Preparing Chickens For Winter

As I write this article, two weeks into November, the temperatures have taken a turn upward, close to 70 degrees.  It feels strange writing a winter prep article, but it will be here soon enough.

Although my girls don't necessarily mind winter per say, they are not fans of snow or the decreased daylight.  Their lives get a little more stressed and boring as they don't see us as much since during the week.  We get them up, leave for work, and return once they've put themselves to bed.  Also, during the winter it's harder to conduct a thorough cleaning of the coop so I like to do it in the fall and again in the spring. 

Everyone's prep will be different depending on if your chickens are cooped or free range, what your preferences are, how many chickens you have and what you're winter weather is like, but this is a quick list of things we do in preparation for our long and cold winter.

Coop Cleaning

Before we turn our outside water off for the year we conduct a thorough cleaning of the coop.  I remove all the litter as well as the straw from the nesting boxes and add it to my compost bin.  I scrub down the feeders and waterers {although the waterers get scrubbed down weekly} with water and vinegar, vacuum out the now empty coop with a shop vac, and then do a wipe down of the walls, roosts and windows with a warm water and vinegar mixture.  After letting this air dry, I dust the roosts, nesting boxes, floors and any little cracks and crevices with food grade diatomaceous earth to help them keep free of bugs.  New litter goes down, straw added to the nesting boxes, the feeders and waterers are replaced, adding the heated unit under the waterer so we are prepared for the temp's to drop, and the girls are allowed to return to their fresh and clean coop.

Feather Loss

Chickens molt typically during the fall and sometimes into winter.  The exception is usually only the girls who are either under 1 year old or those who are broody during this season.  During this time your coop is likely to look like an animal came in and attacked a few of your chickens because of the sheer volume of feathers you'll find on a daily basis.  One way to help get chickens through a molt is adding addtional protein to their meal.  I read a few years ago about someone who adds a high quality cat food to her scratch grains during the molt and have been doing this ever since.  I don't know if it really does speed the process up but they love the extra special treat!

Heating The Coop

Heaters are not essential.  That being said, we chose to add flat panel heaters to our coop for one main reason - the coop is tall making it harder for their body heat to keep it warm.  Our coop is insulated which does help, but originally we had installed a drop ceiling with insulation in the "attic" space.  Eventually mice found a way to get in and we took the drop ceiling and insulation out.  If your coop is properly sized and the breeds you raise are appropriate for your climate this typically won't be a problem.  Chickens actually deal with cold better than hot.  If you do decide you'd like to add a heater or two I can highly recommend a flat panel for 2 reasons:  1. It's easier to find room for because it's flat and hangs on the wall and 2. It's fairly cool to the touch meaning no one {chicken or human} gets burned.  We only turn ours on when the temp's are consistently in the 20's or below.

Air flow is essential to good chicken upper respiratory health, however, having windows and doors open during the winter months can result in illnesses caused by the cold drafts.  The best way around this is to have ventilation at the top of the coop.  If you have gable or ridge vents your ventilation issues are solved.  For the rest of us it takes a little more creative measures.  I had my husband add small windows in the peak of our roof at each end when he built our coop.  He then added hooks allowing us to open the windows fully during the warmer months and partially during the cooler months.

As a side note to keeping the coop well ventilated, keeping the coop clean {adding litter for the deep litter method or scooping the chicken poop daily if you are not using the deep litter method} will keep ammonia levels down and help the girls maintain good upper respiratory health.

Creepy Crawlies

As stated earlier, I add a layer of food grade diatomaceous earth to the coop in the fall after it's been cleaned.  This can also be added to their feed.  All year round I add apple cider vinegar to their water {1 Tablespoon per gallon}.  The vinegar helps maintain an acidic environment in their gastrointestinal tract making it less likely they will be a good host for worms.  I also give them pumpkin, including the seeds and strings, which help them naturally rid themselves of worms {*side note - mine are not interested in eating raw pumpkin so I roast a split pumpkin for 45 minutes, cool, and then feed}.  These are great preventative measures.  An electrolyte/vitamin mix is another great preventative to help boost the girls immune systems.  We use this during the high heat of summer and during the deep freeze of winter, when the girls are suffering environmental stress.

If, despite my preventative measures, they seem to be infected with gapeworm - opening their beak wide while stretching their neck up, I use a de-wormer product that specifically kills gapeworm.  Gapeworms are found in the trachea and lungs and are a result of chickens eating droppings, earthworms, snails, or other "hosts".  If I treat with a commercial de-wormer we stop using their eggs for a minimum of 7 days.  This is often referred to as egg withdrawal.

Chicken Health Care

I keep a few things on hand for the chickens and these are the items I keep for the winter months:
  • Petroleum Jelly - we apply it to the combs and wattles {particularly useful for roosters} to help prevent frostbite.  I find it easiest to apply when they are on their roosts for the evening.  Petroleum jelly is also helpful for scaley leg mites if you have an outbreak of those at some point through the year.
  • Vet RX - an herbal supplement similar to Vick's for people.  It can be added to their drinking water or dabbed under their wings and on their beaks to help with upper respiratory issues.   Found on poultry product websites such as Randall Burkey.  Since it's an herbal supplement there is no need for egg withdrawal when using it.
  • Electrolyte/Vitamin Mixture - as I stated above, it's great to have on hand for times when your chickens are stressed.  Extra nutrients will help your chickens ward off illness.  Found on poultry product websites such as Randall Burkey.  From time to time I am also lucky in finding it in our local feed store.
  • Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth - found on poultry product websites or at most local garden centers.  A great preventative for the creepy crawlies like mites, lice and worms.
  • Neosporin - we apply this if any of the chickens get a touch of frostbite or a cut, particularly on their wattles or combs.

Winter Chicken Feed

While we don't change their main feed, we add different supplemental feed during the winter than we use during the summer.  For the winter, we use a corn based scratch grain as a snack for the girls as well as alfalfa hay or pellets {high in protein}.  The hay can be thrown into the coop as is, whereas the pellets should be soaked in hot water overnight and then fed to them in the morning.  Some chickens are not fond of the pellets - its really trial and error.  If you can find comfrey, or if you grow it, this is a great source of protein as well.

We also add a little more starch when giving them "goodies" such as warm cooked rice, oatmeal or pasta.  They get more fall and winter based veggies and fruit such as apple peels, squash {including seeds and strings}, carrot tops, etc.  Homemade yogurt and cottage cheese as well as cheese scraps are fed all year round, not just winter, as are most kitchen scraps.

Artificial Light

Egg production decreases in the fall/winter for 2 main reasons:  1. decreased daylight {chickens need 12 hours of daylight for good egg production} and 2. molting

Usually, once you get thru the molt the daylight hours are decreased so you may go a few months without eggs.  You can choose to add lights with timers to your coop to ensure the girls get 12 hours of daylight and, therefore, continue with egg production.  We have chosen not to do this, we allow nature to take it's course and wait patiently for the fresh eggs to arrive again. 

If you choose not to artificially light your coop you can store eggs prior, either in the refrigerator or freezer, in preparation for the weeks/months of no eggs. 

Freezing whole raw eggs:  crack them into a bowl and gently incorporate the yolk into the white, trying to prevent air from being whipped into them.  Pour into a freezer safe container. 
Freezing raw egg yolks:  egg yolks frozen by themselves can get lumpy and gummy.  To help prevent this, stir in 1/2 t. salt per cup of egg yolk for savory use or 1 T. sugar per cup of egg yolk for sweet use.
Freezing raw egg whites:  there are no issues with freezing egg whites, just make sure to separate completely from the egg yolk prior to freezing.

Let Me Entertain You....

Chickens need entertainment to help prevent picking and fighting.  This is extremely important during the winter when they don't have as much human contact and they aren't as fond of being outside.  I use suet cages {new, never used to prevent passing of diseases} to hold alfalfa hay, greens, whole veggies, etc.   The cages will make it so they have to take more time to eat and give them things to peck at during the day.  You can freeze greens in blocks of ice and put into suet cages or right on the ground to give them something to peck at.  Many chickens like to peck at whole cabbage heads, although mine are not at all interested.  Alfalfa hay or chicken blocks are also big hits.

I hope this short list has been of some help in preparing your own flock for winter.



Snooks said...

Lucky you with those great warm temps. I am thinking our temps getting that warm again this season isn't going to happen. Love all of the great information in your post.

@ 3Beeze Homestead

Shirley said...

Thanks for the post on preparing for winter. This will be my chickens first winter. They are 26 weeks now and still no eggs so I don't hold out much hope till spring!! I don't think I'm going with artificial lighting either.

daisy g said...

What a wonderfully informative post! So glad I will have this to look back on when I finally get my girls!

Doreen Frost said...

Good morning Staci. We had the warmth for one we are back to 18*..brr.

Thank you for this post! We are preparing for chickens in the Spring and I wanted to know ahead of time what the winter prep would be! SO HELPFUL!

thank you and have a lovely day.

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Thanks all - I'm so happy it's helpful. Shirley - I hope the chickens do well thru their first winter. Doreen - hooray for getting chickens in the Spring and Daisy - I truly hope you are able to get chickens someday soon.

Suzi @ chores and chandeliers said...

Thanks for the info!!!!! We recently got chickens! LOVE THEM!!!!
Here is our coop.
I'm a bit nervous about wintering them in Nebraska. But so far they are doing great and laying like crazy!

Unknown said...

The last hen pictured looks like a cross between our Carmen and Miracel! Do you know what breed she is?

The diatomaceous earth tip is fab and I'll be ordering some shortly.

Thanks Staci :)

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Thanks Tanya! The last chicken, Emma, is an Araucana. She lays beautiful robin's egg blue eggs.

Anna said...

We really haven't had to worry about true winter preparations until this week when our SC temps are dipping down in the teens with wind chills much lower. Thanks for this very thorough post. I'm sending it my husband for his review, too :o)

traci said...

Thank you so much for this advice. This is my first winter with the ladies so it was very helpful.