How to prepare your chickens for winter isn't especially intuitive. In fact, many people may take steps that can actually make things more difficult for their flock rather than helping them to become cold weather chickens! Choosing cold-hardy breeds (if you live in an area of cold winters) is certainly an important first step! But presuming you've already made good breed choices, you'll also want to know what NOT to do for your cold-weather chickens.
Cold weather chickens - 8 things NOT to do to in winter
1. Don't keep your chickens closed up in their coop when it's cold.
Good cold weather chickens can be allowed to decide when they want to stay in or come out. You might think that your chickens won't want to go outside in the snow, and sometimes that's true. Some of your chickens will hate it, and will stay inside most of the day, but others won't mind it at all.
The only time I keep the coop door closed during the day is when the snow is too deep for my cold weather chickens to walk in, or when it's just so bitter and windy I know no one will come out. (And even then, I sometimes open the door just in case).
2. Don't tightly insulate your coop.
I know that seems strange, but it's true--tightly insulated coops can cause more harm than good. If your coop is tightly insulated, not only will it retain heat, it will also retain moisture... and retaining moisture in the coop is very, very bad.
Chickens create a lot of moisture from their respirations. A lot of moisture also evaporates from their droppings. And in winter, they'll be spending more time inside, even if just because of the longer winter nights! More droppings build-up---and more moisture. And the problem is that lot of moisture in the air can condense, freeze, and contribute to frostbite. All that humidity also increases the risk of unhealthy conditions in the coop leading to respiratory ailments and mold-related illnesses. Plus, poor ventilation can also cause ammonia gas to build up inside your coop, which is damaging to your chickens' lungs.
You can have some insulation in cold areas, but remember that cold weather chickens need a coop to be well ventilated, to avoid moisture build-up, but not drafty
3. Don't assume you need to heat your coop
This is another piece of advice that seems completely counter-intuitive...however it's good advice for a number of reasons, unless you live in a region that regularly drops below twenty degrees outside.
Chickens adapt to lower temperatures over time. If the coop is heated, they'll never become real cold weather chickens; they'll never get used to the cold winter temperatures outside. Then, if you lose power and their heat goes out, the sudden sharp drop in temperatures with no time to acclimate means you could lose your whole flock in one terrible, fell swoop.
Even if it doesn't come to that, if your chickens are hesitant to spend time outside, they will spend even more time inside the coop making the air wet and breathing the unhealthy, moist air. Finally, heating the coop is a fire hazard if you're using an infrared heat bulb (they can get up to 435 degrees!)
You might heat your coop during sudden, precipitous drops in temperature, just to help ease the transition for my cold weather chickens , or when the temperatures are below zero for extended periods. If you live in an area where you have to heat your coop, consider getting a backup generator so you don't lose birds during a loss of power.
4. Don't forget to gather eggs more often than usual.
If you have cold weather chickens, some may continue to lay during the winter, and the eggs could freeze. While this doesn't really hurt them, you can't then eat the eggs because they're at high risk for bacterial contamination. What happens is that the frozen egg contents expand, and can create tiny hairline cracks in the shell you might not see with the naked eye. The cracks can let bacteria into the shell. Of course, at cold temperatures, the bacteria doesn't grow very quickly, but nonetheless, keeping cracked eggs is just not a good idea.
Plus, there's nothing like opening your refrigerator to find that an egg has thawed and seeped out all over everything---ugh, what a mess!
5. Don't let your water freeze.
Keeping fresh, unfrozen water for your flock in the winter can be a challenge. There are always the heated waterers, but---I admit it---I don't care for these very much. (There are people here at My Pet Chicken who swear by them, though, and they may work for you just fine.)
Personally, I don't like the fire risk, although they are much safer than as trying to heat the coop. I've also found them to be generally harder to use and clean than regular waterers. One heated waterer I had filled itself so close to the rim that it needed to be EXACTLY level so it wouldn't simply pour its contents out on the floor. Another worked well, except for the fact that the chickens kept unplugging it. A third functioned nicely in reasonably mild cold weather, but in very bitter cold, the top of the reservoir would freeze, so that the bottom heated portion where the chickens were meant to drink from would run completely dry.
I haven't found a heated waterer that works very well for me and my cold weather chickens. Instead, I just use multiple waterers. In the morning, I bring in a fresh waterer, and bring in the waterer that was in the coop overnight, and is now frozen. By the time that one is thawed, the other one is nearly frozen, so I switch them out. It requires a lot of walking and carrying, but my preference is to do it that way rather than use expensive heated waterers for my flock.
6. Don't put off coop cleaning.
Because your cold-weather chickens will be spending more time inside and creating more droppings inside as a result, the coop will need cleaning more often. For myself, I like to use the deep litter method for managing my coop rather than frequent cleanings, but even doing that, new bedding needs to be added more frequently in the winter to make sure everything stays dry and cozy.
7. Don't let your birds get too bored.
If they have a very small coop and run, there may not be a whole lot to entertain your flock like there is during warmer months. When snow is on the ground, there will be little or no sunbathing. With the ground frozen, dust bathing is unlikely. There won't be lots of bugs to catch or greens to forage. Bored birds may become snippy or even aggressive with one another if there isn't anything to think about or do other than reinforce the pecking order over and over again.
Alleviate some of the boredom for your cold-weather chickens by adding treats to their area. For instance, hang a head of cabbage in your coop for your girls to peck at. As they peck, it swings, making it more difficult to eat immediately, and keeping them entertained for hours. My chickens, seemingly unlike any other chickens in the world, don't care for cabbage. Still, there are other treats that work well for entertainment... for example, suet cakes. I prefer to use something high protein, like the Treat Square Cake designed for chickens and other domestic poultry. In winter, something with high fat (including scratch or cracked corn) gives them the extra calories they need to help stay warm. You can also simply scatter some scratch inside the run for them to forage for. That'll keep them entertained, too.
8. Don't skimp on the grit.
Chickens usually pick up grit naturally from small pebbles they ingest while foraging around, scratching through the dirt in search of morsels to eat. The grit acts like "teeth" to help their gizzard "chew" their food. In winter, however, the ground may be frozen and too hard for a bird to dislodge any pieces to pick up grit naturally. In this case, it's wise to make sure your birds have plenty of supplemental grit to help them digest their feed. Your flock will thank you for providing this digestive assistance on those cold winter days!
Do you have any other suggestions for preparing your cold-weather chickens for winter? Please share below in the comments!