Keeping Backyard Chickens in the Winter

Reader Contribution by Tammy Kimbler

Minnesota has legendary harsh winters, and in recent years with the Polar Vortex, they’ve gotten dangerously unpredictable as well. Temperatures in Minneapolis routinely hit -10 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills bottoming out around -30 degrees. This happens in 3-to-5-day sprints, four to five times during the winter months. Beyond that, average temps range between zero over night and 20 degrees during the day. Snow is the least of our worries, actually bringing welcome 25+ degree temps to the area.

Now bring chickens into this scenario. With planning and preparation chickens can be happy and healthy in harsh winter climates. We have four lovely laying chickens that have fared quite well this winter, but not without some serious effort on our part. Here are the things we have learned that really make a difference in the lives of our chickens and their owners.

Coop Placement

The position of your coop on your property (or in your backyard) relative to other buildings and the sun will determine much of the winter viability of your chickens. In the North we needed to expose our coop to as much sun as possible to warm it up. We also wanted to shield the coop from the north wind. We positioned our coop in a sunny spot where the roof was titled towards the south. We also place the coop between our garage on the north and our neighbors garage on the south, which blocked much of the north winds, which bring frigid wind chills. If you can not block the wind in this way, consider wrapping tarp around the north side of our exposed chicken run to give the flock some shelter while outside in the winter. If you’re in the city, check with the zoning and planning department as they may have some requirements that impact coop placement (ours had to be 40 feet from the street curb).

Chicken Coop Space

Cabin fever is a real thing! We have experienced pecking order and aggressive behaviors as well as broodiness with our flock during our first winter. To combat this problem we build an extension onto our coop that gave the chickens more space. While 4 square-feet per chicken might seem like enough, in cold climates where you occasionally must restrict chickens to their coop (hello -25 degree + wind chill), that might not be enough. With the extension, our total interior square footage is around 6 square feet per chicken. We also added a second nesting area in the extension. Even with that, we still see a few feathers missing. We let the chickens outside as soon as extreme wind chills subside.

Chicken Coop Warmth

There are a number of things we considered to keep our coop warm in the winter. Chickens don’t need a tropical climate, but my chickens seem happiest when the internal coop temp is above 20 degrees. Chickens generate much of their own heat, which you can use to your advantage. Properly insulating your chicken coop is the first step. When we built our coop we surrounded it in styrofoam insulation between the walls. The city of Minneapolis requires R4 rated insulation for coops. (From a packet  of information sent out by the city.)

You also need ventilation so that humidity levels are not to high (our roof is ventilated.) We added weather stripping to the doors and cracks to keep out the wind. A 150-watt reptile-basking lamp housed in a reflective metal and ceramic light element generates a little extra heat. The roost is made of a 2×4 with rounded corners, set on the wide side, which forces our chickens to stretch out their feet at night, fully protecting them in their feathers when they roost, preventing frost-bitten toes. The final touch is 3 to 4 inches of dry bedding covering every interior floor surface and nesting box. We use kiln-dried pine shavings. Changed every week or so, the bedding keeps our chickens feet and feathers warm and dry, wicking away moisture from droppings. During the coldest days, it’s definitely chilly in the coop by human standards, but the chickens are perfectly fine.

Heated Chicken Waterer

Our biggest challenge this winter has been our heated waterer. Our coop is small. The smallest hanging heated watering unit is 3 gallons, which is far to large for our coop interior. Filled to the top it weighs 24 pounds, which is nearly impossible for me to lift straight up with only my arms in a confined space without spilling any. The cursing involved in changing the water every week takes on epic proportions. Many other chicken owners we spoke with have the same trouble.

One option is to keep the waterer outside all winter. We might go that route next year. Our concern was the -25 temp days when frost bite is a real concern. We did not want the chickens outside. The solution for this winter was to fill the bottom reservoir daily instead of the whole container. It’s not a perfect solution. I’d love it if someone could come up with a hanging 1 gallon heated water container. I’d buy it in a second!

Today it’s suppose to hit 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside this week in Minneapolis and all of us, owners and chickens both, are breathing a sigh of relief that the harshest part of winter is over (hopefully.) Time to make a few coop repairs as we head in to spring!

Photos by Tammy Kimbler and Claire Weber

Tammy Kimbler grows, forages, cans, dries, pickles, ferments, brews, ages, cooks and eats from her Minneapolis, Minn., backyard. At One Tomato, Two Tomato, she aims to show how easy, accessible, healthful and delicious gaining control of your personal food system can be. Connect with Tammy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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