How Will my Chickens Deal With Cold Weather?

Most of the usual chicken breeds do pretty well in the cold weather (below freezing, even), but expect egg production to dramatically decrease or stop while it is cold and dark. As long as the fowls are protected from excessive wind and exposure…

Cold Weather

Most of the usual chicken breeds do pretty well in the cold weather (below freezing, even), but expect egg production to dramatically decrease or stop while it is cold and dark. As long as the fowls are protected from excessive wind and exposure, they'll be OK (for instance, don't leave lots of open wire mesh windows in the coop -- cover them with plywood or Plexiglas or something). Plexiglas is nice as a window cover because it is durable and allows sunlight to enter, giving some solar gain during the day (but it is a bit more expensive).

One other important item concerning cold weather: frozen water. The water in the waterer will freeze into a block of ice when it drops below freezing. One solution to this is to get a heated base for metal water heaters. This is essentially an upside-down metal pan with a cord that plugs into a standard socket. Place the metal waterer on top of the base and it will keep the water unfrozen. Unfortunately, you have run an extension cord out to the coop to provide power during the winter months. This kind of heater works great, but a metal waterer is preferred owing to its better thermal conductivity. I have used both plastic and metal, and the plastic container does have iced-over water in the trough if it gets very cold, but not enough to keep the chickens from having any water at all. The metal never has these issues. More evidence that a plastic waterer will work is seen in pictures taken by chicken expert Terry Golson of her coop which shows a plastic waterer on top of what appears to be the heater. If, on the other hand, you have a smaller waterer and want use a canning jar with a screw-on plastic base (and forget the heater), be sure not to use a glass jar (use a plastic one instead). The glass will crack when the water freezes and expands, and then you have shards of glass in your coop.

When Old Man Winter moves into town, your chickens are counting on you to help guide them through the season. Luckily, chickens are bred to gradually acclimate to the coming cool weather. In fact, most heavy chicken breeds prefer it to the searing heat of summer. Even so, they’ll need a little help in certain areas to get through without a hitch. Here are six tips for successfully over wintering your flock.  

1. Fight Frozen Water 

Perhaps the most frustrating (and foreseeable) part of overwintering any livestock is the endless battle against frozen water. Unless you have electricity in your coop or barn, I’m sorry to say that all solutions include a bit of heavy lifting. 

One option is to use a heated dog bowl or heated waterer base. It’s easy to install and inexpensive, but there is one catch: You must use a double-walled, galvanized-steel water fount in place of the standard plastic. 

If running electricity to your coop is not an option, you may be carrying your weight in water to the flock several times a day. In this case, have two or more waterers ready to alternate by thawing indoors.  

“One idea is to fill the waterer with hot water and then drop a chunk of ice (or a good amount of ice cubes) into the water to slowly cool it down over the course of several hours,” recommends Ashley English, chicken keeper and author of the Homemade Living book series. 

Whatever method works for you, the important thing is that your chickens have access to fresh water at all times.  

2. Protect Combs and Wattles 

In a cold spell with below-freezing temperatures, your chickens' combs and wattles may be susceptible to frostbite. Use petroleum jelly (or olive oil, as a natural alternative) to fight frostbite by applying it to the affected areas. Apply the lubricant when your chickens have gone to roost at night. They may not find it pleasant, but it beats the alternative. 

Keep in mind that chicken breeds with large combs and wattles, such as Leghorns and many roosters, are more prone to frostbite. You’ll find that cold-hardy breeds with small combs, such as rose or pea combs, will fare better come winter.

3. Provide a Path in the Snow

If the snow is piling up to a few inches or more, shovel out a path for your chickens. Frostbitten toes or feet can be very painful but are easily avoided by protecting chickens from the snow.

“You don't want an intrepid flock mate deciding to brave a wall of snow,” English says. “The snow will win, every time.” 

4. Heat the Coop—or Not

Some chicken keepers swear by heating the coop during the harshest of winters. While there is a benefit to using a heater or lamp (supplemental light means more winter eggs), consider the safety risk. Heaters plus dry pine shavings or other bedding can quickly become a fire hazard unless properly or professionally installed. Also consider the possibility of power outages and a subsequent drop in temperature. Chickens cannot adapt to a sudden plunge in mercury, and it could spell disaster for your entire flock in one night.

As an alternative, you can allow your chickens to gradually acclimate to the cooler weather during autumn without heat. In the fall, check your coop’s roof to ensure it won’t leak during heavy snows. Protect your chickens from heavy drafts, but be certain there is adequate ventilation in their enclosure. Accumulated moisture during the cold months can lead to frostbite. 

Finally, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of insulation in your coop. Your birds will roost together and create a good amount of heat on their own (the equivalent of 10 watts of heat per chicken). All you have to do is help the heat stay there. 

5. Give Feed a Boost

Consider supplementing your flock’s diet with cracked corn or scratch.

“The fattiness of the scratch will allow the birds to pack on an extra layer of body fat, which aids them in better combating colder weather,” English says.That said, scratch and corn are treats and do not contain the complete nutrition your flock needs.

Continue them on their regular feed, tossing a few handfuls of scratch during evening rounds,” she says.

6. Collect Eggs Often

If you’re one of those poor souls, like me, who makes multiple trips to the chicken coop to change out water, remember to collect eggs each time you go. Because chicken eggs are nearly 75-percent water, they’ll freeze and crack quickly once exposed to the cold air.

Use your judgment when it comes to your flock and your particular setup—what will work for some may not work for others. As always, check your flock daily and look for signs of illness. And once everyone is tucked in, curl up with a hot cup o’ something and enjoy the season. 

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