With a little extra care, most chicken breeds are hardy enough to cope with the cold weather we experience in the UK. There are, however, a few steps we can take to help our chickens during the winter months and in this guide, I will share my tips for keeping chickens in cold weather.
A common question I hear from chicken keepers in the UK is, “What temperature is too cold for chickens?” I always say there is no minimum’, just different levels of care because chickens are being kept successfully in Canada at -20°C, so they withstand cold weather very well. It is, in fact, the heat that causes them more problems.
Of course, there will be a minimum temperature for keeping chickens in reality, and not all breeds are as hardy as one another. Still, I am saying that if we understand the challenges they face at low temperatures, then we can help our chickens in cold weather.
Chickens need feathers to keep themselves warm.
Like wild birds, chickens trap air between their feathers which insulates them and keeps them warm during cold weather. They may look hunched up as they draw their necks close to their bodies. Their feet have very little blood supply, so they don’t feel the cold as much as we do, although sometimes, when resting, my hens stand on one leg, keeping the other one tucked up inside their feathers to preserve heat.
At night, pullets and hens will sometimes tuck their head underneath their wing while sleeping, which also helps them retain heat lost through their comb. Cocks often have a large comb, so they aren’t always able to do this.
When chickens roost during cold weather, their priorities change, and hens that don’t ‘get on’ during the daytime may cuddle up to one another to keep warm. As well as the social aspects of being part of a flock, this is another good reason not to keep chickens on their own. I always recommend three chickens as a minimum for newcomers.
In my experience, I have had no problems keeping chickens in temperatures down to -10°C. We experienced these temperatures in 2018 when Anticyclone Hartmut (nicknamed ‘the beast from the east’) brought some freezing weather and snow to Great Britain and Ireland.
Fully feathered, hardy breeds can be kept in even lower temperatures with additional measures, such as using well-insulated coops and heaters for the coldest nights.
The main thing is to ensure chickens can roost out of the wind and rain and huddle together to share heat.
Unless you use artificial light to keep hens laying, then the short day length towards the end of summer/early autumn will tell your chickens to replace their feathers: they will start their annual moult.
A full moult occurs only once per year and should be over before the temperature drops. Still, if your hens are moulting late, or aren’t fully feathered for some other reason (such as when rehoming battery hens or if a hen is being bullied and has lost feathers), then they will need a little extra TLC if the weather turns cold.
There is a sequence in which chickens will lose and replace feathers, and it will take place over several weeks, so they are never without all their feathers, although sometimes, a fast moulter can look almost oven-ready! If you have a hen that drops feathers quickly, then the good news is that they are also the best layers, so look after them.
As a rule of thumb, chickens in cold weather or freezing temperatures should be fully feathered so they can keep themselves warm. If not, you will need to provide them with a heat lamp or put the coop in an outbuilding or garage to insulate it from the cold.
On large combs
Cocks with large combs can suffer from frostbite to the comb. Frostbite only occurs under certain weather conditions, but if you keep a male bird with a large comb, especially with smaller serrated tips, you may need to consider taking precautions with him during freezing weather.
Smearing Vaseline onto his comb is a popular method of preventing frostbite.
Feeding chickens in winter
What is the best food for chickens in winter?
Chickens eat to meet their energy needs. We measure energy in calories, which are necessary to fuel the chemical reactions in the body. Calories come from proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Chickens use more energy to keep warm in cold weather so expect your hen’s food consumption to increase during winter.
When the day length shortens, most chickens will stop laying eggs, and the shortage of eggs can be frustrating. Of course, it’s good for our hens to rest and recuperate at this time, using their food to generate heat for the long winter nights.
Eggs are mostly protein, as are feathers, so when chickens are laying or moulting (replacing their feathers), they must have sufficient protein in their diet. However, when they stop laying during the winter, they can manage with a little less.
Economising on feed
I have two options as the best food for chickens in winter, so if you want, you can reduce feed costs slightly during the winter months.
Providing your hens aren’t laying eggs or moulting, they need a little less protein but more energy to keep warm. Remember, energy comes from proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
- Firstly, you can continue to feed layers mash or pellets. They will eat a little more for the extra energy they need. It is balanced with nutrients, and for a small flock, I recommend you do this for simplicity.
- OR, you can feed a little wheat or oats mixed in with your layers feed. It lowers the feed’s overall protein level and increases the carbohydrate level, and we can meet some of their energy requirements with the cheaper grain we add.
I add one scoop of wheat to every five scoops of layers pellets, making wheat about 16% of their diet. Granted, it’s not much of a saving, but it all adds up, especially for larger flocks.
You can’t increase the amount of grain further because grains lack essential vitamins and minerals your chickens need. While they can find some of this on pasture and greens you provide, a good quality, balanced, formulated layers-feed should be most, if not all, of their diet.
Mixed corn before bed
Mixed poultry corn (called scratch in the US) contains wheat and split/cracked maize, which is exceptionally high in energy. We should feed it sparingly, but it is a good winter warmer.
The high carbohydrate calorific value helps our birds to keep warm, but it is too low in protein, vitamins and minerals to be a complete feed, so it must be fed in moderation.
- If you would like to know more, you might want to read my guide to feeding chickens.
Chickens and snow
Chickens don’t take well to sudden changes, and snow can cause them to become stressed. Stressed chickens are more likely to pick up a passing disease. The problem becomes worse if there is a lack of food or water during bad weather.
If there is snowfall, clear an area around their coop so they can stand out from the snow.
Hens should be able to reach their food and water without having to walk through deep snow.
Some chickens seem happy to walk through the snow; others aren’t so keen and may go hungry if they can’t reach feeders. You can help them by making everything available for them on their doorstep!
A plastic snow shovel allows you to clear an area of snow quickly.
And a tip to keep it from freezing
I keep a small water container hanging inside the hen-house during the day when it’s cold so that it doesn’t freeze as quickly.
I also keep my chickens’ regular water container close to the hen-house pop hole in the area I have cleared of snow so that they don’t have to walk through the snow to get to it.
You can add food-grade glycerine, also known as glycerol or glycerin (merely different names for the same thing) found in the home baking section of your supermarket or online can be added to water to stop the water from freezing.
Experiment with the quantity – A few drops can protect a 6-litre container below freezing, but you may need to add an extra drop or two if the temperature falls further.
Be on the lookout for rats
To move in, they need three things....
The winter months are the most common time for rats to move in. Our chickens often provide them with the ideal environment in which to live.
Rats need three things: Food, shelter and water. We usually provide these things for our chickens in cold weather, so be on your guard.
Your first defence is to use a rat-proof treadle feeder like this.
As well as removing their source of food, which will stop them from moving in (or encourage them to move out!), it will save you a lot of money in wasted feed and reduce the risk of a disease coming into your flock from contaminated feed.
- My guide on how to get rid of rats provides in-depth help in removing these unwanted visitors.
Insulation and ventilation
Should I insulate the chicken coop?
A frequent question that comes up is whether you should insulate your chicken coop. Unless you live where the temperature regularly drops to -10°C and below, there is no need to insulate your chicken coop.
During the summer months, red mites can be a real problem in chicken coops, and insulating walls often gives them more places to hide.
If you cover the chicken coop over with something like an old blanket or piece of old carpet on cold nights, remember chickens need proper ventilation in the coop to remove the ammonia that builds up from droppings.
It is better to provide ventilation at low and high levels, so rising hot air generated by your birds can escape.
If there is an adjustable vent on the side of your coop at a similar height to the perches, use a cover to control the amount of ventilation, but do not shut it off completely. On windy nights, you can close it up fully because there should be sufficient ventilation getting in elsewhere.
The most important thing is to ensure your chickens are not getting wet and are out of drafts while roosting at night.
Keeping chickens in cold weather is additional work and usually without many eggs, but keep in mind spring is just around the corner when you will be rewarded for your efforts by your girls!