Winter Chicken Care

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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Originally published in Robert Plamondon’s Poultry Newsletter, Dec., 2012.

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Oregon winters are all about rain, so mud is our big enemy. Chickens that spend a lot of time outdoors will quickly denude the areas around their houses, since they scratch at the ground with their claws in addition to pecking at interesting morsels. In wet weather, these areas soon become muddy.

One solution is to move their houses periodically, but wet ground is fragile and the chickens can wreck it pretty quickly. Also, they like the new grass that springs up in their old stomping grounds, so unless you exclude them from it, they’ll prevent the grass from growing back.

Using a mulch on the ground can work, but it takes a lot. A light covering of straw or old hay will get churned into the mud almost instantly, rendering it ineffective. A really thick layer works much better, but has a tendency to rot out the walls of the chicken houses where they come into contact with it. No doubt this can be worked around with appropriate building materials.

One thing that can help is to create some kind of porch around the doors of the chicken houses. That’s where the traffic is highest. Wooden pallets work well for this. Rats will instantly take up residence under any wooden pallets, so you’ll need to set up chicken-proof bait stations. The commercial bait stations work well for this.

There’s an old method I haven’t yet tried, which is to create a porch with a wooden frame covered with welded-wire mesh or perhaps heavy-duty chicken wire. The chickens can peck at the grass growing underneath, but can’t scratch the plants to pieces. The only downside I see is that, if you leave the porches in place too long, the grass will intertwine with them and make them really hard to move.

Keeping the chickens indoors when things are to sopping wet outside is also an option. Sine we don’t have doors on our chicken houses, and we put all the feeders and waterers outdoors, it’s not as practical for us as it is for others.

Ventilation for Grown Chickens

Baby chicks are vulnerable to low temperatures and wind chill, so we all work hard to keep them warm and to prevent drafts. But grown chickens, like most birds, have an insulating coat of feathers that makes them indifferent to low temperatures, so long as they can stay dry and out of the wind. This is a far cry from what they were like as baby chicks, and it’s easy for us to get our wires crossed about this.

In Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, which I have reprinted, Dr. Woods talks about how one of his flocks of chickens decided to spend the New England winter roosting in a grove of pine trees rather than the house he’d provided them. They were extremely healthy all winter, more so than his other chickens, though they didn’t lay much. Sleeping a pine tree in a New England winter doesn’t get you completely dry or keep you completely out of the wind, but if you’re a chicken, you’re snug and dry enough. 

So if the chickens sleeping in the pine woods were healthier than the ones in chicken houses, doesn’t that mean that there’s something wrong with the chicken houses? And if so, what?

The short answer is “Yes — not enough ventilation.” With too little ventilation, chicken houses carry a strong ammonia smell, and all birds, from miners’ canaries to chickens, are easily harmed by bad air quality. The rule of thumb became, “If you can smell ammonia, your chickens are being hurt by bad air quality.”

In the early days of the “fresh air poultry house” movement, farmers went so far as to knock out the entire south wall of their chicken houses and covering them only with chicken wire. This worked better than most people expected, but let in too much weather for most people’s tastes. Later, in California, farmers used chicken houses with no walls at all, just a roof. This worked very well as far north as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where caged layers in a house with no walls, and no way to get out of the wind, were healthier across windy winter temperatures down to 18 F than a control group in conventional chicken houses! They were cold but dry, and the totally open house had completely fresh air.

In the commercial poultry world, highly ventilated houses have been the dominant type for generations, but the temptation to keep the houses under-ventilated in the hope of keeping them warm is very strong. An old poultry saying runs, “The best chicks come out of the sorriest houses,” because dilapidated chicken coops let in a lot more air than ones that are snug. If anything, the problem is even worse today than it was 75 years ago, because back then small flocks were the norm, so poultry scientists spent a lot of time studying and sharing techniques for small-flock success. But agricultural science always focuses on commodity farms, rather than specialty farms, and they’ve lost touch with small flocks.

This in turn means that thoughful poultry books of yesteryear are more relevant to the needs of folks with small flocks than today’s factory-farm-oriented books. That’s why it’s good to read these older books, it’s why I found these books more useful than the others, and it’s why I reprinted them so you’ll get the same benefits I did! When you buy your copy of Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, you may not find yourself knocking out the entire south wall of your chicken coop, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find yourself making a few changes that work very well for you and your chickens. Is this in spite of first being published in 1924, or because of it? Both!

Heat for Grown Chickens

I’m skeptical about the use of heat for grown chickens. The belief has always been that you get “hothouse chickens” that don’t acclimate well to winter temperatures, which can be disastrous if the heating system fails. The old rule of thumb is that, if the chickens have a draft-free place to sleep, they’ll be okay down to -20 F. It’s true that their rate of lay falls whenever they experience daytime highs below freezing, but they remain healthy and active at much lower temperatures.

The main use of heat for grown chickens is to keep their water from freezing, since thirst is harder on them than cold under most circumstances. Giving them hot water in galvanized buckets works okay if you like hauling water around in buckets, which I don’t, especially over icy ground! An electric birdbath heater will keep pan waterers or buckets from freezing without using much electricity. If you don’t use portable chicken coops, burying or insulating the pipes and using weatherproof heater cable where necessary can save you a lot of labor and keep the water flowing 24/7.

Chicken coops should have insulated ceilings, massive airflow, or both to prevent excessive condensation from making the houses wet inside. Wall insulation isn’t a bad idea in colder climates. I go the “massive airflow” route myself, and rarely have any condensation in the houses unless there’s snow on the roof, which only happens a few days a year in my climate.

Christmas is Coming

I know I said this last time, but that was early, and this is just in time!

If you, like me, buy books for Christmas (sometimes even for other people!), now’s the time to match up the people on your gift list with books. And there’s something about reading books on poultry, farming, or back to the land in front of the fire, with a warm drink by your elbow. Happily, my more popular titles are being offered at substantial discounts by online booksellers like

And don’t forget that baby chick season is right around the corner, and, if you’re like me, you’ll be getting hatchery catalogs before you take down the Christmas tree. It’s good to be prepared for those early-bird specials!

Norton Creek Press Best-Seller List

These are my top-selling books from last month:

  1. Gardening Without Work by Ruth Stout
  2. Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods, M.D.
  3. Success With Baby Chicks by Robert Plamondon
  4. Company Coming: Six Decades of Hospitality by Ruth Stout
  5. Feeding Poultry by Gustave F. Heuser  

All of these are fine books (I publish books I believe in). If you’re like most readers of this newsletter, you want to buy Fresh-Air Poultry Houses and Success With Baby Chicks first. These cover the basics of healthy, odor-free, high-quality chicken housing and zero-mortality chick brooding, respectively, and get rave reviews from readers.

I started Norton Creek Press in 2003 to bring the “lost secrets of the poultry masters” into print — techniques from the Golden Age of poultrykeeping, which ran from roughly 1900 to 1950. I’ve been adding an eclectic mix of non-poultry books as well. These include everything from my science fiction novel, One Survivor, to the true story of a Victorian lady’s trip up the Nile in the 1870s, A Thousand Miles up the Nile.  

Photo By Fotolia/ lightpoet