With two thirds of the country currently in a deep freeze, there are a few things backyard chicken keepers can do to keep their “girls” comfortable. When I teach backyard chicken keeping for beginners, I reassure my students their chickens actually fare better in the winter than they do during the heat of the summer. But there are a few simple measures that will help them endure sub-freezing temperatures.
Wind proof: Make certain your coop protects your hens from the wind. Don’t insulate the heck out of it, but make certain the girls can get out of the wind. Why do you not want insulation? Because you never want to take the chance of your coop becoming humid. A coop, while being wind proof, should also have terrific ventilation. If it’s not well-ventilated, the humidity sticks to your hen’s comb and feet and can lead to frostbite.
When our Idaho temperatures drop into the single digits, I carefully monitor my hen’s combs and feet. As an added insurance and insulation, I’ll coat their combs and feet with a thin layer of petroleum jelly (Vaseline). I do this every other day.
Water heater: The one nutrient your chickens cannot do without is fresh, clean water. Your girls won’t drink really cold water—nor will they break ice to get to it, if iced over. Purchase a water heater from a local farm store or make one out of a shop light and popcorn tin (it works great and is very affordable). There are instructions online or in my book, The Backyard Chicken Fight.
Feed: Boost your hen’s protein intake to 20-percent. The added protein will help their little bodies handle the cold. You can also fuel the girls with cracked corn right before they go into roost. I use about a ¼ cup per chicken. Cracked corn will stay in their crop overnight and it’s been shown to raise their body temperature.
Wide roost: Give your flock a good “understanding.” If you have a narrow roost, swap it out for a 2x4, oriented on the 4-inch side. This gives the girls a wide roost for maneuvering and they are able to splay out their toes and roost with their breast feathers completely covering their feet. Exposed toes, while roosting (and sedentary) can lead to frostbite.
Heavy bedding: If your coop is smaller, it will benefit from an extra layer of bedding/litter (straw, pine shavings, etc) in the bottom of the coop. This acts as an insulator (a good one) and cuts down on drafts.
Dust baths: Don’t forget about this simple need. Your girls need to dust bathe to keep clean. In the winter, they often can’t do this, due to frozen or snow covered ground. I’ve already heard from some hen keepers about lost toenails. The hens are scratching—but it’s like scratching on concrete. Put some dry, airy dirt in a big tub and let them got to town! If you can’t put the tub in a protected area, away from the wind, rain and snow, purchase and use a “hooded” kitty litter box. Can’t find dry, airy dirt? You’re in luck. We’re just rolling into “seed starting season.” Head to the garden store and purchase bagged soil without any additives, and use it.
Lastly, I always advise free ranging your girls in the winter if you do the same in the summer. Be consistent. If you keep them cooped in the warmer months, do the same in the winter. By incorporating these few steps, your chickens will be a lot happier and healthier during these cold winter nights – and days! To get more tips and tricks on successfully keeping backyard chickens checkout The Backyard Chicken Fight.