Keeping Chickens in Winter

Reader Contribution by Reeve O'Neill

Each winter at Nature’s Hatchery, our customer service staff gets calls from concerned poultry owners who are looking for tips and guidelines on how to successfully keep their poultry through the winter. Although there many questions and concerns, we offer the following advice to cover some of the most frequently asked questions, and help folks tide their birds over until spring production begins.

Winter, although it can be harsh at times, especially in certain parts of the country, should not be detrimental if your flock is prepared and properly monitored. Birds already prepare themselves by cutting back on production, molting (getting in new feathers) and increasing feed consumption. As long as you do your part, your poultry should be just fine.

The general guidelines and specific pointers below are primarily for first-time poultry owners. These pointers contain several little-known facts, recently confirmed by science, about feeding and supplementing your birds with necessary nutrients. While the main part of this information will be most relevant to backyard poultry owners who have small- to medium-sized flocks, the principles laid out here apply whether you have one bird or hundreds.

Starting a Flock

Different age groups of poultry have unique requirements and abilities to survive cold weather. Day-old chicks are the most fragile. One of the most important things to remember when starting a flock in the winter is that the information most hatcheries and books give is often confined to raising chicks in warmer weather. In addition to the guidelines suggested, precautions must be taken for power outages, extreme weather and unexpected circumstances that can arise during the winter. Something minor in warm months, such as a heat lamp failing, could quickly affect your whole flock in colder weather, making it necessary to start over.

We recommend starting with a minimum of two heat lamps for any number of birds. Red-tinted, 250-watt bulbs are best as they produce the most heat but reduce brightness, so they’re not as hard on the chicks’ eyes. A good rule of thumb is to use one heat bulb per thirty chicks, keeping in mind that a backup bulb must always be burning as well, to make up for the occasional failure of a bulb. You can wean the chicks off heat easily by elevating the heat lamps a few inches per week, reducing the temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit until the birds are comfortable with the temperature outside. Make the transition over a 10-week period, and the birds should be ready to range outdoors.

Another important thing to remember is to check on the birds as often as possible, with a recommended minimum of three times per day. If birds are cheeping loudly, or huddling in groups, they are most likely too cold. Chicks that remain in the same place or are lethargic usually need immediate care. Try feeding them warm water and placing them under the heat bulbs. Damp or wet patches of bedding should be replaced with new material daily. We have found straw to be the best bedding material. It retains and radiates heat from the bulbs, and can’t be eaten by the chicks.

One of the most important factors in winter brooding is the power supply. A covered brooder is ideal, as it holds the heat in longer than other types if the electricity goes out. But because power failures often occur at night, even a covered brooder couldn’t retain heat for more than a few minutes. One of the best products we have available to help this situation is a unit that plugs into a wall outlet and activates an alarm when the power is off for more than a few seconds. This doesn’t replace checking your brooder or incubator at night, but it’s helpful.

If chicks chill, they often get a condition called “pasting” during which their vents (anuses) becomes blocked with droppings. If caught early enough, you can prevent the chicks from dying by slowly and gently removing the blockage with the help of warm water. This condition can also suggest insufficient water consumption or supply.

Eliminating drafts is another key to success in winter brooding. The best method to prevent drafts is by using a brooder fence (cardboard) two feet or higher. To check for drafts, simply observe the general placement of chicks in the brooder. If they group on one side, you will need to eliminate the drafts coming from the opposite side. Chicks will grow faster and be healthier without drafts.

General Guidelines for Winter Brooding

  • Before your shipment of chicks arrives, preheat your brooder for a day, and use only warm or room temperature water for the chicks’ first drink. Cold water can be a shock to their systems (as is the minor stress of shipping) and should be avoided.
  • Add Karo syrup or sugar to the water to give the chicks an additional boost and to perk up any droopy chicks. The ratio should be one part sugar, three parts water for waterfowl, and one part sugar, two parts water for chicks.
  • Do not raise chicks in outbuildings during the winter, especially for the first four weeks, unless they’ll be kept in a room heated above 70 degrees. Raising chicks outside greatly increases the odds of something going wrong. After their fourth week, they can be moved to a brooder in an outbuilding. They’re past their danger point and have begun their growing stage.
  • Do not allow the birds out of their brooder until they’re fully feathered, with no down visible, or are eight to 10 weeks old. If they’re let out, they will need to put all of their energy into growing feathers, rather than growing in size.

Winter Tips for Older Poultry (12 Weeks and Older)

After your birds are 12 weeks old, you should have no further problems relocating them to their permanent coop. At this stage, they should be fully feathered and will look like mature birds, although they may be only half their final size and weight. You can check on these birds as often as you like, but after they have reached this hardy stage, more than two or three times per day shouldn’t be necessary.

You may want to give your birds warm water periodically. Chickens and smaller birds, such as quail, are particularly fond of warm water in cold weather. This is understandable, because it helps them keep warm without using up energy reserves in the process. Water supply is important to successfully raising poultry, especially in winter. If you have access to electricity in your coop, we recommend purchasing a heater or a heated waterer so your birds can enjoy an uninterrupted water supply (more on that later).

Another tip that we often give our customers is to feed scratch grains, especially corn, to their birds in this age group. This shouldn’t replace their regular feed, nor should scratch grains be used in excess, but they are an essential part of a good poultry owner’s feeding routine. We choose corn, because in the digestion process it produces more energy than other grains to keep the bird warm. It also converts into fats, which help insulate the bird against the cold. Chickens, and waterfowl especially, will produce better in the following year if they are slightly fattened the year before. Too much fattening can harm their productivity, but if you keep their weight at 5 to 8 percent more than their normal state in the winter, it can pay off in the number of eggs collected the following spring.

In autumn, check your coop to ensure that it is free of drafts. Fill any cracks and reduce ventilation be to hold heat. Because predators are more likely to view your flock as an easy food source during the winter, make sure that your coop has raccoon-proof latches and all holes are sealed. Weasels and rodents can fit through amazingly small openings!

It’s a good idea to change the bedding in your coop regularly, to prevent accumulation of damp or wet material, which can not only freeze and cause frostbite, but it is unhealthy for the poultry and can be a stress on their immune system. A good cleanout schedule would include at least two short cleanouts per week. (Or consider adeep litter system as an alternative. — MOTHER.)

Because birds that are bred for production never completely stop laying through the winter, keep an eye on the nests during your daily checks. Eggs do not freeze quickly, but to prevent cracking, it’s best to collect them two or three times per day. Keeping your coop lights on for 15-16 hours each day will encourage hens to lay. Following the schedule you choose is crucial. Even a delay of 20 or 30 minutes can affect the birds. Most folks who use this system often employ a simple lamp or appliance timer to keep the schedule accurate. Lighting doesn’t have to be bright, but it shouldn’t be noticeably dim. A 100-watt incandescent bulb or equivalent per 800 square feet is usually sufficient.

Troubleshooting Cold-weather Poultry Problems

Here are a few extra pointers to help prevent common obstacles to successfully keeping poultry through the winter.

Freezing Conditions

A key aspect of raising poultry through the winter is to provide a constant supply of fresh water. Because most folks would rather avoid having to thaw the ice on the waterer several times per day for their birds, heated waterers are becoming popular. Many products are available, but we feel that one of the most versatile is our submersible water warmer. This unit can be used in pans of water, or under your existing waterer, to keep your birds with an uninterrupted supply. If you don’t use a heater, or if you do not have electricity in your coop, ensure that your birds have access to unfrozen water several times per day. Birds should not be left without water for more than a couple of hours at a time.


Frostbite is another common winter issue. Check your birds frequently. Frostbite commonly affects combs in chickens and feet in waterfowl, and can be avoided by keeping bedding clean and dry. The best type of bedding for cold weather is straw, as it holds heat better than any other material.

Contact with snow and ice can contribute to frostbitten feet — if your poultry can’t get away from it. You can solve this by maintaining a spot in your poultry yard covered with at least two inches of straw, large enough for all of your birds to fit comfortably at the same time. This will insulate their feet and provide an escape from the frozen areas.

Chickens’ combs often become frostbitten due to wind chill, rather than ambient temperature. Thaw the affected area with cold water, slowly warming it to room temperature. Then apply a coating of petroleum jelly to isolate it from direct contact with the cold. This treatment may need to be reapplied periodically, but it is usually invaluable, especially for quality show birds. Alternatively, you could hang a radiant or halogen poultry heater just above their head level and they will spend time under it, preventing the need for more involved care. If you are not able to locate any of these heater models, we carry a variety of options that have been tested and work best for us. Coop heaters come in several types, which primarily include hanging and floor models. The types we recommend usually radiate heat downward, but we also make floor heaters that radiate heat outward. These are especially handy for folks with limited headroom in their coops.


Shortage of food supply causes an increase in predation during the winter months. Losses to predators, such as hawks, raccoons and coyotes, are preventable — as long as a few of their basic behavior patterns are understood, they can easily be thwarted by a little forethought and preparation.

Raccoons are one of the most common predators. They are nocturnal, and can be the worst of the proverbial “fox in the henhouse,” sometimes killing, seemingly for sport, the majority of a flock in a single night. They normally work to gain access to your coop, rather than finding and enlarging a hole. They will remove loose boards or roof shingles, open simple latches (such as hook and eye) and reach through small holes to gain access to your coop. They have been known to be strong enough to tear chicken wire, and similar deterrents usually do not stop them. The best way to handle a raccoon problem is to secure the poultry housing and to be present if they begin to target your coop. Trapping can be effective.

Weasels and minks are harder to stop. They can fit into small openings and are hard to deter. Like raccoons, they usually kill in nighttime rampages that seem more for sport than food. But these creatures are relatively rare and often too timid to come near civilization.

Coyotes are easier to keep out due to their size and limitations. Simple fences will often take care of this problem, although they can burrow under them. A line of electrified wire near the top and bottom of the fence will keep them from digging or jumping over your fences. Coyotes work in groups or alone at any time of the day or night, and are capable of capturing birds as large as turkeys. Simple prevention in the fall will eliminate these predators for the rest of the year.

Hawks aren’t limited by fences and normally do not try to gain access to the coop. Most often, they snatch birds in daylight while foraging. There is really no better way to protect your birds from these aerial predators than to raise geese with them, or to set up bird netting on the tops of your pens. Hawks usually take only one bird at a time and leave only feathers behind as evidence.

There are many products on the market designed to deter these predators. One of the most effective for night predators is the Sentry, a motion activated LED light that senses predators from a distance and flashes on for a few seconds, often scaring them away permanently.

If you are not sure which type of predators you have in your area, check the tracks around your place or use a field guide to determine the source of the problem and the best course of action. Local water sources are a good place to look for tracks.

General guidelines and summary

Even though most backyard flocks are commonly out in harsh conditions during the winter, they are quite hardy and, if cared for properly, will make it through without any difficulty, resuming production in the spring.

Rats and mice may be your biggest problems. Not only do they carry disease, but they invariably leave contaminated droppings that eventually wind up in your bird’s diets after they get into the feed. It’s best to store feed in metal containers, such as new trash cans, to keep mice and other critters out. Feed left in bags unprotected will most certainly be taken advantage of by populations of smaller rodents. Wooden or plastic containers usually keep these pests out for only a short time.

Occasionally putting a vitamin-electrolyte supplement in water can help keep your poultry healthy. Even commercially prepared feeds cannot replace the green forage available in warmer months, and supplements help temporarily restore the natural balance. In conjunction with the fattening mentioned above, this type of feed program will usually ensure top productivity — as soon as spring comes again. We can’t too strongly emphasize the basic principles of proper feeding and monitoring during the winter. In warm months, birds can take care of themselves to a greater degree, but the cold season in many areas is a time of survival for poultry. If you are aiming for top production and healthy birds, taking care of them properly will reduce problems in the future.

An important aspect of this is to give your birds appropriate (broiler, production, or maintenance) feed that is full strength — no scratch grain added. Scratch feeds can be used as outlined above, but it cannot replace the proper feed schedule. If your feed store does not have a good variety of feeds, you should provide unmedicated feed to your birds and feed only the appropriate rations to certain groups. For example, chicks should get chick starter or broiler feed up to their twelfth week, ducklings should be started on a waterfowl starter-grower or broiler feed until their sixth month, and birds that are laying or past their sixth month should get either a layer feed or breeder ration. Mature birds can be put on a maintenance ration through the winter.

Check on your birds to observe any inconsistencies or irregularities. If you listen to your birds, you should not hear heavy breathing, wheezing or coughing. Limping birds should be isolated until they are ready to go back with the rest of your flock. Ideally, keep a notebook handy to jot notes and keep records of feed consumption, weights, water shortages and miscellaneous occurrences. The more accurate and complete your notes are, the better you will be able to foresee problems the next time.

If your birds become ill, your local county agricultural extentionists usually have great information. They often give advice that is just as good as a vet’s, and will know when to refer you to one.

Winter illnesses are rarely significant but can become problematic if left unattended. The standard procedures for treatment of illness include quarantining the bird and using a broad-spectrum antibiotic, such as Terramycin, in feed or water, depending on which type of antibiotic you have. But this is only necessary when simply warming the affected bird is not sufficient to restore its normal hardy nature.

Winter should not be a problem for your flock, but rather a steppingstone to the following year! Just don’t forget to check on the birds!

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368