Preview: Preparing chickens for the winter can seem like a daunting task. But they actually need very little in most climates. Read on to see what you should (and shouldn’t do) to care for your flock during the winter months.
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Ways to prepare your chickens for the winter
Below is a quick list of things to consider as your prepare your chickens for the colder temperatures.
- Decide whether to light the coop.
- Determine how you will keep their water from freezing.
- Replenish bedding in the coop.
- Determine how you will keep the eggs from freezing.
- Insulate the coop.
- Cover the windows without blocking the daylight.
- Determine if you need supplemental heat and how you are going to provide it.
- Figure out how to keep your coop free of mice.
- Provide ways for the chickens to access the outdoors.
Lighting the coop
Lighting the coop is a personal decision. Some people prefer to give their chickens a period of rest over the winter so lighting the coop is not for them. Others prefer to add supplemental lighting to the coop to keep the chickens laying. I really hate to have to buy eggs so I do light my coop. If you want to keep the chickens laying through the winter, now is the time to add some additional light. If you want some more information to help you decide whether to light your coop, check out this post on lighting your chicken coop.
There are so many choices when it comes to lighting a coop. Many chicken keepers use a simple light fixture with just a 60 watt bulb. One advantage of this is that the bulb will provide a small amount of additional heat during the colder days. However, it can be dangerous. Chickens can fly into the bulb and break it and possibly cause a fire.
Another solution (and the one I use) is a simple strand of rope lights. You can find these most places now (since Christmas decorations are already out ?) but if not, many home improvement stores have them in the lighting section year round. These are easy to install and safe since the chickens can’t break the bulbs as easily. I wouldn’t put them where the chickens can peck them though. I just wrapped mine around the rafters in my coop.
If you do light your coop, it is best to turn the lights on early in the morning. If you add the additional light in the evening, when they suddenly go off, your chickens will struggle to find their roosting spots. (Chickens can’t see well in the dark.) I use a timer and start the lights about 1/2 an hour before sunrise. Each week I add an additional 1/2 hour until they are receiving 14-15 hours of “daylight.” I have my timer turn mine off about an hour or so after sunrise, but you can leave them on until dusk if you choose.
Keep water supply from freezing
Another consideration about preparing chickens for the winter is how to keep their water supply from freezing. If you live in a super cold climate, you will probably need to invest in a heated waterer. Here in North Carolina, the days usually don’t stay below freezing so on cold mornings, I just switch out their frozen bucket with a fresh (non-frozen) one. On days it is below freezing all day, I do have to switch it out several times a day.
Depending on the type of litter you use in your coop, you will probably want to change it out before cold weather sets in. If you use the deep litter method, its a good idea to remove most of the litter and add fresh litter. I usually try to change out the litter after most of the chickens have finished their molt. Each week, I top off the litter with fresh and wait until the spring to do a deep clean of the coop. Using the deep litter method can raise the temperature of the coop several degrees as the decomposing material creates heat.
Keep eggs from freezing
You also need to determine how you are going to keep your eggs from freezing. Collecting the eggs several times a day is the best way to prevent frozen eggs. However, I realize this isn’t possible for everyone. Plenty of litter in the nest box will help insulate the eggs. Just be prepared to throw away any eggs that do freeze. (Frozen eggs usually crack and that invites bacteria into the egg. See picture above!)
Insulate the coop
Along with replenishing the litter, you may need to insulate the coop. Please don’t think of using fiberglass insulation inside the coop. The chickens will peck at this and eat it. One option is to place straw bales around the outside of the coop (or inside if the coop is large enough).
Another option is to provide a windbreak for the coop. Keeping the wind from hitting the coop will keep it several degrees warmer.
Cover the windows
If you have windows in the coop, you need to cover them with something to keep the wind out. Drafts aren’t good for the chickens. You can use glass windows or a clear plastic to prevent the drafts. I wouldn’t cover them completely with plywood though. Your chickens will be much healthier with natural light coming into the coop.
If you live in a cold climate, you may need to use supplemental heat. It is recommended to use additional heat if the temperatures will be below 10 degrees or so. Please, please, please do NOT use a heat lamp. These are dangerous in a coop full of flying chickens. There are so many fires caused by these lamps every year.
Choosing a radiant heater will be much safer for your chickens and give you peace of mind that they are warm. Here in North Carolina, I have never heated our coop and we’ve had temperatures as low as 5 degrees before. I have had a few eggs freeze (see picture above), but never any problems with the chickens themselves. Chickens really don’t need as much heat as you think.
Mice in the coop
You want to keep an eye out for mice in the coop. As it gets cold, mice and other critters are looking for food and a warm place to stay. Your coop provides both. At the first sign of critters, have a plan to get rid of them. Just be sure that your method isn’t harmful to your chickens. This means no pesticides where the chickens can get to them. I have used these bait stations before and they eliminated my mouse problem quite quickly.
Allow chickens access to the outdoors
Try not to keep your chickens “cooped” up in the winter! (Ha, Ha, see what I did there!) If you allow your flock access to the outdoors, all the pecking and moving around will help to keep the chickens body temperature up. However, during the winter, predators are more prevalent so be extra careful if you let you flock free range. A secure, fenced-in run will provide the protection you need while allowing your chickens to roam outdoors.
Things you shouldn’t do when preparing your chickens for the winter
Make your coop airtight
While covering the windows to prevent drafts is important, it is also important that the coop is NOT airtight. Having airflow in the coop is vital to your chicken’s health. Airflow removes the ammonia and smell from the coop. Read my article on What to Include in A Chicken Coop for more info on how to provide airflow in your coop without it being drafty.
Chicken sweaters are a total no-go. They compress the feathers on your hens (or roosters) so they can no longer regulate their body temperature themselves. For the most part, if you have followed the above steps, your chickens will be fine in the cold.
9 things to do to prepare your chickens for winter?
So are there really 9 different things you need to do to prepare your chickens for the winter? Yes and no. Many of these things you have probably already thought about. Keep in mind, everyone’s climate is different and you northern chicken keepers have lots more preparations to make than us southerners.
Do you have any other ways you prepare your flock for the cold months? If so, I would love to know what you do.