No one, and I mean no one, likes to be looking around for animals on a dark winter night with wet boots..
Prevention is a large part of avoiding this uncomfortable blunder, from fixing fences before they become a problem to ensuring everyone has proper footwear for the winter.
Last year, I was on the podcast “Connected to the Land, speaking about this very topic. Since 2020 was the year of the backyard chicken, I thought we could go over some things to keep in mind for prepping your feathered friends to stay cozy and warm during the winter months.
Prepare your flock’s immune system for a healthy winter. This includes looking for health issues in your flock, culling any sick birds, and processing any excess roosters from spring hatches. We use pumpkins for good gut health (pumpkin seeds can help prevent disease but it doesn’t often cure any existing issues) and garlic cloves in the waterers over winter for prevention of respiratory issues.
Look for signs of pests trying to make homes near your coop. This is the time of year you may have to put out whatever pest control you use. We use cats year round, and traps if needed.
Most chickens are cold hardy. You will rarely need a heat lamp or heater to heat your coop in the winter. I have never used one, and it has got below -20 here on the East Coast before. I have an uninsulated coop that has no drafts (drafts on the legs of birds are a no no) but has an air vent up high. An air vent is important for the ammonia that is present in chicken droppings to escape. Please don’t go by the “but if I’m cold, they are cold” train of thought. Chickens have feathers to keep them warm and they are biologically built to withstand weather.
Having said that, chickens that free range can sometimes be caught unawares by weather. When a blizzard or heavy snow warning is in effect, I often will let the chickens into the run but not out to free range. I have learned the hard way, trying to account for all sixty-five chickens in a snowstorm is worrisome no matter how long you’ve had chickens, and how many you’ve had to fetch out of trees in the dark. And if your boots don’t dry properly, you will have to use the old trick of plastic bags in them to go back out. There are a ridiculous amount of things I have learned the hard way.
Lots and lots of straw bedding is your chickens’ friend. Straw, not hay, insulates and keeps the coop floor warm. Winter is a great time to do the deep litter method, which means tossing your bedding every other day with a manure fork and adding new bedding so in the spring you have some beautifully broken down manure ready to be used in the gardens. Alternatively, you can wait till mild days and clean the coop out then. You can also sprinkle diamataceous earth sparingly to discourage mites, and layer in fresh straw about 6 inches thick.
I only put feed and water inside my coop if its giving particularly nasty weather. Otherwise my chickens are outside to eat. I have heated waterers and these help enormously with my hens getting enough hydration in the winter, which is essential for egg laying. Rotating two waterers between your heated porch or garage and the coop is helpful as well. You can cover your chicken run in plastic which helps with keeping some wind and snow out. My veterinarian is a huge proponent of animals having access to fresh air and the outdoors every day. I do lay straw down in the run when there is snow so they are more comfortable staying outside longer, and it gives them something to do. In the spring we clean this all out and use it in the gardens (Garden gold!).
Chickens need to be chickens. Having something for them to peck out and be able to scratch at are great boredom busters and avoids behaviour. I often get discounted cabbage at the grocery store and place it in the coop for them to peck at during long days. Also I save our used lard for frying and make homemade suet balls for them. I also have hanging dried herbs, a child’s xylophone and a mirror in the coop. All thrifted of course, because chickens poop a lot, so nothing precious goes in with them!
Collect your eggs often in the winter. They will freeze easily, and while freezing doesn’t really hurt them, they will expand and crack allowing bacteria into the egg. I use frozen eggs for the dogs to avoid waste.
Chickens can also benefit from a feed of cracked corn in late afternoon on exceptionally cold days. We feed lay pellets so the cracked corn a bit more helps them warm up before temperatures drop at nightfall. It’s sort of our equivalent of a hot drink before bed.
Chickens, no matter the breed, all dust bath to rid themselves of bugs. A homemade dust bath of 1/2 potting soil, 1/4 cooled wood ash and 1/4 diametaceous earth in a large bin or inside a large tire in their run will encourage them to keep bug free. Once this mixture gets wet it will be ineffective, so being able to cover it or remove it to refill it is helpful.
When everyone is tucked in for the winter, with fresh water, plenty of bedding and food, and eggs are all gathered, it is a feeling of pure satisfaction. However, after three months, even the most prepared chicken tender can get anxious to see chickens pecking green grass and a freshly painted clean coop. Your flock will thrive this winter, spring will come, and chickens and humans alike will rejoice.