Keeping chickens in freezing conditions.

I always talk about my chickens and I consider them one of my greatest assets.  When we are talking about our pantries and preparedness chickens are up there high on the list.  So I have encouraged everyone to have at least a few hens if at all possible.   Some of you have shown me photos of your hens and I am so pleased!   This led me to think about how to get through a freezing winter with your hens alive and happy. I have zero knowledge on this!  We deal with heat and I can help on that subject but not with sub zero temperatures!   

With high electricity costs,  winter,  talk of war and more,  I asked Pat Lewis (GardenPat) how she manages her hens in Ohio weather.   To frame this her average winter temperatures in December are 42F (5.55C) for high and 27F (-2.77C) for low.  She can also get days that don't go beyond  20 F  (-3.88 C) and can go down to -9F (-22.77C).  Now I  do not have any idea of what weather like that even feels like. 

It is our hope and prayer that this information helps you if these temperatures apply to your area and if you could pass this on to anyone new to chicken keeping that would be wonderful! 

Over to Pat....

One of the biggest concerns as new chicken keepers, especially in colder climate Ohio, was how our birds would survive the winter.

We wondered if we needed to get electricity set up in the chicken coop.  We knew that this could be quite costly to do and so we asked the country health veterinarian out it when he came to do the inspection for our chicken permit.   He told us not to because they'll survive just fine!

You don't have to worry about heating the coop or feeding them with hot cooked grains,  both of which were done in the late 1800's in a failed attempt to get hens to lay eggs through the winter.

A few things are really important to get right,  though.  The first is keeping fresh water in front of your chickens.  You can simply have two water bowls or buckets (like we do) and swap them out twice a day.  Put a fresh bucket of warm water in the morning and take the frozen bowl into the house to thaw.  In the late afternoon, dump the melted ice out of that bucket and take it outside with fresh,  warm water to replace the one that is probably frozen by now.  This is what we've been doing for the last 4 winters.

When we replace the water twice a day, we take tat same time to check for and gather eggs so they don't freeze!

There are always new gadgets, chicken clothes, etc. that our friends will find on the internet and immediately send to us!  You don't need to spend extra money on so called "passive solar" water bowls.  That just 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 battery operated heaters are not worth the cost!  So it makes no sense what so ever to use eight- yes eight- D batteries to keep a bowl of water from freezing over night.  The batteries are dead in less than eight hours,  eating up one battery per hour.

And, btw - sweaters/jumpers are not only unnecessary but also unhealthy for your chickens.  I the winter they can trap sweat inside the sweater and it will fester under their wings into a yeast type infection which you don't want to deal with!

If you give your hens fresh warm water in the afternoon, they'll be fine until morning because they don't actually drink overnight.  And if they have access to snow, they're eat that, which contributes to their water intake.  We usually don't let our chickens forage outside their closed coop area it it's raining or snowing outside!  Chickens actually drink very little in the winter anyway.

Should you insulate or heat your chicken coop in winter?  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.  Let me tell you something that happened about 3 1/2 years ago, not to a "friend of a friend" but to the sister of one of my best friend who lives on 5 acres about 20 minutes from my house.  They built a lovely chicken coop and put a heated lamp inside the roost area where her chickens would sleep over night.  Apparently,  the lamp got knocked over and was so hot it started the wood chip litter in the coop on fire, burned the coop down and moved on to the house and burned a significant portion of that as well.   They were not home when it started but when they arrived home the local fire department was hard at work.  It was determined quickly that  the chickens heat lamp had been the source of the fire, it was a windy night so it spread quickly.  It took almost 2 years to. rebuild the house.  What a horrible way to find out the dangers of a heat lamp!

It actually wasn't until the 1870's that commercial chicken keeping took hold, and people began putting chickens in insulated, heated houses, thinking it would make them lay eggs through the winter.  By the time they realised 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, sone people were advocating a return to letting chickens go outside.  Research showed that a chicken house, which had no wall to 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.  Adequate ventilation is critical even in the cold weather.

Your chickens need fresh air more than a heated coop. If you have an insulated coop without adequate ventilation,  you will create problems.  Condensation causes frozen combs, and ammonia build-up causes respiratory problems.  Unfortunately,  human noses are not sensitive enough to smell ammonia before it can start to damage chicken lungs.   It is not going to hurt you because you're only in there for a few minutes.  The chickens are spending most of their time in there, plus their noses are less than a foot from the ground most of the time.  We do a really deep mucking out of the chicken coop just as fall sets in and put in a "deep litter" on the floors to help keep them warm.  We use wood shavings because grass or straw can get wet and mouldy.  We put down about 4inchs (10cm) of wood shavings on their flood and within minutes they are scratching around in it.  This is what you eat to have happen because you are creating a "compost: type environment which will break down their droppings along with the shavings and generate heat in the process.  Over the following few days, add a centimetre of shavings until it reaches a level of 12 inches. (30cm)  Anytime the litter looks wet,  add more litter on top of it.   To encourage the chickens to "turn" the shavings over to aid in the composting,  you can add mealworms or sunflower seeds on the top and the chickens will immediately start rooting around in the litter to get them!   I guess our chickens are the messy sort because they are always "improving" the litter by moving it without giving them "incentives!" 

Do you need a light in your chicken  coop in winter?  No, you don't need a light for the heat or the light. Some people choose to put a light in their coop to encourage their hens to lay through the darker days of winter.  Egg production slows down as the days get shorter and shorter in the winter.  Hubs put little solar power light built in their roosting area.  It took a lot of time and some extra $$$ to do it.  Within a week or so our hens had pulled it down from where he had attached it and we abandoned it.  That being said we never had a complete shut-down on egg production.  Usually in the coldest part of the winter, we get half the usual number of eggs.

The upper level of our chicken coop has a window that has a sliding door that can be closed over the hardware cloth.  We close it overnight during the winter but keep it at least cracked open a bit during the day for ventilation.  The lower level is all hardware cloth on the wooden framework.  It allows sunlight and airflow but before the season changes to cold with the possibility of freezing rain or snow, we cover the bottom half of the chicken coop perimeter.  The first two years we did this by stapling heavy black contractors trash bags around the whole coop going up 36 inches. (roughly 1 metre) That way,  they still get fresh air but since they are short birds, they can be exercising,  eating and drinking without having snow, rain or wind hitting them directly.  Last year, we switched over to plexiglass to replace the trash bags.  It works even better and we can see the chickens through it.  Plexiglass cost more to purchase and cut to size, but after we are able to reuse it year after year.

These things have worked well these past 4 winters and we have never lost a chicken. 

Chickens, like children, are more resilient than we, as first time parents realise!  So,  make some adjustments for the chooks if you live where it gets cold for a season,  but remember that you can DIY those upgrades without spending a fortune by using what you already have available!  

Our chickens provide us not only with eggs but hours of entertainment watching them!  And to have eggs available at home without ever buying form the store is priceless!  

Thank you so much Pat!   From an outsider observations Pat's fence and the building next door also make strong wind breaks which would further keep the wind from going through the hen house.   Good things! 

Back to my week... ! xxx


  1. I have chickens in New England Massachusetts USA. I can get colder than Pat does. I use no light or heater. I do close in the sides of the run because snow will drift in. Last year I had snow half way up the sides of the run. My girls slow down to a almost stop in the winter. I do the same as Pat with the water. I do give my girls hot oatmeal with pumpkin and yogurt during the coldest weather on occasion. This will be my girls third winter. I have six chickens. Thank you for all your blog posts! Colleen

  2. This really makes a lot of sense. I don't have chickens but my grandmother always did and she had none of the fancy gadgets that crop up from time to time. Her birds did just fine without any extreme measures on her part. She just made sure that they always had fresh water in the summer or winter and kept them out of the hot sun and cold wind as much as possible while still making sure they had plenty of fresh air and a clean coop.

  3. We live in the same climate as Pat and have had chickens for years.
    Like she said, ventilation is paramount as is keeping water supplied. I do shovel paths in the snow for them ;)! But they had hilarious delight to our lives on a daily basis!

  4. Thank you Annabel and thank you Pat! ❤️. I am first time chicken mom and absolutely love having my 4 golden ladies. They are so friendly and tame. Our winter is a bit harsher and longer with lots of snow and sometimes more than -20 Celsius temperature days in a row. I have read many articles on the internet but so far these ideas have more common sense. I have the chicken coop in the orchards and they have shadow and light, grass and bugs to chase all day long in their run. A few hours a day are moved to different patches in the orchard also in a chicken run my husband built for them - this way they are safe from all kind of predators and my garden is safe and tidy also. For winter we will move them closer to the house. In the backyard we have a wood made building where we kept rabits and where the barn kitties live - there they will be protected from freezing weather and snow, it is well ventilated but wind won't go in. I take notices for what to feed them and I feel prepared for winter coming. I saved dry sand and healthy wood ashes for dust baths and nettle powder to mix in their food as green vitamin. I hope my ladies will be happy. Thank you again, for Pat taking the time to write and put so many nice pictures and for you Annabel, for thinking of us, for thinking of me. I feel so lucky to have found you and to be part of such a nice and friendly comunity. With love, Laura_s_world from Romania. PS. I hope my post will go through, last weeks comments they did not.

    1. Dear Laura, You were one of the new chicken keepers in freezing conditions that I had in mind when I asked Pat to write this, as you gathered I think. I just couldn't help in this area! I am so happy you have those beautiful chickens and that this was helpful to you.
      Thank you for persisting with your comment! Today it is very sunny here and my chickens are sun baking and fluffing around making dust baths! I also have a lot of greenery to give them. I think your nettle idea is a great idea! With love

  5. Hi Annabel,

    Great article by Pat. We have always lived in a place where winter is colder than Pat gets, and our coop is insulated, with (screened) windows that are propped open at all times, except when it gets really cold. We have weather that will freeze combs off if we don't take action occasionally. On very cold nights, we close the windows (just overnight), and we have a red bulb heat lamp that hangs from the coop ceiling that emits just enough heat to keep the girls from getting frostbite, though it doesn't always keep the water from freezing, which we just switch out, like Pat says, for an unfrozen waterer. We also have a "trouble" light that hangs from the ceiling in the coop; it's on a timer, and just turns on for a couple of hours in the early morning on the shorter days to keep the hens laying a bit better. This is just for light, not for heat. Yes, this really works for better egg laying. Neither of these options are a real fire risk, but of course it needs saying, make your own minds up about your own situation. We also do deep bedding, as Pat does. This keeps the coop warmer than cleaning it out each day. One thing I've always found odd is talk about chickens out in the snow...Ours NEVER want to go out when the snow starts to accumulate! It doesn't matter how much you keep the little door open for them to go in their run, or scratch you throw out for them to eat, they won't bite. They don't mind frosty temperatures or a bit of rain, but they hate the snow. :)

    xx Jen in NS

    1. Dear Jen, Firstly I hope that the hurricane (before the current one!) did not give you damage at your place. I saw one was heading over Nova Scotia. Thank you for sharing what you do, it amazes me that chickens cope with such cold. The heat is my real problem they really hate the heat and I have known people to lose all their chickens on one hot extreme day. Many thanks Jen, Love

    2. Dear Annabel,

      Thank you for thinking of us with Fiona. Luckily our area didn't get the brunt of the damage. We prepped up as best we could, locking things down, moving anything that could get blown around (including chickens out in the portable pen!! :)), boarding up a few windows, getting candles and water ready, etc. We did lose power, but only for 24 hours, and we were fine with our woodstove for heat and a bit of cooking (it has a ledge that can get a pot or two boiling for soup or water or coffee), and we have a generator that we were able to use once the wind died down to power up the fridge and freezers, so we didn't lose any food. We lost a tree, but it didn't hit anything, and hubby has already chopped it up for firewood. My heart goes out to those who have sustained lots of damage, many of which are still without power.

      Have you posted about keeping chickens in extreme heat before? I would love to see that post, as we can get temperatures at 40 degrees plus (with humidity) in summer, and though we haven't lost any chickens yet, I'd love to hear your strategies!

      I was going to say that there are certain chicken varieties that are known to do better in cold climates...most have smaller combs that help reduce comb frostbite risk. Chanteclers are one...a great dual purpose bird.

      Thanks again!! xx Jen.

  6. Thank you Pat. I've never kept chickens but have been thinking of getting a half dozen or so for our personal use. My grandparents started chicken house when they moved here on the land and sold eggs. They built their chicken house facing South and it was always open, just chicken wire. I'm not aware they did anything extra other than the shavings/compost as you mention, roosts, etc. Granny was still harvesting that chicken house compost many years later, even though they did clean it regularly. One of my favorite photos is of her with my Mama and herself surrounded by chickens.


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