When we decided to raise backyard laying hens, we chose breeds based on adult size (for our limited space) and cold hardiness. Here in Minnesota, our winters get very cold and sometimes we have negative-degree temperatures, as our daily high and double-digit negative-degree temperatures overnight, occasionally for weeks at a time. It can be brutal, to say the least.
While I do feel bad for the hens in the dead of winter, one thing to remember is that chickens are covered in feathers. They have their very own built-in down blankets and acclimate well to the extreme weather we have in the north.
Some chickens don’t mind the snow much, but mine do. It doesn’t matter if I cover a path in straw or sprinkle goodies through the snow, they don’t want anything to do with it. They just stand in the doorway of their poultry pen and watch me dancing around like a fool, trying to entice them out.
Being that our winters can last five to six months, I feel saddened that my chickens are cooped up for so much of the year. Because of that, we get creative with ways to keep them warm, busy and stimulated.
Winter Preparations for Chickens
By October, we’re beginning to think about the daunting and fast-approaching first hard frost that we are sure to have. With that comes the process of tucking in our gardens for the winter and winterizing the coop for our chickens.
There are many methods for winterizing coops and runs, but the ultimate purpose is to block the hens from the harsh winds and snow. Winterizing will also allow proper ventilation so their coops don’t get moist, which would put them at higher risk of getting frostbite.
I have a bit of a unique setup for my hens, as the coop is inside of a secured poultry pen, which is the “chicken run.” I live in the Twin Cities, in an urban city, which requires us to keep our chickens confined unless we are physically outside while they roam.
We line all four 8-by-8-foot sides of the coop with tarps, which we attach with zip ties. We use large logs from a tree we cut down to lay on top of the tarps (and bricks) to keep the tarps from blowing open. My co-author of Small-Scale Homesteading, Michelle Bruhn, reuses her shower curtain liners as barriers on her chicken run, which I think is a brilliant way to repurpose something that would otherwise become trash.
The top of the pen has a waterproof cover that’s made to fit. So, between the top cover and the tarps on the sides, we can keep the snow out of the run (even when we have nearly record-breaking snowfall, such as this past winter—just under 90 inches in Minneapolis!). The perk to lining the run with tarps versus something more semipermanent is that on the milder days, the tarps can be pulled back for the hens to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
Spring through fall we line our coops with pine shavings, but in the winter, we get a bale of straw for our chickens. We fill the coop with a nice, thick layer of straw, and pack a nice barrier of straw around the chicken coop for additional insulation.
The rest of the bale gets scratched and moved around the chicken run in a deep layer so that the hens’ feet aren’t directly on the cold ground.
Many chicken-keepers don’t believe in supplementing heat. Since I’m only allowed a few hens where I live, though, I believe they benefit from the heat since they don’t have the luxury of gaining warmth by huddling together with a larger flock. We get “Arctic blasts” a couple times throughout the winter that can cause the temps to reach down to negative 40s with the windchill!
Once the temperatures get down into the teens, we add a radiant heater inside the coop, which keeps the temperature about 10 degrees F warmer than the outside temperature. You don’t want too much of a temperature discrepancy because it can make it more difficult on the hens. They do acclimate naturally to the seasonal temperature changes.
The radiant heater is my preference because I believe it’s the safest option for heating the coop, and it works best with the small coop space we have. Also, with just a 10-degree temperature difference, in the event of a power outage the hens would fare well even without the supplementary heat—without causing stress on their bodies.
Proper ventilation for chickens is important year-round and especially in the winter. Though we do add tarps for the wind and barriers to add extra insulation, we want to keep proper ventilation so that moisture doesn’t build up in the coop. If there is excess moisture in the coop overnight, in the morning when the chickens go out into the cold, they’re at a higher risk for frostbite.
On the very coldest days, we add a barrier to our chicken’s combs and wattles. This helps the chickens avoid getting frostbite. Once we open the coops to let them out for the day, we scoop them up in our arms and apply a generous coating of petroleum jelly (or coconut oil) over the aforementioned areas.
I don’t rub it in too much because I want it to create a waterproof barrier between their tender skin and the brutal cold temperatures. But I do try my best to thoroughly cover all parts.
Chickens that have small pea combs are now on the top of my list of preference when it comes to breeds for northern climates. The Ameraucana is the best cold-hardy breed I’ve owned thus far (and my sweetest, most snuggly hen). Chickens with the larger combs are at most risk. Frostbite hurts, and depending on severity, it’ll need to be treated for infection. So it’s best to avoid it at all costs.
As always, fresh food and water is important. But how do we keep the water from turning into ice with these low temps? There are several ways, but my preferred method is to use a heated waterer.
We have a 2-gallon, plug-in, nipple-style drinking system that has kept our water from freezing for going on four years now. We hang ours from the top of our poultry pen so that it’s off the ground and can easily be removed to refill. I do check the nipples each morning when I open the coop to make sure the water is flowing and the heater is still working.
Rodents are drawn to the coop in the winter because they can find food and warmth. We check the coop for evidence of pests often and advise you to do the same. Check the corners of the coop for signs of droppings. If you find evidence, do not use poison or traps that could harm the chickens.
Avoiding Winter Blues
Here are some great ways to keep your chickens happy in the darkest and coldest months.
- Feed cracked corn in the evenings to keep their bodies digesting food overnight, which ultimately keeps the chickens warmer.
- Buy them or make them treat blocks that are full of beneficial foods. Hint: There are great recipes in Small-Scale Homesteading, such as recipes for flock blocks and suet treats.
- Go out and snuggle them! Spend time with them. Knowing your chickens allows you to notice when something has gone awry before the symptoms get too far along.
- Give them raw vegetable kitchen scraps and leafy greens. My chickens especially love when I surprise them with a head of cabbage.
- Add in or alternate things for them to perch on. This keeps the coop dynamic and exciting.
Prepare for winter before it arrives. It’s an unruly guest, so the more ready you are to handle it, the easier it’ll be to get through. For the most part, cold-hardy chicken breeds will do just fine, but those really wet, snowy, subzero days and nights can be brutal.
Provide for your flock, and make sure they are physically healthy as well as mentally.
A molt is an annual event for chickens more than a year old when their feathers fall out and are replaced with new ones. Normally this process takes place in the fall so that by winter your molting chickens are fully feathered and warm once again. However, some chickens don’t molt until later in the season. This is the case with one of my girls, Smarty Pants, our Gold Star hen. (She likes to wait until the temperatures take a deep dive before she begins her molt.)
Because the greens in our yard and the insects that are usually found there have gone away with the frost, there isn’t as much of an opportunity for Smarty Pants to forage for the nutrients her body craves.
Feathers are made up of mostly protein, so I always supplement my hen’s diet with extra protein during the molting process. At least once a week while my chickens are molting, I give them a mixture of the following ingredients: scrambled eggs cooked with coconut oil, crumbled eggshells, chopped peanuts, vitamin E oil, sesame seeds, baked fish, black oil sunflower seeds and soldier fly larvae.
Because they love oats, sometimes I cook up oatmeal to mix within or cooked rice and often sprinkle in some dried herbs such as oregano, basil and mint.
This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.