My hubby gets cornmeal and extruded bean products from his work that would otherwise be thrown out, so I’ve been mixing that in too. It has done wonders, and their feathers are slowly but surely growing back in.

4. Chicken boredom

My girls were literally “cooped up” for a good portion of the winter. Even if the temps were warmer, they preferred not to go outside in their run – they really didn’t like walking in snow. I would always clear an area for them in the run, and while a few would pop outside and see what I was doing, they would quickly retreat back in the coop where it was warm. My coop has more than enough space for 10 chickens, but when you’re stuck inside for days on end, you’re going to go a bit batty! This likely contributed to the feather eating as well. Their supplemented feed of scratch mix helped keep them busy, but what really seemed to helped was busting a square hay bale throughout the coop, and sprinkling that mix all over it. Chicken heaven! They go nuts. They’re scratching all day, picking flower bits out of the hay along with their mix. I could not believe what a difference that made. Every morning I rake out the poopy hay from under their roost, pile it outside for a compost area, then scatter fresh hay back in and sprinkle their mix all over. It takes about 10 minutes, if that. They get so excited when I do this, I can barely enter their coop as they storm me for treats. It makes me so happy.

5. Egg laying

Depending on what breed of chicken you have, egg laying can change dramatically over winter. Many chickens lay less, or stop laying completely because the daylight hours are shorter, and they’re conserving their energy to stay warm. Let me first clarify that I do not provide any supplemental lighting for my girls. While the coop is hooked up for lighting, I only turn that on when I’m in there cleaning – and only if it’s too dark for me to see. Otherwise, the lights are off, so they get the natural rhythms of day and night. Everyone told me I’d be lucky to get any eggs, but my girls stayed strong all winter and I got on average 8 – 9 eggs every single day. I even got 10 eggs a day when it was in the -40’s! I could not believe it. They were certainly not fazed by the lack of daylight. I don’t know what to expect next winter, but I’m grateful for anything they provide.

6. Water

I mentioned in my last post that their water bucket did very well for most of the winter. It’s a 5 gallon bucket with poultry nipples on the bottom that they peck for water. The water is always clean and fresh. I put a 25 watt aquarium heater in there and the water never froze. But, when their coop got to -13, the water nipples on the outside would freeze solid (they are metal afterall). In this case, I ended up buying and using a traditional heated waterer for those really cold stretches. This was the one thing I did not like about winter. Changing that darn waterer! It doesn’t hold as much as their bucket and it quickly gets filled with dirt and hay. Changing it was a pain, as I had to trudge back and forth to fill it and have it slosh all over me. When it’s that cold out, those water sloshes quickly turn to icicles covering your jacket. As soon as I could hook the bucket back up, I did. Water is obviously essential and I was glad to have the heated waterer, but it really makes me love the water bucket.

I really didn’t know what to expect this winter, but overall it turned out great. I’m proud of myself for keeping up with everything. And I’m proud of my girls. They are such remarkable creatures. Even in those cold days, if I initially dreaded going outside to the coop, once I got out and saw my girls it was very worth it. Now on to well-deserved warmer days!