Find out how cold is too cold for chickens and get your flock ready for the winter season.
Are you wondering how cold is too cold for chickens?
As winter approaches for the new chicken owner, you might be nervous over the prospect of your flock surviving through the cold days and nights. Truthfully, even for a more experienced chicken keeper, the winter season can be a bit tough to manage. I live in Canada, and it gets frigid here and for a very long time.
Well, chickens survive cold weather much better than the intense heat of summers. They do need a bit of our help to provide them with a safe and healthy environment, especially in their coop.
When caring for chicken in winter, a few things need to be considered — like finding out actually how cold is too cold for chickens, for example — but also the breed, temperature and insulation of coop, and the diet need to be considered.
How To Care For Chickens During Winter
As it turns out, chickens can thrive anywhere in the continental United States. With just a bit of preparedness and practical considerations, they can survive in most of Canada and Alaska too.
Can Chickens Freeze to Death In The Winter?
Technically, yes. You can provide your chickens with such poor living conditions that they do, in fact, die from neglect.
And though chickens are indeed hardy little birds, they can stop laying eggs altogether if not kept warm and fed adequately.
Some weak chickens might fall ill and die in winters because it is difficult to recover in colder seasons.
How Cold Is Too Cold For Chickens
However, you can prevent this from happening by taking appropriate preventative measures and having some basic knowledge
Here are some factors that you can consider to keep your flock healthy and content during the cold season.
The Breed Matters
Some chicken breeds are more cold-hardy than others.
Some chicken breeds are more adaptable to the cold than others.
Chickens will handle the cold temperature differently depending on the breed. Some chicken breeds will also require more food than others to thrive through the winter season. Some chicken breeds are more feathered and can keep themselves warmer than others, so they don’t need any extra coop insulation.
The perfect chicken means different things for different people. Some people prefer a breed that is best for more meat, and some prefer one that provides more eggs. Me personally, as a homesteader on only 3 acres — I like heritage dual-purpose breeds.
I have big, beautiful English Orpingtons that are absolute balls of fluff from a profusion of feathers and down.
I think they will fare well this winter.
I also raise Bresse that will mostly be slaughtered for meat before winter, as I ended up hatching 11/13 roosters by pure chance. Though not as fluffy as the Orpington, I do not doubt they would have fared well through the winter season. I’m sure the two hens I’m keeping for eggs will be fine.
You can choose the right breed or breeds for your chicken flock according to your preferences and keeping in mind your area’s climate. Whatever chicken breed you select, make sure to care for it so that the birds can survive the winter in the best way.
Further down this article, I have a list of cold-hardy chicken breeds.
The General Health of Your Flock is Vital During Winter
Chickens can survive winter just fine unless they are weak or sick to begin with.
But if chickens are weak or sick due to illness or disease, it’s hard for them to cope with the winter season because their immune system isn’t active enough to fight both the cold winter temperatures and the sickness.
Their energy gets spent keeping themselves warm and alive all while fighting disease or infection. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Thus the general health of the chicken flock is vital to perform better and survive the winter season without any hassle.
Take care of any problems now.
Winterizing Your Coop Against The Cold
I have an entire guide dedicated to Winterized Chicken Coops, which will explain the process in detail. It is not difficult and does not need to be expensive.
Managing chicken flocks is different in winters than in summers.
The coop needs winterizing against the cold. Though chickens can keep their body temperature constant throughout the year, the cold weather requires extra effort. You need to provide them with the environmental conditions that can help them to avoid heat loss.
To winterize the coop, the first thing to do is insulate it to keep the cold air outside. If there are holes or cracks in the walls and roof, block them to protect adequately.
Keep the floor as dry as possible because wet floors and the resulting humidity can make the coop colder and cause infections and other diseases. A thick layer of litter such as straw underneath their roosts is best.
Winter is the perfect time to see how effective and easy the deep litter method is — but make sure you start your deep litter well in advance of cold temperatures to allow the necessary microbial action to take place properly.
If you start your deep litter in winter, you will probably end up with a dirty and smelly coop and wondering why this method didn’t work for you.
The bedding material will allow the chicken waste to build up, giving off heat and keeping the coop naturally warm.
Should You Even Bother Insulating Your Coop?
Is the insulation of the coop necessary? Well, the correct answer to this is that is “it depends.”
See: Winterizing Your Chicken Coop
Some breeds can tolerate cold better than others; thus, they don’t necessarily need insulation of their coop.
Insulation may be necessary when chickens are very young because mature chickens have more feathers than young and can produce more heat to keep themselves warm.
Young chicks need extra heat. Otherwise, they start shivering and might fall sick that will cause a hindrance in their growth.
Another factor is the temperature of your region. It would be best if you determined how cold is too cold for chickens where you live. If the cold days are pretty long and the weather is extremely cold or snowing most of the time, you may need insulation for your coop.
One thing to keep in mind while insulating the coop is to keep ventilation in check.
There should be proper air circulation to keep birds healthy and to keep the litter dry. Wet bedding can cause the production of odour which can be problematic.
So you don’t have to seal the coop but insulate it to avoid creating stagnant, humid air inside.
Another thing to keep in check in an insulated coop is the level of humidity. Too much humidity can cause the bedding to go damp and be a potential breeding ground for mould and bacteria.
While too low humidity can make the litter completely dry, that can create respiratory problems for the birds.
This is another reason why properly maintained deep litter method may be the best choice in places where the winters get very cold.
Can Chickens Free-Range in The Winter?
My chickens are free-ranged and go wherever they please on the homestead.
From dawn to dusk, they spend their days foraging for food, and in the evening, I bring out their feed and let them fill up before bed.
But what about the long winter months? When we moved to the homestead, the snow was so deep in parts that I needed snowshoes to go for a walk on the land. It was only ankle deep in parts, but then the next step would sink me to my thigh.
I can’t see the chickens roaming around in that landscape, even if there was much of anything to find that they could or would eat.
But chickens are hardy birds who love to move around and scratch and peck. So if your chickens are rushing out in winter, you don’t need to worry because they are way hardier than you think.
Don’t stress yourself or force your birds inside, assuming they are opposed to cold when that is not the case. They will head inside if they don’t want to be outdoors. You can give them a choice to roam around or to stay in, or at least provide them with access to their run.
A covered run, free from snow, may become their favourite place.
Generally, chickens won’t go out if the temperature is less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit; however, they like to move around when the temperature is around the 30s.
You can winterize the outdoor run and give them a place to move around comfortably. If your run doesn’t have a roof, you can always cover the area with heavy-duty plastic sheets to protect it from rain or snow.
Or you can add layers of straw on the floor of the run to prevent their feet from frosting and make the area more accessible for them to move around in.
Dietary Changes In The Winter
I have a detailed guide to Feeding Pastured Chickens In The Winter that will be helpful for you whether you are free-ranging your birds or not.
I go into this important topic in depth and offer you some potential money-saving tips and ways to keep your chicken’s diet more varied, natural, and healthy in the winter when foraging is just not possible.
The more food chickens eat, the higher the metabolism rate and the higher the heat produced in the body helps keep birds warm in winter. Thus chickens need to eat more in the winter season. The chicken’s feed consumption increases about 1.5 times the amount they eat in summers.
The nutrition they get from the food helps them grow more feathers that act as a natural insulator from cold temperatures. Extra food also provides them with the extra protein, fat, and carbohydrates needed to build strength in the winter months.
You can feed the chickens their regular feed as the primary food during the winter season; however, you can add a handful of cracked corns and scratch grain in the evening feed as an additional supplement. This will keep them warm through the entire night as the body will keep on generating heat while digesting the carbohydrate grains.
For protein, you can feed warm scrambled eggs and meat scraps.
It is essential to feed your flock with a high-quality feed to keep their bellies full and their bodies warm! Thus make sure to stock up when winter is about to start so you don’t end up running out of feed.
Keep Their Water From Freezing
Alongside diet, hydration remains just as important.
Keeping your chickens hydrated is just as important in the winter cold as in the summer heat.
Water will freeze in the winter; that is just a fact of life you will have to get used to. Your chickens can thus be deprived of water once it’s frozen because obviously, they cannot break the layer of ice to access the water below.
You have to put in the effort to keep their water defrosted for them.
Change the water each day or a few times a day if the weather is way too cold. The best way to do this is to have two containers to just swap one with the other.
Another way to keep water from freezing is to insulate the chicken waterer with a thick cloth.
And if your coop has electricity, you can use a heated water container to keep water at normal temperature automatically.
Heated water buckets are widely available, affordable, and can make a great investment that keeps you from trudging out into the snow multiple times a day.
Conversely, you can also just buy a heated waterer base and keep using your current waterer. This is a cheaper option.
Cold-Hardy Chicken Breeds
Some breeds do better in the cold winter temperatures than others.
These cold-hardy breeds have smaller wattles and combs and possess thicker plumage that helps them to survive winter better.
There is a wide variety of breeds that are considered cold-hardy. Here is a list of some of them for you to choose from:
- Plymouth Rock
- Silkie Bantams
- New Hampshire Red
- Rhode Island Red
- Jersey Giant
Signs Your Chickens Are Too Cold
The behaviour of your flock is a good indication of exactly how cold is too cold for chickens.
Here are some signs to look out for when you need to determine whether your chickens are too cold:
If you find chickens huddled together near any heating source without moving, this is a sign of being too cold. Healthy chickens move around freely without huddling together.
Another sign to look out for is when chickens are standing on one leg. They do so to keep their legs warm.
If their feathers are extra fluffed, that also indicates that they are cold because they do so to conserve the heat inside. When chickens are too cold, their comb can change colour and become paler.
When you spot any of these signs among your chickens, it’s time to take action to keep your flock healthy and happy.
Chickens are very easy to take care of. A little research can help you to ensure the health and longevity of your flock. So this upcoming winter season, follow the above-mentioned tips to keep your flock healthy and content. And check out my other guides on winter chicken care, like How To Properly Winterize Your Chicken Coop and Feeding Pastured Free-Range Chickens in Winter to get yourself ready.
Recommended Books & Further Reading
Keep yourself informed.
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens. This is a classic that everyone should have if they are planning on raising chickens. This book technically has everything you need within the pages. That being said, if you are looking for more organic and natural approaches to chicken-keeping, I recommend this book alongside something that will serve that purpose too.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers. This is my favourite. The most comprehensive guide to date on raising all-natural poultry for the small-scale farmer, homesteader, and professional grower. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock offers a practical and integrative model for working with chickens and other domestic fowl, based entirely on natural systems.