Caring for Chickens in Winter

by Dalia Monterroso, The President of Chickenlandia

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Little Farmer Blog.

Winter is Here

It’s happening. The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder. Everywhere, new chicken keepers are starting to feel concerned about their flocks. Will their feathered friends be okay in low temperatures? Does there need to be a heat lamp in the coop? Surely chickens can’t withstand several days or weeks of snow? It’s just so awful out there!

As a Backyard Chicken Educator, I hear these concerns every year from new chicken keepers. These are valid concerns, especially for those who live in climates with extreme or wildly fluctuating weather. My goal is to calm people’s fears and give them confidence in their choices. Though it may seem like there’s only one way to care for chickens in the winter months, I find it’s better to talk about varying situations and allow people to make informed choices according to their own unique situations.

Do Chickens Need Supplemental Heat in Winter?

Pardon the pun, but this is a “heated” topic within the chicken community. As with most things, the answer is not as simple as it seems. Depending on breed, healthy, adult chickens generally do not need supplemental heat. Most laying chickens sold in farm stores or from hatcheries are cold hardy and thus can handle cold temperatures just fine. If you question this, consider that there are chickens living in Minnesota, Alaska, and even Siberia with no supplemental heat!

Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually moisture that is the problem in the winter, not the cold. This is why I recommend you have good ventilation in your coop while ensuring it isn’t drafty where your flock roosts at night. It’s natural to think that you must seal every nook and cranny and close every window to seal in the heat. But that’s actually a recipe for disaster! Let me explain.

Moisture is the Enemy, Not Temperature

When chickens sleep, they generate moisture from their breath. Their droppings also contain moisture. If you have their water container in the coop that will release moisture. And if you have ducks living in the coop with them, well, you get where I’m going. Good airflow in the coop will create a dryer environment, staving off things like ammonia buildup, respiratory issues, and even frostbite. You can learn more about the importance of chicken coop ventilation by watching this video.

With good ventilation and no drafts where your chickens roost, it’s very unlikely that supplemental heat will be needed even when the temperatures get below freezing. Remember, chickens are wearing thick down coats and cuddle up together at night to keep each other warm. However, if you feel like you’re doing all the right things and you’re still running into problems, if you have very old chickens or young chicks, or if you have breeds that aren’t cold-hardy, you may consider a safer heating option for your coop. In these scenarios, I recommend a radiant-type heater like the Cozy Coop or the Sweeter Heater. These panel heaters are made especially for use in a chicken coop and are far less of a fire hazard than a heat lamp. If you must use a heat lamp, be sure to clean it often and secure it well.

Frozen Waterers are Super Annoying

When I experienced my first winter with chickens, it was kind of a shock how quickly their water would freeze. I found myself hauling heavy water buckets from the kitchen sink to the chicken yard several times a day. As you can imagine, I was not excited about this chore! My life became so much easier once I invested in a heated waterer made especially for my flock. I even have some heated dog bowls that I use for the ducks and to keep fermented feed from freezing. I know it’s an extra expense, but in my opinion, adding a heated waterer to your list of winter supplies is a lifesaver. That being said, for some folks, it’s just not possible. This video can help.

Do What’s Best for You and Your Flock

I will never fault a new chicken keeper who’s worried about the welfare of their chickens during the cold months. In my opinion, that’s a sign of good chicken parenting. But rest assured, your flock is likely going to be just fine, even if you need a few extra layers over your pajamas when you’re doing your chicken chores!

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