It’s been a relatively calm fall here in northern Idaho, with many mild days and nights above the freezing mark. To date, we’ve only had a week when our coop went into “winter-mode,” when we had to turn on the coop’s heat lamp and plug in the heated water bucket.
While the predicted El Nino winter may keep things frost-free, it’s still predicted to be plenty wet, and that can be more of a health hazard to your flock than frigid temperatures. With the official start of winter just a week away, here are a few tips that will help to keep your flock warm, healthy, and happy throughout the winter.
Keep your coop dry and free of drafts. Chickens, with their layers of fluffy down and feathers, can be quite comfortable in cold temperatures, but wet or damp conditions inside the coop can cause serious health issues. Cover vents or windows with plexiglass (which lets light in) or plywood. You don’t have to hermetically seal the structure, but you want to keep wind and wetness out. Leave one roof or other vent slightly open for air circulation.
You’ll also want to enclose feeders or move them into the coop to keep them dry and out of snow or rain. Wet feed can become moldy or freeze in feeders–neither of which is “good eats” for your flock.
Keeping your flock warm isn’t that difficult once the coop is properly sealed against the elements. Adding a deep layer of bedding will help to insulate the coop and keep it cleaner. There are many bedding methods to choose from, but I prefer the deep-layer pine shaving method for winter. I cover the floor of the coop with 6 to 8 inches of shavings and regularly “fluff” the layers. Adding fresh layers to the base throughout the winter will continue to insulate the coop and keep the flock warm.
Invest in a heat-lamp or heat-source, but use it sparingly. Most chicken breeds adapt well to cold temperatures, but when the thermometer dips into the single digits, we turn on the heat lamp. There are lots of heat source options, from a single 100 watt light bulb to a ceramic wall heater. Whatever you choose, make certain it is out of reach of curious beaks and check it regularly. Once temperatures rise to the mid-twenties, we turn the heat off.
A quick note on clothing chickens–don’t do it! Sweaters are not necessary and can actually flatten feathers, making the bird colder. Sweaters or aprons can be useful to protect a bird with an injury or to stop pecking (or for some super-fun holiday cards!), but please do not put sweaters on your chickens for warmth–that’s what feathers are for.
A heated water bucket or fount also will make your life easier in winter. Chickens drink just as much water in winter as they do in summer–access to clean water is a must–and a drink of warm water goes a long way on a cold night!
Inspect your flock for signs of disease or frostbite. All those fluffed-up feathers can hide illness or disease. I handle each chicken to assess its weight (an underweight bird is a sign that something isn’t right), inspect for any injuries (pecks and bullying can occur more frequently in tight, winter quarters), or frostbite. It’s also a good time to worm your flock–check with your veterinarian for recommendations.
Cold temperatures can quickly sap energy, so make sure you are feeding a quality chicken feed. Each year our girls get a Flock Block (from Santa of course!), which provides a diversion from boredom and extra energy. That is, after they get over being terrified by its presence in the pen!
In addition, my small flock free-ranges in our fenced backyard whenever the weather allows–even if there is snow on the ground. It’s a good opportunity to observe the flock and inspect the coop. The girls are always eager to get out and explore the yard…I think it’s good for their mental health, or maybe it’s just good for my mental health.
It does take a little more preparation to keep chickens warm and toasty in winter, but it’s so worth it for their generosity in providing breakfast!