Depending on what part of the country you live in, the winter months can be a tricky time for managing the health and well-being of farm animals, especially chickens. Here in western Pennsylvania where I live, our winters are typically in the moderate range, with chunks of time from November to February that can range from mild conditions to brutally cold. In working through the seasons with my chickens from the time that I started my flock, I have learned a lot through research and experience, and in this article I am going to share some of the most important information when it comes to caring for your chickens through the winter months so that you can ensure a happy and healthy flock year round.
Winterizing Your Coop
An appropriate shelter is one of the most vital aspects of animal keeping in general, but especially during the winter months. In late fall each year, I take a thorough look around my coop and identify any areas where cracks or openings have started. A perfectly balanced environment in a coop during the winter is one that is mostly sealed tight with minimal draft but can allow some air circulation. If there is not enough air circulation and your coop is too insulted/sealed off, the chickens will have difficulty regulating their body temperature and their respiratory system may suffer, as well. If you see any large cracks/openings in your coop, be sure to seal them off in some way, but be cautious if you decide to insulate your coop (i.e., spray insulation) that it will not be sealed completely from any air movement. I do not have any form of insulation in my coop but have aimed to control the draft by patching any openings and have never had any trouble!
Do Chickens Need Heat?
If you browse the internet, you will see various “chicken heaters” that can be placed into the coop so that the chickens have flowing warm air. Some people will even rig heat lamps into their coops as a form of heat for their flock. However, it is not imperative that you provide your flock with a source of heat like this. If you are controlling for draft in your coop, it should not be an issue for your chickens to keep warm. Instead, I suggest alternative means for supporting chicken’s body heat regulation. One way this can be done is by only opening your coop as much as is needed during very cold days. For example, I prop my coop door open only enough for a chicken’s body to be able to enter and exit the coop if needed. My coop is large enough that the chickens can stay inside and have plenty of space if they please. Even if your coop is not this large, only opening your door as wide as it needs to be will help with draft reduction. Another thing that you can do to support warmth for chickens is feeding them warm oats or cracked corn shortly before they go into roost for the night. This extra source of nutrition gives them to fuel to assist in body heat regulation throughout the night. You will also notice that when it is cold outside, chickens will roost closely together to share body heat. For this reason, it is very important that you have plenty of roosting space for your chickens, specifically in the form of a roosting bar that is approximately 4 inches wide. This way, they will be able to comfortably perch onto the roost and rest their bodies over their feet, which is an innate way that they regulate their own body heat.
This is a very important detail that many aspiring chicken owners overlook when they are in the market for getting chickens – the breed of chicken. There are plenty beautiful and unique chickens breeds out there to choose from, but an important consideration to make is choosing a breed that pairs well with the climate that you live in. Some of the best cold-hardy chickens include Plymouth rock, Wyandotte, Orpington, Australorp, Rhode Island Red, Ameraucana, White Leghorn, Delaware, and Jersey Giant. Less cold-hardy chickens include breeds like Silkies, Frizzles, and Egyptian Fayoumi. Generally speaking, the smaller the breed of the chicken, the less tolerant of cold conditions they are.
Winter Egg Production
In the winter months, egg production will naturally slow down, or even stop. This is not due to the cold, however, but it is due to the days becoming shorter with fewer hours of light. Chickens are what is called “photo-stimulated”, which means that they need light to produce eggs. They need a minimum of 12 hour of light per day to lay, and 14-16 hours of light to produce optimally. The science behind photo-stimulation in chickens is that when their brains receive light, a hen’s hypothalamus releases a reproductive hormone used for egg laying, called “gonadotropin”, which then starts the egg laying process for the chicken’s system. Some chicken owners believe that chickens should be given their natural rest from egg laying during the winter months and are fine with getting little to no eggs during that time. However, others would like continued egg production throughout the year, and this can be achieved by supplying artificial light. I have found that the most effective way to do this is to put a regular light bulb in your coop (can be inserted into a brooder lamp) and connected to a timer. The timer will allow you to control when the light turns on and off. You do not want the light to be on constantly, especially during the night, because chickens will become stressed and ill if they receive too much light. If you opt to provide artificial light for chickens in this way, you must incrementally increase the time that the light is on in the morning hours, not at night. For example, I start my timer to provide my chickens with approximately 12 hours of light in the late fall/early winter, and every 3 days or so, I increase the light by 5 minutes earlier in the morning to slowly given them more light. In this way, you are imitating nature more closely and ensuring that your flock will not become stressed or sick. I follow this same pattern until I near 14 hours of light per day for my hens, or until they are laying the amount of eggs that I am happy with. Most importantly, as I incrementally increase the light, I am also closely monitoring that no chickens are becoming stressed or sick, especially as they are working so hard to weather the winter.
I hope that this article provided you with some helpful tips and information for wintertime chicken keeping. Farming chickens has been one of my most favorite endeavors and can be a big responsibility, especially speaking to getting through the treacherous winter months. If you have any questions about winter chicken keeping, or chickens in general, please reach out to me on Instagram @joeandemilie. Here’s to happy and healthy chickens, all year long!