Keeping Chickens Warm and Laying in the Winter
A cozy chicken is an egg-laying chicken.
Winters can be harsh for backyard chickens. Although chickens are tough birds, they’re still susceptible to being adversely affected by bad winter weather and reduced daylight. A cold bird without sunlight is a stressed bird. And a stressed bird is one that stops laying eggs.
This means that adequately preparing your chicken coop for the winter should be a priority if you want to keep your flock laying during a cold winter.
Luckily, there are some simple precautions you can take to keep your flock happy and productive throughout the darkest days of the year.
Let’s start with how chickens keep themselves warm.
Consider your down comforter. Even in a frigid bedroom, a down comforter can keep you warm and toasty while you sleep. Why? Because down feathers naturally trap warm air close to your body. Chicken feathers work the same way.
After the fall molt, chickens grow back a downy winter coat, which they will routinely fluff up to keep themselves warm. Just like your comforter, a chicken’s winter feathers trap warm body heat, all directed toward themselves. To stay even warmer, chickens like to huddle together to conserve body heat.
Have you ever spent a chilly night in a tent? If so, then you know how they feel. You get the picture.
Deep Litter Method
Speaking of cold floors, consider practicing the Deep Litter Method, a great example of working smarter, not harder.
Simply layer the floor of your coop with pine shavings, and periodically rake the chicken waste into the bedding mix. Once a week, add a layer of fresh pine shavings to the top. Together with the pine shavings, your chicken’s poop will form a compost layer that fosters microbe growth.
Microbes cut down on harmful bacteria, and can also help prevent mite and lice infestations in the coop. For the kicker, composting organic matter generates much-needed heat in the wintertime.
Check for Drafts
Good chicken coops are like well-built houses. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that your coop should allow for the even distribution of air, rather than encouraging warm air to pool near the ceiling.
Just like in a house, this is achieved in chicken coops through proper ventilation, and plugging up drafty gaps in the walls.
Take a walk around the exterior of your coop. Notice any big holes? Patch them with plywood, and fill in noticeable gaps with caulking. Keep in mind that drafts differ from ventilation, which are small holes or an actual vent to allow a small amount of air to provide fresh air. The vent also allows moisture and excessive ammonia fumes to flow out. More on vents in the next section.
Eliminating drafts should do wonders for your coop’s ability to transfer heat, but it isn’t enough if you aren’t ventilating the space properly.
Install a simple vent near the roof line of the coop if you haven’t already. Venting will move humid, warm air out of the coop in exchange for more dry air.
In addition to moving out moisture and ammonia fumes, a notable result is less mold and a more even distribution of heat. Consider installing a simple vent that can be opened during the day and closed at night to take full advantage of the sun’s warmth.
See the Light
The above methods can do wonders for a chicken’s productivity, but they won’t get to layin’ without light. Research has shown that light, alongside warmth, is the primary influence in a hen’s laying patterns. During summer months a chicken prefers to lay eggs during daylight hours but out of the light, so they seek a nesting box. In the dark winter months, non-direct light promotes egg laying.
While electric lights are a possible solution, they pose a fire risk, and can get expensive.
Instead, start with installing a well-insulated window into the sunniest aspect of your coop. When a coop is well-insulated and well lit, it is possible to trick a bird’s biological responses into laying like it’s summertime.
Attaching a greenhouse-like structure to the exterior of the coop is another option. This will allow your birds to move freely in a bright, well-lit space during the day, and return to the coop at night.
If you have a heater in the chicken coop, save it for the coldest of days when the sun’s warmth won’t cut it. For more on heaters in a coop, read the article in the Learning Center entitled, Facing Winter with Chickens.
Adjusting a bird’s diet is a great way to supplement coop modifications designed to warm your birds.
Opt for protein and calcium-rich feeds and consider increasing your hen’s daily servings by as much as half. Remember that a lot of their energy is being dedicated to heat production. In fact, feeding corn just before nightfall will help to produce heat in the birds while they digest the food, which is high in calories.
How to Protect Chickens from Frostbite
Sometimes, the weather just gets too cold. This is where a chicken’s natural ability to heat itself comes into play. Remember that a chicken isn’t entirely covered in feathers, and therefore cannot adequately protect every part of its body.
Just like you, chickens are susceptible to frostbite on their exposed flesh. Cover your bird’s appendages with Vaseline and check on them frequently.
How to Prevent Frozen Chicken Eggs
You’ve done everything right. Your chickens are cozy and they’re laying eggs into the winter. However, it’s still cold; sometimes freezing. What about the eggs?
Collect your eggs frequently. You will get to know the laying habits of your chickens and learn to gauge when they lay eggs, so time your collections around the chicken’s schedule.
If you have a broody hen, let her sit on the eggs to keep them warm. A thick nest of straw is a great insulator.
If you have a heat lamp in the coop, this will also help keep eggs from freezing. If you do get frozen eggs, refrigerate them and let them defrost. A defrosted egg is fine to eat.