The last two weeks on the farm have been filled with a lot of snow, wind and freezing cold temperatures. It’s about this time of year that most of our friends and family start asking us how the “girls” are faring in the frigid conditions. Our “girls” of course are our chickens, and surprisingly enough, with a few simple adjustments, they handle winter better than us! Now don’t get me wrong, they are not particularly fond of the snow any more than us humans. In fact, it’s funny to watch them when we open the doors to check on them. They will run to the door, and the minute they see the white stuff on the ground, they stop, do an about-face, and decide to stay in the warm coop!
The key to keeping healthy and happy chickens through the cold winter months is really quite simple. Keep drafts out of the coop, keep the inside of the coop dry, give them extra insulation (straw), and make sure they have fresh (not frozen) water and food to eat. If those simple needs are met – chickens stay happy and healthy even through the coldest of winter nights.
I think a lot of our friends and family are surprised that we don’t have heaters or warming lights in our coop during the winter months – but there really is no need if you have good shelter and it’s properly prepared for winter. Here are some simple basic strategies that we practice with our girls and their coop in the winter:
Keeping Out Drafts
We cover each of the windows in late fall with a 1/4″ thick piece of clear plexiglass. This allows the light to still get into the coop, but keeps out the cold winter winds and drafts that can be so detrimental to the chicken’s health.
We keep their attached covered run filled with thick straw as well during the winter months, and if it gets too cold we can cover the small opening to the run with some heavy plastic strips that keep out drafts. Make sure if you do have an outside run attached – that the small opening faces away from your prevailing winds – this will also help to keep out drafts.
Deep Litter Method:
One thing we do not do during the cold winter months is clean the coop. Instead, we practice what is called the “Deep-Litter” method. In very late fall, we give the coop one final clean-out. We then put in a good 6″ to 10″ layer of straw all around, and for the next few months, we will add a few inches of straw every week or two on top of the old. The new straw provides a nice clean, dry surface for the chickens to roam about on. More importantly – the old straw below, along with the chicken droppings that are mixed in, will start to slowly decompose, releasing heat that helps to heat the coop and keep the chickens warmer. As the winter progresses, we keep covering the old straw with a few more inches of fresh straw to continue the process. In the early spring, when the night temperatures begin to rise, we will clean it all out and start fresh. This big clean-out has an added benefit – it’s a great start to a new compost pile each spring!
Water and Food:
With the simple practices above – it is amazing how warm the coop actually stays. In fact, it is usually at least 20 degrees higher than the outside temperature. Even so, one thing we do keep an eye on is their water supply. On extremely cold nights, it will have the tendency to freeze over by morning – we just make sure to switch out a new watering bucket in the morning, and all is well. It’s important to also keep their feeder full of food through the winter months. Without as much access to scratch and dig outside for worms and bugs, they need a steady supply of feed.
I always remember the four words of advice an old farmer told me when we first started keeping chickens : “Happy Chickens Lay Eggs”. He couldn’t have been more right, and if you keep them dry and draft free through the winter, they are a lot happier!
Jim and Mary