Whew! That’s a toughie, especially if you’re a chicken-rearing newbie. Even a seasoned pro can struggle with keeping free range chickens in winter, but it can be done if you know what to expect and plan for it accordingly.
With this step-by-step guide you will surely be able to make it through the harsh winter months with your flock intact. Not only that, but you will also learn some real tips including how to prepare your hen house and chicken run for winter, treat frostbite, keep your egg production up throughout the winter, how to ensure proper feeding and nutrition, and how to deal with the dreaded molting phase.
Prepare Your Chicken House – Winter Is Coming
Preparing the coop for your flock is going to be one of the most important tasks to ensure that they are able to make it through the winter. While chickens are fairly sturdy and resourceful, the cold weather doesn’t suit them very well. If your chickens are not properly protected from the harsh draft and snow you’re going to have major health issues to deal with. These can include frostbite on the chickens feet or combs and even hypothermia.
A chicken’s coop should be their safe haven. It should be warm and inviting and offer a comfortable place to sleep and relax, especially if they’re going to be there for a while. In order to prepare your coop for a long winter you will need to start early at the first sign of a chill. You should ensure that any and all holes have been mended along the walls and the baseboards and that there are no drafts being let in.
Ventilation is also a must to prevent ammonia build up, so make sure that there are a few small vents in the coop to allow a little fresh air in and the stale air out. The best place for this would be towards the top around the ceiling, and away from the chickens’ nests and perches if possible. You should do your best to avoid having any direct air being blown on the chickens.
Don’t forget to apply insulation around the coop, too. You can opt for sheets of insulation which can be bought at any major hardware or farm store, usually around $10-$15 per sheet. If you don’t have the extra cash to invest in lining your chicken’s house, you can resort to using old cardboard. Just a few layers ought to do the trick.
Home, Home On The (Free) Range
While free range chickens love being out in the grass foraging away, chances are that when the winter comes they’re going to spend as little time as possible outside. Generally speaking it is not recommended that you let free range chickens run loose during the winter, especially if it’s snowing. They can get lost or covered and not make it back to the coop, not to mention predators during the winter are at their most desperate for an easy meal.
It’s far better to have a closed off run for them to access should the need or desire to go outside arise. With that being said it’s important to make sure to check, and double check, all parts of your run’s structure. Make sure there aren’t any holes or gaps where the chickens can escape or a predator can enter through. You should have a sturdy mesh perimeter all the way around your run that is partially buried (around 1-2 feet deep) to prevent determined animals, like coyotes and foxes, from digging under and into your run. If possible you don’t want to wait until winter has arrived to put that border around your run as the ground will be extremely hard to break through.
You will also want to try to keep the run clear of snow as much as possible, even if it’s just a small area of the overall run. Chickens don’t enjoy walking around in the snow, but they will if they have to. If you’re unable to clear a section for them, perhaps due to a blizzard or a large snow storm, at least remember to throw a pile of hay or straw out near their coop door, so if they do decide to venture out for a bit they will have a little protection for their feet.
You will want to stock up on the Vaseline. This tip is an important one, especially if you live in a location that is particularly notorious for below freezing temperatures. You never know when frostbite might occur so make sure that you’re checking the combs and wattles of your chickens regularly, even daily if possible. A chicken with frostbite will feature small black dots on their wattles and/or combs. You should apply Vaseline to it as soon as possible and move the affected chicken to a warmer spot if you can.
A Changing Of The Seasons
The other changes that occur when the cold weather starts creeping in have a big impact on your chickens. For example the days are shorter with less sunlight and that causes your hens internal biological clock to tell her it’s not time to produce any babies. Maybe it’s because the chicken knows that her chick is more likely to survive if it’s not so brutally cold outside. You can’t expect a broody hen when she’s freezing her little tail feathers off!
Also, if you’re hen is broody and produces many hatchlings, the winter offers them a chance to recuperate. Laying eggs isn’t easy after all and it can take a big toll on their body. You can encourage egg production by adding some safe artificial lights inside the coop and making sure that they are fed and hydrated properly. Many would agree that you ought to let your hens rest during the winter months, but if you need eggs, there are ways to help it along.
Food and Water
Bear in mind that a healthy chicken will also need to eat 1 ½ to 2 times as much as during the warmer seasons, so make sure you’re well stocked with feed for them. A nice treat for them would be some nice warm scrambled eggs or oatmeal. It might sound weird, but chickens love it! You don’t have to fret too much about whether you’re feeding them enough or not, they’ll let you know.It’s important to be conscious of your chicken’s nutrient requirements.
A chicken will need plenty of protein during the springtime, but during the winter they will need to beef up on carbohydrates (extra cracked corn feed should help with that), to provide energy and keep them warm
As far as making sure your chickens stay hydrated, if you live in a place that maintains a below-freezing temperature for long periods of time, you will need to look into a way to keep your water from freezing over and being inaccessible to them. If you’re thrifty you can look into making a cookie tin water heater. It should cost less than $10 for the supplies, and your chickens will thank you.
Molting is when your chickens shed their old feathers for nice new shiny ones. It generally occurs in chickens that are over a year old. The process of the new feathers growing in can take two to six months to complete. It’s nothing much to worry about, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse as it tends to happen just as the cold weather is moving in. You can’t really rush the process, but the best thing you can do is up their protein as this will help with the new feathers coming in.
You should aim for a feed that’s around 18-22% protein, but after the molting in your flock is finished for the year make sure to go back to your old feeding regime.
For more information take a look at our complete guide to caring for your chickens during molting.
How About Some Winter Fun?
One other fun suggestion that won’t really help or hurt your chickens would be to decorate your run and chicken house with some colorful holiday lights. Remember light is what helps your chickens produce eggs, so setting a timer for the lights to come on early in the morning might help them to produce an extra egg or two. Maybe it’ll keep your chickens in a good mood, too. We can’t stop winter from coming, so we might as well have fun with it!
There aren’t too many winter fans out there, and that includes free ranged chickens. The best thing you can do for yourself and your flock is to prepare early for the inevitable. Maintaining a well-kept coop and run will help when the time comes to do your winter inspections and having a small stockpile of food and nesting material ready at a moment’s notice can literally be a lifesaver.
As long as your birds are well fed and hydrated and kept as warm as possible you have an excellent chance of making it through the bitter cold winter. The winter will be over before you know it. Once the temperatures come back above freezing and the snow melts your free range flock will be back out and foraging freely (read: destroying your garden) again.