How to Keep Your Chickens Safe This Winter

Reader Contribution by David Woods and Log Cabin Hub
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Winter brings a new set of challenges to chicken keeping. Cold weather not only comes with a new set of precautions to keep your chickens safe, but it will also require you to adapt existing precautions and habits. Fortunately, becoming acclimated to a winter regime is not too challenging with these five simple tips!

Control Water Temperatures

Chickens need fresh water year-round, but sub-zero temperatures will frequently transform their water supply into one big block of ice. This problem needs to be prevented for your chickens’ survival, so you will need to check the water tank several times per day, and replace it as needed if it’s below freezing outside. However, just like manual coop doors, this is a challenging commitment when you’re busy. A solution to this problem is to use a heater. Many heaters can be placed directly under the water tank and powered by a standard outlet. Or, if you do not want to invest in a heater, you can hang a brooder lamp above the water tank. Either solution works wonderfully, but if you use a brooder lamp you must secure it tightly so that it will not be accidentally dropped into the water tank.

Use An Automatic Coop Door

Installing an automatic coop door is one of the best things you can do to prepare for the cold winter months. Automatic coop doors simplify your routine by letting the chickens out in the morning, and putting them to bed at night for you. For those with families or busy schedules, it can be hard to wake up early and go to bed late in order to trudge through the snow to let the chickens out. Not only that, there may be mornings where you simply forget to close the door because of everything going on around you.

For the chickens, forgetting one time can be a matter of life and death. Not only can leaving the coop door open let in the cold winter drafts, it can let in predators looking for somewhere warm to sleep and a meal to fill their bellies. With an automated door, there’s no need to trudge through snow, and there’s no forgetting to open or close the door. The best coop doors to get for winter climates will use mains electric, and are made of thick material. The one caveat with automatic doors is that you will need to check the grooves for snow and ice intermittently, which fortunately won’t require much work!

Replace Litter Regularly

Replacing litter is necessary year-round to prevent illness. Soiled litter is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, and can cause disease to spread more quickly. Additionally, damp litter can produce ammonia, which is harmful for either you or your chickens to breathe in. In the winter, it’s easier for these things to fester because the coop is more insulated, and the chickens tend to spend more time inside, in close proximity. The simple solution is to frequently remove the dirty litter and replace it with clean, dry litter.

It is also a good idea to change the litter at the start of the new season, but not just to prevent disease. When you add this fresh layer, you can make it several inches thicker than normal. This is an inexpensive and effective way to insulate the coop. Not only will your chickens be protected from illness, but they will be protected from the cold too.

Observe Birds’ Appearance

The way that your chickens look and behave is a good indicator of their health. It is always wise to observe your birds as they nest, feed, roost, and interact with each other. It can also be helpful to select a few random chickens and look for any abnormalities on their eyes, feet, toes, combs, legs, and vents. In the winter, there are two areas that you need to pay extra attention to:

  • A chicken’s weight will usually vary depending on their egg production. Birds that are gaining weight may be gaining fat, which will limit their production. However, birds that lay heavily tend to lose weight in the winter. Keep track of how much the birds weigh, compare it to how much they lay, and make sure they aren’t gaining or losing an unhealthy amount.
  • Frostbitten extremities. Chickens are most likely to get frostbite on their combs, waddles, and feet. To check for frostbite, look for discoloration: the combs and waddles may become pale or develop black spots, and the feet may become red. The best way to prevent them from getting frostbite is to keep them in the warm coop on extremely cold days, and apply petroleum jelly to their combs and wattles.

Adjust Feeding Habits

Winter weather tends to lead in decreased energy directed towards egg production. Instead, the energy that the chickens get from their food is directed towards maintaining their body heat. These changes in needs require a corresponding change in diet. While protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals must be high during production, the amounts contained in the flock’s feed can be lowered during the winter, without having a significant effect on their overall egg production.

You should also be mindful of the amount of feed your flock is consuming. If there is consistently a surplus of food leftover or strewn on the ground, you may want to decrease the amount you are supplying. Leftover feed can attract pests, and no one wants a pest in the coop!

Adjusting your care habits during winter will make caring for your flock easier, and will protect them at the same time. Many winter recommendations, like automatic coop doors and regular litter replacement, are also applicable year-round, so the transition into the new season will be more smooth.

David Woods is a carpenter, outdoorsman, and author with more than 30 years of professional woodworking experience. He is the author of best-seller How to Build a Log Home and has educated more than half a million people on how to build a log cabin via his blog, Log Cabin Hub. Connect with David on Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts here.

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