Friday, November 18, 2011

Chickens in winter

One of the biggest concerns of future chicken keepers, as well as novice chicken keepers, who live up north is how their birds will survive the winter. The short answer is that they'll survive just fine! You don't have to worry about heating the coop or feeding them hot cooked grains, both of which were done in the late 1800s in a failed attempt to get hens to lay eggs through the winter.

Your only concern is probably keeping fresh water in front of your girls. There is an electric heater base that is available commercially, but if you don't have electricity in your coop, you can simply have two water bowls and swap them out twice a day. Put out a fresh bowl of warm water in the morning and take the frozen bowl in the house to thaw. In the late afternoon, dump the melted ice out of that bowl and take it outside with fresh, warm water to replace the one that is probably frozen by now. You can use dog bowls that have wide bases so that they won't tip over if the hens decide to sit on the edge.

You don't need to spend money on products such as those on this page, which merely use "passive solar" to keep the bowls from freezing -- that means that if the bowl sits in the sun, it won't freeze. There is no "technology" involved in these bowls, regardless of what the manufacturer says. And their battery operated heaters are an environmentalist's nightmare. It makes no sense whatsoever to use eight -- yes, eight -- D batteries to keep a bowl of water from freezing overnight. The batteries are dead in less than eight hours, eating up one battery per hour for no reason. If you give your hens fresh warm water in the late afternoon, they'll be fine until morning. And if they have access to snow, they'll eat that, which contributes to their water intake. Chickens actually drink very little in the winter anyway.

As for insulating or heating your coop, don't do it. Chickens survived just fine for centuries living in makeshift coops made from barrels or whatever scrap wood was laying around the farm. It wasn't until the 1870s that commercial chicken keeping took root, and people began putting chickens in insulated, heated houses, thinking it would make them lay eggs through the winter. By the time they realized their mistake, confinement chicken production was considered the standard. People also saw a huge increase in poultry diseases during this time, and by the early 20th century, some people were advocating a return to letting chickens go outside. Research showed that the above chicken house, which had no wall on the south side, made for healthier chickens, but most poultry producers would not be swayed. The debate raged on for about 30 years, and we all know who won. Today confinement chicken operations are the norm.

Our chicken house -- notice the open windows for fresh air?
Don't open windows on opposite sides, however,
because you don't want wind blowing through the coop.
If you have an insulated coop, you are more likely to see frozen combs and respiratory problems because condensation and ammonia will build up inside the coop. In our nine years of chicken keeping, we've had zero respiratory problems and only a frozen comb every couple years on a rooster or two. And we are in Illinois where below zero temperatures are common. I've even heard chicken keepers in Alaska say that their hens do fine over the winter without any additional heat in their coop. So, to show some love to your chickens, rather than giving them a heater in their coop, just open a window so the ammonia and humidity can escape.


  1. The issue with an open-walled coop is predators. My girls are shut up "tight," but it's in chicken-stalls in a barn with great airflow.

    We use regular flat-backed plastic buckets for water in the winter. Remember, the chooks aren't getting up for a drink at night. I can bring in the bucket when I do night chores, after dark, and my husband takes out fresh water when he does morning chores, before light. Only on the coldest days do I have to bring warm water at midday.

    My hens refuse to go out in the snow. They like to peck snow off my boots, but when I open the pop door to snow on the ground, they stage a roost strike. They also appear to blame me for these unacceptable working conditions.

  2. That is an excellent point about bringing in the water after the hens are roosting! I never thought of that because we have a heater base for our waterer, but that is great info for anyone without electricity in their coop or who wants to avoid using it.

  3. I've often worried about the girls during winter, so I'm glad to know they will be alright. We're in southeastern Virginia, so I'm sure our coldest days are nothing compared to what you experience on a regular basis. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Like your article, we live in Fairbanks and some people don't use supplemental heat, beyond a light bulb, I have a 400 watt heater I turn on when it gets below around -10; when it gets down to -40 or so, I've had some frostbite on their peacombs, but otherwise they seem to do fine.

  5. I am in the planning stages of acquiring a very small (4-6) flock of chickens, and am doing my research. First off, I live in Northern Ontario, CDA, so was concerned about cold, not know whether chickens would exist here in nature. I figure that if grouse do, so could chickens. Would I be right?

  6. Thanks for the advise I was just about to purchase one you saved me time and money. I was going to heat the coop and I was surprised it really isn't needed. They are doing great your solution sounds logical.


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