Here are 11 Tips that helped my hens have survive the worst of this hard 2021 winter, plus a bonus I might use for next winter.
In mid-February, I woke up to -6 (not counting wind chill), but we had expected a low of only -2. I was afraid of what I might find this morning even though they had survived a night of -8 just a few weeks before. This cold has just dragged on and on though, with no break. The good news is that they were all alive and active this morning. The bad news is they refuse to leave the small coop even though I’ve removed all the snow from their little chunnel (chicken tunnel) and filled it with cut up vegetables and cracked corn and other chicken scratch. In four days I’ve only seen the evidence (chicken tracks) that one chicken actually left the coop when the temp got all the way up to 16 degrees. Despite them refusing to leave their little house, they’ve made it through a really tough near-blizzard Midwest winter. Here’s how:
#1 – Choose a tough breed. We did not choose a specifically cold-weather breed. We own Plymouth Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds which are hardy and do well in all types of weather. The plan is that the next round of chicks will be Australorps which hail from Australia and have small combs and wattles with solid black feathers. If you want to get really serious about sailing through winter though, the Chantecler would help you sleep well at night. Canada developed this chicken to survive harsh winters and avoid frost bite with ‘pea’ combs, very small wattles and big warm bodies. The Russian Orloff chicken is also incredibly cold hardy, as you would imagine, but primarily a meat bird that lays about 100 eggs a year. We have some very hot summers, so I may have to just settle for tough breeds.
#2 – Acclimate your birds through the fall and early winter. Bringing out heat lamps and closing up the coop too early is a disservice to your hens . I cover this pretty extensively in my early winter post, so I’ll just repeat that you want to add the hay and plastic coverings slowly so your chickens begin to put on their ‘winter coats’. Just like our kids eventually agree to put a jacket over a T-shirt and then graduate to parkas over sweatshirts, the chickens need a little chill to signal their feathers to puff out and begin insulating them.
#3 – Fresh Hay insulates better and keeps odors down, but nothing needs to be wasted. Move the hay through by raking the poo-laden hay in the eating and drinking area out to the chicken yard so the hens don’t have to stand directly on ice and snow. Then rake the hay out of the roosting area into the eating area. Empty all the nesting boxes into the roosting area and then finally put fresh hay in the nesting boxes. How much hay will you need? More Hay. Always more. Hay is your friend especially if you are unable to run electricity to the coop. You are not limited to putting hay inside the coop. Pile it high outside too! Why not pile it on top of the roof? Even put some along the pop door to keep cold winds from blowing in. As we went into this long stretch of negative temperatures I decided to forgo retrieving any eggs and instead filled the entire nesting box to the top with hay as insulation for the hens. This may cause me a few egg-eating problems down the road, but it’s far more important to me that the hens survive this week.
#4 – Bring on the Snow! Snow is actually an insulator when there is a layer of leaves, hay or some other dry insulator in between. Just like an igloo protects, a blanket of snow over the top of the coop and piled up at the edges creates insulation. Deep snow is better than bitter winds with no snow to slow it down or protect your roof. If you have to remove snow from the nesting box roof or other location, throw that snow up on the roof and let it go to work for you.
#5 – Small sleeping areas are a survival tactic if your house looses heat. The idea is that a whole family grabs sleeping bags and everyone camps out in one of the smaller bedrooms. If it is still too cold, a family can put up a camping tent in the middle of the small room and that will usually get a family through even blizzard-like conditions. We use a similar trick with baby chicks where the heat lamp shines down into a smallish box (with a tiny chick-sized door) at the far end of ‘chick yard’ and the food and water are at the other end. This set-up allows the baby chicks to get as warm as they would ever want to be and then leave to cool down, get a drink, eat a little and play. The option of different temperatures allows the baby chicks to acclimate to colder temperatures without threatening their health. The big caveat with reducing the size of the sleeping area is being completely certain that their is still enough room for every single baby chick or chicken plus a little extra for bullying! If one chicken is left out she won’t survive being on her own. The good news is that it seems that even the rudest hen is happy to have the bottom of the pecking order next to her when it is bitterly cold, but that is something you want to be certain of. Also, give some thought to how many chickens you have. I have 6 and they produced enough body heat to make this work…I’m not sure how 2 or even 4 hens would have faired in a winter like this without some electricity.
#6 – Good ventilation is a must at all times for chickens (even in winter) because they tend towards respiratory problems. Ventilation also reduces frost-bite on combs because the moist air can escape instead of settle on their heads. However, heavy snow fall can block your ventilation ports and suffocate your hens in their sleep. We were so lucky that our ports didn’t get blocked overnight, and when I work on the coop this summer I plan to put ports in all three peaks. The three ports on the side are very attractive, but locating ventilation at peaks and over doors completely prevents them from being blocked by snow unless we get 3 feet in a single evening. If I had realized that earlier I could have completely covered the screens this winter and piled even more hay against the outer wall.
#7 – Radiator Waterer. Most chicken keepers that don’t use electricity will note that they change the water twice a day when it begins freezing. We took that a step further and fill our 1.3 gallon waterer with the hottest water my tap can produce and hang it in the coop as a sort of ‘radiator’. The hens seem to enjoy a hot drink of water and I’m quite sure they enjoy the extra heat boost. The waterer hangs in the most exposed area of the coop, so if the water is completely frozen when we change it out that is a good indication of how much heat the coop is keeping.
#8 – Keep it Dry! Keeping the coop as dry as possible helps prevent frost-bit combs, respiratory distress and helps maintain heat. The waterers have been a headache in this regard because they tend to leak if a child (or a mom) bumps them as they are hung. At every waterer change I break about two handfuls of frozen hay out of that corner and dump it into the chicken yard. Despite this, creating a transition area between the pop door and the nesting boxes and roosting areas is going to pay off in the frozen winter and in the rainy spring and fall. Think of it as a little mud room or foyer where they can wipe off their feet and shake off the rain. A designated space for this also helps keep that hay moving to the next best spot.
#9 – Deep Litter! Our litter isn’t very deep because the rooster and our other two hens spent the summer at the Green House. When I moved hay from the sleeping area to the eating area, I just moved the very top layer that had gotten wet and had begun to smell. A well designed coop (and my lovely little white coop is very flawed) will make use of deep litter to such an extent that the micro-organisms breaking down the deep litter generates noticeable heat. A really healthy nitrogen-rich deep-litter becomes a source of heat…natures own original radiant floor heating. I hope to get this set up properly at the greenhouse and then report back on how that is going.
#10 – High Fat and High Protein Treats. Now is the time to pull out every last suet cake you have in the freezer. Here is how to make one with stuff you usually throw away. Your hens need every last one. If you found a cracked egg, now is the time to fry it up and give it back to your hens. They need every little bit of fat and protein you can scrounge up for them. Hen’s actually have very high body temperatures, which is how they keep their babies warm, but that also means you need to help feed that furnace. How is the best way to give them those treats?
#11 – Boredom Busters. Putting all the chicken treats in a suet cake holder helps keep food off the ground and also gives them something interesting to pick at. Hens can really up their ‘mean girl’ game when they are under stress. A rooster helps with this in general, but Sunny can’t be in the subdivision, so the girls could get naughty if we don’t have interesting chicken things for them to do. Scratching is the chicken’s favorite thing to do, so we have offered lots of chicken scratch tossed directly into the hay so they will keep turning it and keeping it fluffed. Putting whole bits of vegetables into the suet cake holder also gives them something green and refreshing to get after, which they enjoy. I recommend this suet cake holder because it is huge and will hold all shapes and sizes of treats.
#12 – Turkey Friends! While getting a building permit for the new chicken coop, and got some great advice from a long-time chicken keeper. She found that having a turkey in with her laying hens made a world of difference in the heat in the chicken coop. Apparently a turkey generates far more body heat and her coop was almost hot all last winter. This year she ate all her turkeys before the weather got really cold and she had to get out her electric heaters. As a bonus, she found that when she had no rooster, but had a tom turkey in with her hens that she never had hawk problems! That is a fascinating option! I might need to get out my favorite chicken book again and read up on how to integrate turkeys with chickens.
Hope these ideas help you. My beginning winter preps done in December can be seen here. The winter started out mild and even an ice storm and snow that lasted many days was well tolerated by the girls. If your weather starts to get really bad, I hope you find this useful!
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