Keeping Chickens Healthy During the Winter Season
Updated: Oct 4
I'm not a winter person or cold weather of any kind person, which is why I loved the climate when we moved to South Carolina in 1973. We moved here during the first of December and found a beautiful sunny sky and 72-degree temperatures. We just left snow a foot deep in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, so I fell in love with South Carolina. It used to be that poultry keeping during the winter was not that much of a problem because the winters were usually mild and short. But I have to say the past 6 to 7 years have been awful! I miss those mild winters that I first fell in love with here in South Carolina!
But in the past seven years, our winters have been full of flash flooding, ice storms breaking limbs down and trees down over the power lines, over foot-deep snow that lasted for over two weeks! Which was very unusual here! Average winters in our area after having snow (no matter how deep) would be gone in a day or two due to the warm ground. Usually, our big problem in South Carolina has been the ice storms. Each winter, we thought, "Well, it won't be this way next year." But it seemed to get worse every year, so now we're over our denial. We will officially prepare our coops for the upcoming flash floods, ice storms, sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures that we've seen these past few years.
We use six mil plastic over most of our coop's windows and some of the runs. It's simple to cut the plastic to size and screw strips of wood to secure the plastic over the windows or openings. This year we are slowly adding storm windows to some of the coops they fit. We found a multitude of used storm windows on Craigslist that were free for the taking. These people just wanted someone to haul them away, and we were delighted to oblige. But these windows will allow us to open them in the spring and shut them in the winter, very easy to winterize that way. 😉
The key to winterizing is to stop the wind from blowing in on your poultry. If given a shelter free of drafts, they will be able to maintain body heat. In the winter, you will see your chickens standing with their feathers puffed up to stay warm. They fluff their feathers out like a balloon to contain the warmth from their body heat inside this bubble.
I want to encourage you to leave some ventilation in your poultry's coop. You do not want the wind to blow through cracks to chill your poultry, but you do want air circulation across the ceiling. It would be best if you didn't make the coop airtight due to ammonia and moisture build-up.
The ammonia can cause respiratory problems and eye issues, and the moisture can build up on the combs plus freezing temperatures equals frostbit on their combs. Frostbite can occur on combs, wattles, and feet and is caused more by moisture build-up in the coops than by the cold weather.
The open vents should be located high up in the coop, well above your chickens' heads when they roost. The idea is to have the airflow from one side of the ceiling across to the ceiling's other side. All vents or windows low in the coop should be closed. If you don't have a window to shut, you can use plastic over all the openings.
Drinking water inside coops can add more problems during winter weather. I know there will be times when it may be necessary during crazy wild weather, but the coop's temperature can be made even colder from the cold container of water, especially if it freezes. Also, water in the coop adds even more moisture in the air that can accumulate on combs and wattles and cause frostbite.
Blocking the wind in the chicken runs can also encourage your flock to spend time outdoors. Fresh air is a necessity for all living creatures. Even you and I are better off spending a little time outdoors. Choose the run's side where the wind blows the most and is the coldest and hang either heavy plastic or a tarp using strips of wood to attach it, even a piece of plywood to create a protective area in the corner of the runs can be beneficial.
Your chickens will appreciate something to perch on during freezing temperatures to get their feet off the cold ground. A log, outdoor roost, branches, pine needles are a few things you can use to give those little feet relief from the cold.
The feet of a chicken is always exposed, and those feathered feet need to be kept dry. Wet freezing feathers on their feet can cause frostbit. Also, chickens with those beautiful crests on top of their heads tend to get wet and freeze. I feel so sorry for these breeds during the winter. These frozen lollipops' on top of their heads can cause respiratory illness. I usually give all my girls and guys a haircut during the winter rather than risk them getting sick.
Remember, when the winter ground is frozen, it's tough for them to have either a dust bath or get the grit they need from the soil because of the frozen ground's hardness. It can only help if you can toss some grit in their run and provide some sand mixed with dirt with a little DE to help them keep the bugs away as well as boredom.
We work hard to clean every coop at our farm once a week during the winter months. It's not as bad in the summer because they spend most of their time outdoors from 7:00 AM until 9 PM. Wintertime, they stay inside their coops many more hours, and they tend to soil their shavings much quicker. We use large flake pine shavings. It works best for us. Some folks enjoy using on the sand in their coops' floor, and I can see how beneficial it is. It would be easy to scrape off the poop, but the worry I have with sand is the moisture retention. I feel better knowing I can remove all soiled material quickly and easily with shavings.
At this point of winterizing, I think we have coops cleaned. During the fall of the year may be the last chance to do a good cleaning job until spring, so do a thorough job. Be sure to dust in the rafters and scrape off all the poop from the roost and floors.
Virkon is a hard surface disinfectant in livestock production. It delivers 99.9% kill of numerous pathogens, including 31 bacterial strains, 58 viruses, and six fungi, which is why we spray it inside the coops. We cover the walls, cracks, roost, and floor with a mix of Virkon.
Some people prefer straw as coop bedding in the winter. The hollow shafts in the straw trap and hold warm air, effectively insulating your coop floor. I want to say that this is a fantastic idea in the North where winters are harsh, but in the warmer Southern States, the moisture build-up in straw can cause some problems and extra work. Straw is challenging to clean when poultry poops. Moisture built up from poop tends to attract many gnats and harbor pathogens.
Also, a thing to remember should you use straw is that poultry will eat it, and sometimes this can cause crop impaction from the long stringy straw, so it's best to use the chopped straw and examine the straw for mold, and pesticides, or dampness.
Additional bales of straw to stack along the inside of the coop walls can reduce space. The less room for the warm bodies to heat, the warmer it will be inside the coop. Use chopped straw to spread as paths over snow that tends to never melt during winter to keep their feet from freezing and encourage them to venture out of the coop. Remove the straw early spring and use it as mulch in your garden. Again, I must say, I do not recommend using straw or hay in the south.
Also, giving them treats will help them to generate heat. The important thing during winter is they always need to have water available to them. During freezing temperatures, this can be a challenge. If you can use heating tape, that is such a blessing. But here at Egg Well, our coops are spread out too far, and we have too many to be able to use heat tape on their water since we can't send electricity out everywhere. If I had only one coop, I guarantee you; I would use heat tape on my chickens' water. But as it is, we usually carry buckets to each lot out of the house twice a day during freezing weather. And pray to GOD, the freezing temperatures don't last long!!
There is another system used since 1946 called the deep litter system. This system starts with about 4 inches of fine litter material with 1 to 2 inches added throughout the winter. Partial removals from time to time maintain a depth of 6 to 12 inches with new layers added throughout the winter, and the way it is supposed to work is that as the litter decomposes, it builds up heat to warm the coop and insulates the floor. About a foot of bedding is maintained on the floor throughout the winter and then removed early spring. I have never tried this system, and I can't bring myself to keep my poultry on soiled litter for that length of time. Should you decide to use this system, please get more information than what you see here.
If you're living in a location where you don't have access to electricity for heat tape on your poultry's drinking water, there are a few tricks to help keep it from freezing so quickly. Number one is to find a section of glass or window and make a lean-to over the water with the glass facing the sun and the water behind the glass. The heat from the sun will shine through the glass to warm the water. Even better, if you use a black, wide, rubber tub for their drinking water. The black attracts heat, and the rubber holds the heat to help melt the water quicker for poultry drinking water. The wider the tub the slower the water freezes.
I don't recommend using heat lamps in the coops simply because they are such a fire hazard. If your situation requires heat in the coops for some reason, there are other options, such as chicken coop heaters. They look like a TV but radiates heat.
Amazon: Safe Chicken Coop Heater Giving your flock treats packed with good fats can also help them stay warm. Feed the goodies at the end of a day after they've eaten their required feed. Remember, these treats are just that "treats." Toss out scratch grains, cracked corn, peanuts, unsalted nuts to help their bodies generate heat. Provide suet cakes, which can be purchased or made yourself. If you want to make the suet cake yourself, here is a basic recipe to go by, but you can use what you have in your pantry or refrigerator to create your recipe:
First, let me tell you that a suet cake is held together by fat dropping, which you can save from foods when you cook. I like to use coconut oil or hamburger fat whenever I fry hamburgers because it doesn't have a lot of salt or chemicals added as you'd see in bacon grease. After you add your ingredients to this fat, it will be hardened in your refrigerator.
You can add so many things to this fat. Just use whatever you have available. I like to use cracked corn, black oil, sunflower seeds, dried fruit like cranberries, raisins, chopped apples, any unsalted nuts, etc. You can also add some oats, whole wheat, millet, or whatever you have available.
Here is kind of a guideline you can go by:
1 ½ cups the fat you choose
1 cup unsalted seeds/and or nuts you choose
1 cup dried fruits of your choosing
1 cup whole grains like scratch-mix, whole wheat, or millet, etc.
Line a pan or casserole dish with parchment paper, foil, or plastic wrap. Or I prefer muffin tins. Mix all the ingredients except the fat, and place in the pan or muffin tins.
Cover the dry ingredients thoroughly with the liquid fat. You may need to mash everything around with a fork to make sure there are no air bubbles.
Put it in the refrigerator until completely hardened. Remove the suet cake by lifting on the liner to pop it out. I use muffin tins because I have so many different coops. I use a chicken wire piece attached to the coop's side or on a post somewhere shaped like a pocket to hold the suet cakes. If you made larger blocks, you could cut into pieces that best fit your situation.
One more thing to consider, some poultry are not cold hardy birds. If you happen to have one of those birds, they need a little extra care. Spanish White Face is one of our breeds that doesn't like the cold, but we also have Brahmas that thrive in the cold. If you happen to have two breeds that are opposites concerning the cold, it's good to situate the one that doesn't like the cold between a couple of cold-hardy breeds on the roost at night. Those fluffy feathers covering her will be quiet comfortable for her.
The size of their coop plays a big part in how warm your birds can keep their coop. If you have a few fluffy Orpingtons and Brahmas in a coop 6' X 6' with other breeds, they can keep the coop around 40 degrees on a cold day. Fewer and smaller birds in the same size coop will barely make a difference in the same size coop. When you have breeds that have not been bred to endure frigid weather, by all means, help them stay warm even with some source of heaters. Be safe.
Different breeds of chickens endure frigid temperatures and snow differently. You know your guys and gals better than anyone. If you see one of your hens or rooster behaving differently, take note. It wouldn't hurt to do a little check-up. Make sure to pay special attention to tiny bantams. Chickens are not invincible! They need your help to make it through the rough patches, and believe me they are one of the most grateful loving little creatures on this planet. A little kindness to these sweeties wins the heart of a loving loyal creature that will adore you.