As COVID-19 forced the nation into quarantine this spring, many people invested in chickens as a new hobby, for companionship and as a hedge against food shortages.
As winter rolls in, however, first-time chicken owners face practical questions about how to keep their hens healthy, warm and producing eggs during the months to come. Chickens provide entertainment, farm-fresh eggs, natural fertilizer and non-toxic pest control so it's worth it to invest in their winter well-being and enjoy them year-round.
I know I felt unprepared over 20 years ago when my first winter with chickens was on the horizon. Luckily, I had considered my New England climate when choosing my chickens. Some breeds stand up to the harsh winters better than others, and a very brave few keep laying all year round.
But even the most stoic chickens need extra protection against New England blizzards, Midwestern prairie winds and low temperatures. A few preparations now can prevent a lot of cold-weather problems down the road.
Winterize the coop
Preparing a chicken coop for winter is the best way to make sure the birds are protected through rough weather. Start with a deep clean of the coop, including removing all the chicken “furniture” — nesting boxes, feeders, waterers — and do a thorough search for any potential maintenance headaches, like cracks, mold or rot.
All of these things are easier to deal with before the temperature becomes freezing (making scrubbing difficult) and ice jacking makes cracks worse. Fixing any cracks will also deter ground-based or burrowing predators, who will be searching for food and protection from the weather.
The coop provides your flock with warmth and shelter so moisture reduction should be an important winter focus. Choose a relatively low-moisture feed, especially if some feed is expected to sit around in a trough or feeder, and feed chickens a bit more than usual. Hens will also need extra bedding throughout the winter, and straw is probably the best choice to reduce moisture and prevent a chicken's comb — the red crown on top of the head — from freezing.
Any water that's not in a heated waterer will need to have ice chipped out every morning and possibly several times a day. Heated waterers, which prevent ice from forming, are low-cost and easy to install.
While the goal is to keep your hens warm, don't forget about the need for proper ventilation.
Hens must have fresh air to stay healthy, and a coop that smells of ammonia isn't ventilated properly. Owners should strike a balance between sealing off unwanted drafts around windows and doors and maintaining open ventilation at the top of the coop, above where chickens roost, so cold air isn't blowing directly on them.
Winter egg production
Even cold-hardy hens lay fewer eggs in the winter, since their bodies divert energy normally used for egg-laying to stay warm. However, this biological function is controlled by light, not by temperature. During warm summer months most hens will lay three or four eggs a week. But during the winter months many hens will provide only one or two eggs each week.
Hens need 14 to 16 hours of light a day to keep laying regularly, so hang a few light bulbs in the coop and hook them up to a timer. But be aware of the fire hazard presented by the wiring and bulbs and make sure to keep wiring in good condition to minimize risk. Even with this boost, keep in mind that production may still slow during colder months.
Perhaps the biggest winter chicken challenge is preventing frostbite (especially if you live in the colder northern states). Your chickens are most at risk during the nighttime, so keep the moisture in the coop to an absolute minimum. On particularly cold nights you can cover their combs in Vaseline to help prevent frostbite.
Overall, maintaining healthy chickens through the winter takes a bit of time and effort but it is definitely a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Chris Lesley is the editor of Chickens & More Magazine. Her website provides information about breeds, coops and chicken care. She has been raising backyard chickens for over 20 years.