Oh winter…we have a love-hate kinda relationship.
I love the rest you offer, and the unwinding of busyness you force upon my life. I’m in awe of the picturesque beauty you cast upon our frozen landscape, like the silent purity of falling snow on a Sunday morning. And I appreciate the excuse you give to eat comfort foods and to drink lots of bold and delicious coffee on the coldest of days.
But even though the gardens are sleeping and the ground is frozen solid, the animals still need to be cared for. This is the side of our Iowa winters that drives me nuts.
I know I’m not alone.
I see a lot of questions from first time chicken owners asking how to care for their flock when the temperature drops. We were there not very long ago, stressing about our flock’s first winter, and so I wanted to share a few things we’ve learned.
We currently raise around 45 laying hens along with our rooster named Clinton. One thing to remember is there are a lot of opinions about how to care for chickens, and many decisions simply come down to preference. But working through our own mistakes and challenges, we’ve found a rhythm that works for us, especially when it comes to managing the flock through the dark days of winter.
Here are 5 things we don’t do with our chickens in the winter
We DON’T use artificial light to induce winter egg-laying
Chickens need lots of natural light to produce eggs, and so production typically drops quite a bit during the winter months. To encourage egg production, some people will put up artificial lights in the coop. But we have never done that. Our flock works hard for us most of the year, and I think its healthy for them to have a time to rest. Nature has a rhythm, and I’m not going to mess with that.
We DON’T keep them cooped up
Our chickens roost in a safe space at night, but during the day they have full access to our tree grove and yard. Winter is no exception. A free chicken is a happy chicken.
We DON’T put a heat lamp in the coop
I understand the desire to put heat in the coop on the coldest of nights. But we just don’t do it. First of all, it’s dangerous. Heat lamps are the cause of way too many barn fires. Second, chickens are wonderful little heat producers, capable of putting out a lot of heat when they roost together. As long as they are in a draft free, enclosed coop with lots of litter they will be fine, even when its well below zero outside. Chickens are more resilient then we often give them credit for.
We DON’T change their routine
Chickens seem to be habitual creatures. And so we stick to a basic routine, even during winter. This includes when we harvest eggs, when we let them out of the coop, afternoon snacks and when we close them up at night. Sticking to a routine works for us as well, as our daily chores don’t need to change.
We DON’T clean out their litter
We do a deep clean of both our coops in late fall. Then we start building up the straw litter in layers over the winter months. This method is called the Deep Litter Method, and there are a couple beneficial reasons to use it. As you add each layer, the manure and straw underneath starts to break down, providing extra heat in the coop and creating good compost for the garden. The chickens get access to fresh litter on top, which also cuts down on the odor of old manure. Come spring, we’ll clean everything out and add it to the compost pile.
And 5 things we do…
We DO keep them out of the wind
The wind is brutal during Iowa winters, right down to double digit sub-zero temps. This can be dangerous to humans and animals alike. So we take lots of precautions to make sure our chickens have adequate shelter so they can escape the wind when it’s too strong. We wrap their runs with thick plastic, make sure their coops are blocked well on the north side, and on some days we just won’t let them out.
We DO make sure they have plenty of water
The waterers we keep in the coop are heated, because breaking water on cold days stinks. And the most important thing for chickens to stay healthy in the winter is a clean source of accessible water.
We DO keep them in on the coldest days
Some days are just too cold to let the girls outside. We’ve dealt with frostbite several times, and we’ve learned that it’s not worth the risk when the weather is just too bad.
We DO spread straw over the ground of their run
Both of our coops have protected runs the chickens can escape to when their are hawks or eagles hunting overhead. On the few days that are just too cold to let the girls free range, we will still open the door to their run so they can get out of the coop. Both runs have dirt floors, that will be frozen in the winter (and a muddy mess on the occasional 50 degree day we’ll get in January). Spreading straw over the ground keeps the chickens clean and gives them something to scratch around in when they don’t have access to the woods.
We DO give them lots of vegetable scraps
We don’t throw food away. Scraps, mushy fruit or vegetables, stale bread or cereal…it all goes to the birds. And they gladly consume it without complaint. We have found that a good diet that includes lots of vegetable scraps in the winter, plus as much sunlight as possible, keeps egg production at a satisfactory level during the cold months.