We got our first batch of chicks in may of 2012- and we are now entering our fourth consecutive winter of keeping chickens outside. We have always kept our flock happy and healthy by following a few pretty diehard rules- which can be difficult in -40(F) degree windchill for two weeks at a time. But we’ve been successful, in not only keeping our chickens alive, but thriving even in the most bitter of it.
So, here it goes, our top tips for a healthy, happy flock this winter-
- DO NOT BUY A HEATER/LIGHT OF ANY SORT. – I am so super serious about this. We’ve never heated or lit our coop, and yeah egg production goes down, but we’ve never had a problem with frost bite, and we’ve never lost our coop and chickens to a fire. Every year I hear news stories about people losing their whole flocks, or worse homes and families, to fires started by heat lamps. They are dangerous when around chickens and other livestock- and a definitive NO for our homestead.
- DO your research about your girls before bringing them home – don’t bring home chickens that aren’t winter hardy. You’re just asking for extra work to keep them healthy and still, they might not make the extreme temps. We have a rainbow flock of everything from americanas to delewares to orpingtons, to our lone wyandotte, hen. But they are ALL winter hardy breeds with characteristics like smaller combs and waddles, very little ornamental feathering, generally docile temperaments -because living space can get crowded with 2 feet of snow all around…We’ve had great luck with every breed we’ve purchased, but its also because we do our research and don’t try to force something that isn’t natural
- DO get a heated water setup. – having consistent access to water is ESSENTIAL to good chicken health, especially in the winter. We keep ours inside the coop with the girls elevated on a cement slab so we can watch for any kind of leakage. I’ve also been eyeing this heated outdoor dog bowl as a nice outdoor water dish, once the hubby allows more in the chicken budget.
- DO use pine shavings and the deep litter method. I know, it sounds so gross- but there are a couple of really solid reasons to at least consider it. The composting droppings create a lot of heat- I just make sure to add a fresh bag in every few weeks to keep the smell fresh and piney. I swear, the deep litter method is a LIFE SAVER in the super cold months of January and February. Plus you get really nutrient dense compost a couple times a year. I literally deep clean my coop twice a year. Once in the spring, around abouts April, and again in September. Just remember, the deep litter method can be dangerous if you have leaks, water constantly spilling or the habit of not keeping up with fresh shaving. Chickens have very sensitive respiratory systems and if you can smell the droppings, they are suffering.
- DO give your chickens plenty of boredom busters- when cabbages are on sale, we’ll grab a couple and throw one in the run or coop for the girls to kick around… theres usually nothing left the next day…also if its so cold out that I don’t open the door at dawn, like usual, I will fill a tray with all kinds of scraps (chicken friendly of course) and my winter scratch mix and throw it in on the floor for them to go crazy in.
- DO let your girls decide if they want to go out, FOR THE MOST PART. On those aforementioned -40 degree days, they had to stay inside, but for the most part, as long as the wind isn’t to bad, I’ll let them decide and they almost always decide to hang out in the pen for at least a couple hours. My general rule of thumb is, if my nose and eyes aren’t freezing shut, then they can make up their own minds about it… this only really happens in below zero weather.
- DO be ready for extra work- I spend most mornings shoveling, because for weeks at a time we’ll get an inch or two every other night.. and then we have actual storms that can dump anywhere from 6 inches to two feet. And those paths to and from the out buildings, and the run itself, certainly do not clean themselves out, no sir. That’s not including the several trips a day I make, back and forth to ensure food, water and security are up to par.
- DO teach yourself about chicken diet and nutritional needs. CORN IS NOT A GOOD SUMMER TREAT- it is, however perfect for winter- it heats your chicken up but is low in nutritional value. Corn should only be given before they go to roost at night, in the late fall to early spring to help them stay warm at night. Sorry/notsorry, but I am passionate about that. Make sure to give your girls extra protein packed snacks like sunflower seeds when they are molting to help them grow their feathers back in.
- DO keep things like petroleum jelly in your first aid kit- we’ve never had any real problem with frost bit combs UNTIL this year with lucy… it appears that the damage to her comb included damage to the blood flow and supply.. what didn’t die after the attack this spring, is now very badly frost bit and will probably fall off. The petroleum jelly keeps it from getting worse by protecting it from the elements and also any bacteria that might cause further infection
- DO create wind barriers- as in the above pictures you can see our coop is elevated. This is for a couple reasons, but for the winter it provides shelter from the elements. To further this ,we put up wind barriers, so they can really, truly enjoy the outside- even in the deepest part of winter.
I’m sure that I’ll expand this list as I go into more years of owning chickens in Maine, but for now, this is a pretty good start I’d say.
I guess, if I were to really have one last piece of advice-
11. Be Flexible. Problems arise, that no matter how well you think you may be prepared for, that you have covered every eventuality, you will find out, you have not… and those are the lessons covered in
Now, that that is all said and done, have a wicked good night.