How To Care For Chickens In Extreme Cold

How to care for chickens in the winter

If you live in a cold climate and raise chickens, it is important to understand what you can do to keep your chickens safe. It’s also important to understand when it’s critical to take safety steps.

Some people assume that chickens can’t handle the cold much more than you or I can, but in fact, chickens do pretty well in the cold weather.

Even so, when it gets very cold, it can still be dangerous for them.

Cold Weather Risks For Chicken Health

When the weather turns cold, there are two health risks to your chickens. First, chickens are at risk of dehydration when their water containers freeze and they can’t get adequate water.

Second, cold moist air can be a very fast death sentence for a chicken. They do not handle mildew, mold, or other airborne bacterias that can occur during the winter when they are cooped up more.

The moisture can be more deadly for chickens than the actual temperature.

But when it gets cold enough, the temperature can be deadly also. This is especially critical when chickens haven’t had a chance to adjust to the cold.  Chickens will get used to colder weather as winter gets chillier. 

Put in a picture of my chicken coop with an arrow showing the ventilation.

  • Water containers freezing increases the risk of dehydration for chickens
  • Mildew and moist air increase airborne bacteria and the risk of deadly infections
  • Sudden drops in temperature can be dangerous

How To Care For Chickens In Extremely Cold Weather

Last winter school closed because the wind chill factor got down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. My neighbor’s rooster froze to death during the day from the extreme cold.

Even though chickens do well in cold temperatures, they can suffer and die when it is very cold outside.

But, there are several things you can do to help keep your flock warm and healthy.

1. Raise Chicken Breeds Especially Climatized To Cold Weather

Specific breeds of chickens do best in cold weather. Click here to skip down to the list of the best breeds for cold climates.

Generally speaking, darker chickens, those with heavier feathers, and smaller wattles and combs do the best in colder climates.

2. Eliminate Drafts, But Keep Good Ventilation In The Chicken Coop

One of the ways to protect your chickens from dangerous and moist air in the winter is to have a coop with good ventilation. This is important for several reasons. 

Chickens expel a lot of moisture when they breathe. Their droppings also have high amounts of water in them. Moist air means more condensation and a higher risk of frostbite. It means more mold and mildew, which brings deadly respiratory problems.

Plus a poorly ventilated coop can build up ammonia easier, which will also kill your chickens.

It might seem confusing that nearly every chicken article talks about having good ventilation but at the same time stresses a draft-free coop. How do you do that? It seems contradictory.

This can be accomplished by having vents at the top of your coop with a tight draft-free wall and coop. Where your chicken’s perch and rest should have good, draft-free walls to protect them from wind and drafts.

Fill gaps and cracks in the coop with calling, foam, or even thick plastic. This will keep the wind from blowing snow and water into the coop.

But, above that, at the top of your coop, you should have vents. During the winter, the warmer, moist air will rise and be able to escape from your coop. This will keep your chickens healthier.

3. Keep The Water Unfrozen

Make sure that you keep their water unfrozen so your chickens don’t get dehydrated. Chickens need water to regulate body temperature, create warmth, and manufacture eggs.

But, providing fresh water can be problematic if you live in an area like I do where even hoses and underground pipes freeze.

Hot water isn’t a good solution because it pushes a lot of moisture into the air and will increase the chances of mildew.

One solution that I have found is to add a water bottle full or a strong salt solution  (20%) into their watering containers. The salt solution keeps the water from freezing inside the water bottle and the bottle moves around the watering container, keeping the fresh water from freezing also.

Another solution that works well is to use a large plastic tub that doesn’t conduct cold from the ground as easily as the metal tubs. Adding a water warmer will keep the water from freezing, even on the very coldest nights.

You can add a splash of apple cider vinegar to your flock’s water to help raise the PH and keep the bird’s immune system healthier.

4. Avoid Metal Perches

If it freezes at all in your climate, do not use metal perches. Chickens will perch on the metal and when it freezes, it will freeze their feet.

You know the danger of putting your tongue on a frozen flagpole and having your chickens perch on a frozen bar has the same dangers.

It will freeze their feet while they sleep and they will lose them. This is obviously dangerous for the chickens and often deadly.

Keep chickens safe in the winter
Photo Credit: Flickr Jalexartis

5. Keep The Feeders Full Of Corn And Scratch

Chickens need extra energy in the winter to keep their body heat high enough. Corn has a lot of extra energy and when they digest it, it will raise their body temperature.

Chicken scratch with whole grains also provides the needed energy. You can use a grain scratch or add whole grains to their scratch. Great grains for chickens include barley, wheat, oats, and corn.

Even though some of the grains don’t have enough nutrients to complete a healthy chicken’s diet, they do helps substantially in keeping chickens warm through digestion.

The best time to feed chickens a whole grain scratch is before nightfall when the temperatures will drop.  Make sure that you are still feeding them a diet with the other nutrients they need to be healthy.

6. Use Vaseline To Avoid Frostbite

A chicken’s wattles and combs are the part of their body that’s most at risk for frostbite. If you have any chickens with protruding wattles and combs, they are more vulnerable.

Use Vaseline to coat their wattles and combs to prevent frostbite. Check it at least daily.

7. Use Extra Straw To Coat The Ground When It Snows

Chickens don’t like walking on snow. As a result, they will walk out on the snow, realize they are on snow and stop walking.

They won’t retreat. They will often just stand in the snow until their feet freeze off.

If you want to give your chickens some outside time during the winter, but want to keep their feet safe, spread hay over the ground.

It will help to insulate against the cold of the snow and will give them a way to still be outside during some of the day. Don’t use straw inside the coop though. Stray and hay mold easily and can cause a lot of issues. If you do use straw, you will need to clean out the coop often. 

8. Keep The Coop Clean

Chicken waste has a lot of moisture in it. It contains about 80% water. Chickens usually spend a lot more time in the coop during the winter than in the summer. That’s because there are longer night hours, and as it gets cold and snowy, many chickens don’t venture outside as long during the day.

As a result, during winter months, it is really easy to let the bedding get wet and mildewy.

Its’ vital that you keep your coop clean and change the bedding reguarly. Otherwise, you chickens can get sick and amonia will build up. If you get an amonia build up, it can mean sudden death for your chickens.

Plus, the mold and mildew are super dangerous for chickens and their fragile respitory systems.

9. Use The Deep Litter Method To Nurture Healthy Microbes 

I don’t know about you, but when it gets bitter cold outside, I don’t really want to keep cleaning out the chicken coop all the time. One way you can keep your chicken coop clean and easier to care for is to use the deep litter method. 

The deep litter method uses a deep layer of wood chips to compost. In my chicken coop, I have a 12 inch layer of wood chips in the floor of the coop.

The wood chips absorb the moisture from chicken waste and keep it from smelling. The deeper layer of the wood chips breaks down into compost and nurtures healthy microbes.

The healthy microbes maintain coop health and help to kill and keep dangerous microbes at bay.

The best way to use the deep litter method is to add a thick layer of wood chips in the summer or spring. All summer, the wood chips can start to break down. By fall, you will have a healthy environment of microbes in the coop.

You must start the deep litter method in the spring. If you start it during the winter- it won’t work and can cause issues for your chickens.

Plus, don’t ever use cedar wood chips. The scent and oils from the cedar are bad for your chickens and will harm them. Don’t use straw or hay in this method.  Stray doesn’t absorb moisture very well and easily molds. This provides a huge risk to your chicken’s respiratory health.

Even when using the deep litter method, you will need to add more layers to your coop throughout the winter to keep the wood absorbing the moisture from your chicken’s droppings.

10. Place Your Perch At Least 2 Feet Above The Ground

By placing your perch above the ground, it gets your chickens above the coldest part of the coop. Chickens love to perch and will perch huddled together.

Hopefully, you have enough room for all of your chickens to perch together. This will allow them to share body heat and stay warm.

Make sure that you have enough space or multiple perches that won’t leave a single chicken huddled alone during the cold nights.

How to care for chickens in the cold
Photo Credit: Flickr Linda N

11. Slightly Warm The Coop With A Single Bulb During Sudden Temperature Drops

Be very cautious about heating your coop. There are many dangers of heating the coop.  If you heat your coop throughout the winter, it doesn’t get your chickens climatized to the colder weather. This means that they are less likely to go outside and get sunlight and the moisture inside the coop will build up faster from their droppings.

It also means they will get bored faster and bullying can increase. Plus, with a sudden temperature drop or power outage, your whole flock is at a greater risk of death.

Consider only slightly heating the coop with a bulb or heating it during sudden temperature drops to help your girls adjust a little easier to the sudden or extreme cold.

Don’t use a heat lamp to heat the chicken coop. This poses a fire danger and can hurt or burn your chickens. Chickens can fly into it, catch their feathers on fire and cause a major fire risk. 

However, using a single light bulb can help to bring the temperature up a little.

Turning on a light bulb to your coop will help to keep your chickens laying more during the winter because hens need a minimum of light hours to regularly lay.

12. Use A Hoop House To Provide Warmth

Another option is to use a hoop house or greenhouse to provide your ladies with some snow-free ground and added warmth.

My neighbor built a hoop house out of cattle panels and railroad ties. She wrapped it in plastic. It protects the ground from snow and provides a snow-free place for her chickens to forage.

In addition, the plastic traps some of the sunlight and acts like a miniature greenhouse. Hens love being able to still forage for bugs and stay out of the snow.  

13. Gather Eggs More Often Than Usual

Even in the winter, many of your chickens are likely to still lay eggs. If you have cold-weather breeds, such as Australorps, you may still see just as many eggs in the winter as in the summer.

This can also happen if you are extending the daylight hours with a light bulb in the coop.

But, even if your chickens have slowed down their egg-laying production, make sure to check for eggs more often than usual.

Cold weather can often mean frozen eggs. Frozen eggs can cause hairline fractures, which lets in bacteria. If you see cracked eggs, use them right away. Even eggs that aren’t suitable for human use can be cooked and fed to your chickens.

14. Provide Some Entertainment To Ward Off Bullying

Winter chickens often get more bored than usual. The ground is frozen so they can’t have dust baths or scratch for bugs. Most of the bugs are in hiding or hibernating. Chickens don’t like walking on snow and its harder for them to sunbathe.

As a result, it is very easy for them to get bored. And, bored chickens often means increased bullying to milder and smaller chickens.

You can help to reduce bullying by providing your ladies with entertainment. Hang a head of cabbage, lettuce, or broccoli from your coop. It will give your hens something to peck out.

Since it’s hanging, it will swing and make it harder for them to peck and eat. This will entertain them and keep them occupied during the cold days.

You can also add a mirror or a swing to the coop to entertain your flock. Check out this article to find out other ways to help reduce bullying.

15. Keep Water Outside The Coop

Water inside the coop builds moisture in the air. Chickens are ok without water during the night, but they need constant fresh water during the day.

Putting your watering containers outside can encourage your girls to go outside for part of the day. But, it can also be a problem if it is so cold that the water freezes within minutes.

Consider a secondary shelter to place your water and feeding stations under. Even plywood leaning against the coop or shed can provide enough shelter to keep water thawed longer. It will also provide snow-free or snow-reduced ground.

Or consider utilizing other outer buildings, a makeshift greenhouse, or a tarp to add outside protection.

How Cold is Too Cold For Chickens?

Chickens can tolerate cold weather well. Even temperatures that drop below freezing and into the teens are fine for chickens.

However, when the temperature drops below zero, it can become too cold for many chicken breeds.

When this happens, take special care to keep them from getting frostbite and consider taking extra measures to heat them up.

If you have a chicken that seems to be struggling, take fast measures. Hens that aren’t moving much, seem lethargic or don’t react when you come by may be too cold.

Bring them into the garage or the house to help raise their body temperature. Consider feeding them something warm to eat. Or, feed them a high-energy feed such as whole grains or mealworms.

Do Chickens Stop Laying When It’s Cold?

When the fall hits, hens will usually reduce the number of eggs they lay. There are three reasons that chickens will stop laying when fall or winter arrives.

  1. Fall is usually a time of molting, which decreases egg laying in most hens
  2. Fall has reduced daylight hours, which directly impacts the number of eggs laid
  3. Extreme cold can force a chicken’s body to work on warmth instead of egg production

It takes extra energy for a chicken to grow new feathers. Hens usually do this in the fall when the weather starts to cool down. The thicker, down feathers will help to protect your birds in the cold of winter, but the extra energy and resources needed may cause egg production to decline.

At the same time as most hens molt and grow new feathers, the days are also getting shorter. This is probably the biggest reason hens stop laying eggs.

Most chicken breeds need a minimum number of daylight hours to keep up with good egg production.

As fall comes, consider using a timer and light to keep the lights on for longer hours that will mimic summer. Lights can come on at 6 AM and turn off at 10 PM. This will provide your girls with night hours, but also give them longer days.

In extreme cold, egg production can also stop or slow down due to the cold. As hens need more energy to keep warm, limited bodily resources can pull energy from yolks to warmth.

This can be combated with higher energy foods that help to warm chickens and increase their metabolism.

What Chickens Are Best Suited For Cold Climates?

Many chicken breeds do well in the winter and in freezing temperatures.

But, if you live in an especially cold area that gets below 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, then you will either need more hardy chickens or you will need to take extra precautions during the winter months.

The Chantecler is probably the most well-suited chicken breed for extreme cold. It was bred in Northern Canada and has almost no wattles or combs to be vulnerable for frostbite. Check out the other chicken breeds that handle cold winters great!

How to care for chickens in extreme cold
Photo Credit: Flickr Lexly87 aka Duc N. ly

Best Cold Weather Meat Chickens

Many of today’s meat chickens are hybrid chickens that are bred to be super growers. As a result, those breeds generally don’t do well for long-term sustainability.

They are usually purchased in the spring, raised and butchered in the summer. They are bred for mild summer months.

But, many heritage breeds do well in cold weather. These breeds are slower growing and were traditionally used for both meat and eggs. They are listed under the dual-purpose section.

The best meat breed for cold weather is:

Best Cold Weather Egg-Laying Chickens

Two trains of thoughts exist as it relates to egg laying chickens. Some people love to raise hens that produce a lot of eggs throughout the year. Others love to have multicolored eggs. I’ve included both types of chickens on this list.

Best Cold Climate Dual Purpose Chickens

Conclusion

Whether you live in a climate with mildly cold winters or extreme winters, you can raise chickens. Cold-weather breeds are ideal for minimal care during cold winters. But, most other breeds can survive in the winter with a little extra care and protection.

If you live in a hot climate, be sure to check out our list of hot-weather breeds. You can also check out which chickens are best-suited for small backyards and city life.

Annemaria Duran

Hi, I’m Annemaria Duran. I moved out to the country 6 years ago, mainly so I could have more land. I love all aspects of country living. First, we got chickens, then ducks. Now we have sheep, goats, and rabbits. I'm always learning and love sharing it!

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