Keeping Chickens Over Winter

Some breeds of chickens will tolerate a cold frosty winter far better than others. All chickens will still be affected to some extent by cold. If nothing else, egg production may decrease.  If you understand this and you attend to your poultry properly during a cold winter, you can offset many of the problems which might otherwise arise

Factors That Affect Egg Production in Winter

Although a gradual decline in egg production over the winter months is normal, there are several factors that may also effect a chicken’s ability to lay including: age, genetics, breed, nutrition, health and stress. By choosing a tough, reliable breed and providing chickens with the best nutrition, clean water and good housing you will reduce bodily stress and keep them happy and healthy during the colder winter months – and as a bonus they may also keep laying some eggs.

Remember the following factors for maintaining egg production:

  • Breeding: most purebred chicken breeds stop laying eggs in winter but some good utility breed and hybrids can continue laying – but at a lower rate. If you would like year round egg production consider starting a flock with good utility breeds or hybrids like Isa Browns to ensure you continue to have eggs most of the year.

  • Daylight hours: chickens also rely heavily on the daylight hours to stimulate their egg production. The shorter days of the winter can reduce egg production. There is a gland behind a hen’s eye (the pituitary gland), when stimulated by light this producers the hormone that starts egg production (that is why light is used by commercial producers i.e. to stimulate the gland).

  • Moulting: chickens moult annually - in early autumn they shed their feathers and grow new plumage in preparation for the coming winter. The stress on their body causes them to stop laying eggs during this time. The first moult is usually at 1 and a half to two years of age and annually after that. After she moults a hen will usually lay fewer eggs than she did before, but they are larger eggs. There isn’t much you to stop this happening and you should just make sure your chickens are supplied with good nutrition and in good health during this time.

  • Nutrition: nutrition also plays an important role in a chicken’s ability to produce eggs. Ensure they are provided with access to a high quality commercial layer feed. These should provide your hens with a complete and balanced diet to maintain their egg production.

  • Warm, secure housing: warm housing keeps chickens healthy and happy and prevents fox predation.

  • Check birds regularly: you can prevent the loss of birds by checking them and their environment frequently.

What Chickens Need over Winter

  • Well insulated and ventilated coop.
  • Fresh water – check water frequently to ensure it hasn’t frozen.
  • Proper, complete and balanced nutrition.
  • Warm, fresh bedding such as straw for them to nest in.
  • In extreme cold - supplementary heat (heat lamp or heater) may also be needed.  

Winter Health Care

There can be some health problems that are more common in chickens over the winter months that you should be aware of, such as:

Dehydration: ensure your chickens have access at all time to fresh water; dropping temperatures can sometimes freeze their water supply overnight. You can even get heated water dispensers that have warm water to prevent it from freezing.

Frostbite: this occurs when chickens are exposed to extreme cold. Frostbite is a common problem that usually affects the comb and other sensitive extremities of the chicken like their legs. You should check your chickens frequently and provide them with clean fresh, warm bedding. Straw is good option as it holds heat well. Also, as discussed earlier, an insulated yet ventilated coop helps to keep the chickens warm while keeping the humidity down (humidity is a factor that influences frostbite).
Roosters and hens with larger combs are more susceptible to frostbite. This is something to be aware of if you have a breed with a larger comb. You can put petroleum jelly (e.g. Vaseline) on their combs every few days to help reduce frostbite. You should also be selective when you let the chickens out of their warm coop, maybe reducing the hours they are let out to only the warm hours of the middle of the day.

If chickens display frostbite symptoms they need to be attended to by a vet. Do not touch the frostbitten area. Don’t apply direct sudden heat to the affected area, as this will only damage the nerve cells further. If it is on the legs you may be able to wash them with lukewarm water. Frostbite can heal itself if is not too severe, however this needs to be assessed by a veterinarian.

Providing Winter Warmth

Chickens will prepare themselves for winter by cutting back on egg production, moulting (losing old feather before growing new ones) and increasing their feed consumption. They are a flock animal and will naturally huddle together when they are cold, however they still may need some help staying warm.

When the temperatures drop you could insulate the chicken coop, but take care not to insulate it too much because it limits air circulation; even in cold conditions the coop still needs still need ventilation to remain a healthy environment. Lack of ventilation will increase humidity inside the coop and can cause frostbite. It will also allow for a build-up of ammonia from the chicken’s droppings - this obviously creates an unhealthy environment for the chickens and can damage their lungs. To still have a well-insulated coop, but also overcome the lack of air, you can include vents which open in the day and are closed or partially closed at night.

A heat lamp or heater may be a good option to give them a little extra help keeping warm but they do have disadvantages:  they can use a fair amount of electricity and can be a fire hazard (depending on the type of heater you use). Litter is very flammable so if you do decide to use a heater, avoid one with a naked flame, exposed elements or a fan heater close to the litter; an oil filled thermostatically controlled heater is safest. However before using heating it is wise to consider the implications: chickens can be sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and it can be harmful to them when go out into the cold from a heated environment.