Winter is coming.
Okay scratch that, winter is here! While the calendar may say that it’s still autumn, we are most definitely experiencing winter weather in our neck of the woods. In fact when we filmed the companion video for this post it was -23°C out!
Keeping chickens in the winter isn’t simple, but it’s also not as hard as folks may think. As long as you come up with some strategies when it comes to the coop, food, water and boredom you will be just fine during the long, cold months of winter.
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Why We’re Keeping the Girls
I get this question a lot seeing as I live in a farming community. For many folks the hassle of winterizing their coop and dealing with decreased production (we’ll talk more about that a little later) simply isn’t worth keeping their laying hens over the winter. Sometimes it comes down to finances; how many eggs am I going to get vs. the amount of feed the ladies will go through. When it becomes too expensive to keep your older laying hens through the winter they can be butchered for stock and slow cooked meat for sandwiches and the like. If you don’t like the idea of your gals going to the great chicken beyond you can choose to keep them knowing they will likely slow down or stop laying all together or find a new home for them; someone who will take care of them until they die of old age.
For us it actually makes a lot of sense to keep our gals. Our hens are in their first year of laying which is a very productive time for them. We will not be experiencing the same kind of slow down in production that folks with older hens do. Yes, there will be a dip in the amount of eggs we get per day, but it won’t stop completely. In fact from our six laying hens we’re getting an average of 3-5 eggs daily even in these dark days.
Inside the Coop
Depending on the layout/design of your coop, you will likely need to modify a few aspects of it to keep your ladies happy all winter long.
Heating/Insulation: What To Do
I did a lot of research on this subject and here is what I learned. First and foremost, ensure you get chicken breeds that can tolerate your climate. If you live somewhere that is hot year round you will need birds that can handle that. And if you experience all four seasons (including a cold winter), you will need to source out breeds that can tolerate cold temperatures. This step alone will save you a lot of winter deaths and heartache. Sure I love a cute Silkie, but she will not survive our Ontario winters so I’ll have to live with admiring from afar.
While I encourage further research, here is a great little list from Fresh Eggs Daily on some breeds that do well in colder climates. As a note of interest, we have one Blue Orpington (Pecky), two Black Orpingtons (Raven and Harriet) and three Red Sex-Links that we call the Golden Girls. We have trouble telling Rose and Dorothy apart, but Blanche is lighter in colour (plus she likes to fly over the run to get into the garden… sneaky girl).
So here’s the thing about heating and insulating your coop. A chicken breed that can withstand cold temperatures does not need a heated nor a heavily insulated coop. You’ll see below that there are lots of options for keeping your chickens comfortable that don’t involve expensive electricity bills.
If you do decide to heat or insulate your coop please keep one fact in mind. Last year we experienced a 14 hour power outage in the dead of winter thanks to an ice storm. This can happen to anyone, anywhere and if you live in a more rural or isolated area, chances are your power will be out longer than your suburban and urban friends. If you have provided your chickens with unnatural warmth all winter and suddenly the temperature drops drastically… well let’s just say that even the most cold hardy breed cannot tolerate that kind of temperature fluctuation. However if they are exposed to temperature decreases gradually as the weather changes (and you make some minor adjustments to your coop), they will be just fine.
Plus don’t forget that bedding plus any kind of electrical can always result in a risk of barn/coop fires. Something we all want to avoid yes?
The simplest and best way to keep chickens comfortable is to find all sources of potential drafts into the coop and seal them up. Our barn/coop used to have windows in it. Then someone took them out and put an extra layer of wood siding all the way around the outside of the building. This left us with a drafty spot that used to be windows. All we did was cover these spots with cardboard and the draft problem was solved easily. We also plan to replace some of the weather stripping around the barn door.
Using a deep bedding method serves two purposes in the winter. First it keeps the smell down significantly. I strongly urge you to look into pine shavings vs. straw when you are choosing your bedding. Pine shavings absorb urine much better than straw which means you will be mucking out your coop far less frequently. We cleaned out the shavings over two months ago and when I go into the coop it doesn’t smell at all. If we had used straw you can bet it would stink something fierce.
The second reason to use a deep litter method is for warmth. Providing a nice thick layer of shavings/straw will give the gals somewhere to nestle up to if they need it. In general we find the girls simply huddle together at night to keep warm, but the bedding gives them a second option.
Animals that don’t hibernate in the winter all have one thing in common; hunger. Finding food in the winter is not easy when you are a fox, raccoon or coyote. That means that your girls will be a very tempting meal for some of the wildlife that may live around your area. Do your due diligence and predator proof your coop. Cover holes and areas that animals can sneak into (weasels don’t need much space). If you have a very determined predator you might need to set traps or bury hardware cloth around the perimeter of your coop to prevent diggers from getting in.
Lighting and Egg Production
Chickens experience a very normal and natural decrease in egg production during the winter months. A chicken requires 14 hours of sunlight to produce an egg. In the summer months this means lots and lots of glorious eggs. So many in fact that you’re wondering if you really do want to try your great grandmothers pickled egg recipe… or you’re giving them away to folks left, right and centre! In the winter 14 hours of sunlight is impossible to come by.
There is a great and hot debate about providing supplemental lighting to your birds during the winter months to keep their egg production up. I am going to give you my two cents worth (which as a note is now worthless in Canada ever since we got rid of the penny but I digress… ha ha) but please know that people fall on both sides of the argument with this topic. I am simply going to state what we are choosing to do regarding lighting and why. Please continue to research and make the best choice for your family farm/homestead.
We will not be supplementing lighting in the coop and yes we know this means less eggs and we’re cool with that. Truly. And here’s why. As I mentioned a decrease in production for a laying hen is very normal and a natural part of their life cycle. Our goal at Snail Trails Homestead is to do things the way nature intended as much as we can, which means no lighting. If the normal cycle of nature results in a slower egg production then so be it. While some folks don’t have issues, I have also read that by providing your girls with artificial light in the winter months it leaves them more susceptible to prolapsed vent which we would like to avoid. I really don’t want to put the health of the girls at risk if I can avoid it.
A minor and secondary reason we are not providing our laying hens with artificial lighting is to avoid sky high hydro bills and avoid/prevent barn fires.
Food and Water
Necessary for basic survival, be sure you don’t overlook some of the food and water issues that will arrive when cold weather hits.
Be prepared for your feed bill to increase folks! Your gals need to pack on the pounds to stay warm in the winter months and since bugs, worms and other yummy things are not available in the winter, that means more chicken feed.
There is one problem with water in winter and that is freezing. On very cold days your chicken’s water will freeze within hours leaving them open to dehydration. Of course this is something you want to avoid and here are some strategies how.
First you can do what we do which is switch out their water a few times a day. We have two chicken waterers we got from the co-op. We keep one inside with fresh water so we can switch out the frozen one part way through the day. This solution suits us just fine since I work from home.
For folks who don’t work from home you will need a solution of some kind, especially if you work long hours. These solutions will almost assuredly cost you in hydro/electricity but you might not have a solution if you aren’t home to check in on your water. I found this post on Pinterest a few months ago and it’s definitely a frugal way to keep water in liquid form. It’s basically making a DIY heater for your waterer that involves a light bulb and a cookie tin. Pretty ingenious if you ask me!
As some of you folks know, we get a CSA share from a local farm called Stubborn Farmer. One day Greg was telling us about his strategy for freezing water. He’s got a big farm and he’s busy so switching out their water multiple times during the day just won’t work for him. Instead he uses a large black rubber waterer and places it where it will get the most sun exposure. Of course the black rubber absorbs more light from the sun keeping the water just a bit warmer. In addition to this he places a ping pong ball (or two) in the waterer. Every time the wind blows, the ball moves which causes any ice forming on the surface to break. This doesn’t work all the time but it’s a decent strategy for most situations.
Note: This post from a fellow homesteader went viral on the interwebs yesterday and the idea sounds solid. But I have NOT tested it for myself. I’ll give you the link to the blog and you can try it for yourself!
Watch the Video
Many thanks for joining me today and I hope your chickens are happy and healthy where ever in the world you are!
Until next time,