This is my first Winter with chickens. As previously discussed, they can be expensive when it comes to setting up, but they are a wonderful hobby for me.
Here is what I learned from the chicken raisers in Colorado:
- Make sure there is enough space to keep stress low.
- Sand in the coop and in the run is great for all year round, but especially Winter.
- Sweet PDZ is great for the smell and is also good for the chickens’ health.
- Food grade DE (diatomaceous earth) can help control parasites.
- Heated water is a must unless you want to constantly go out and replace frozen water with warm water.
- Keeping chickens dry is probably the most important concern.
- Keeping chickens protected from predators is another very important concern.
- Supplemental heat is not needed.
- Air ventilation is important whether it is hot or cold.
- Supplemental light is not needed.
- Some breeds just won’t produce in Winter no matter what.
In my city, Aurora, Colorado, we can have up to six hens (no roosters) with a permit, on lots larger than 20,000 square feel, we can have eight hens. Our city requirements are basically:
- Coop (they refer to it as the house) must be at least 2 square feet per chicken of floor space.
- The run, which must be attached to the house, must be at least 6 square feet or larger
- The combined structure cannot be larger than 120 square feet.
- The combined structure must be 15 feet or more from property lines unless the neighbor provides written permission for it to be closer.
- Chickens must be secured in the house from dusk until dawn.
Obviously, the more space available, the better. The chickens love scratching around and eating bugs and grass and such.
What we did was build a run that is 8’ wide by 12’ long by 6’ high. We actually went 6’ high to patch the privacy fence on the one side, and the other is 5’6” to give us a slope for rain and snow to drain off. We then added a coop that we bought from Murdoch’s. I wish we had not purchased it, but, we have it, and it is doing its job.
The run is directly attached to our tuff shed, and is well anchored.
Yes, our chickens are spoiled.
In general, many people feel that sand in the coop and in the run is great for all year round as it allows any water (including chicken poop) to drain away easily and helps keep their feet dry. Sand is also fairly easy to rake clean of waste. I use a big cat litter scoop to clean through the sand on a regular basis.
Another benefit of sand is that it retains heat and it is a big benefit in the Winter.
As you can see, even though we had about 15 inches of snow, it is perfectly dry inside, and there is no mud or wet area inside the run.
I have heard from several people that the sand is nice in that it keeps their claws nicely trimmed, too. Think: Chicken Pedicure.
This is a mineral that is marketed to horse stables. It controls odor by binding to ammonia and neutralizing it. The mineral also absorbs moisture. The mineral is available in granules or powder, but for chickens, granules are best. Powders can get cause respiratory issues for chickens.
Ammonia not only causes a great deal of the smell that attracts flies and the general smell, it also impacts respiratory health and egg production.
The best way to use this mineral, in my opinion, is to mix it with the sand. Others use it in the poop trays below perches.
DE is a fine powder that scratches the waxy shell of insects and parasites and causes them to dry up and die. I use it to kill off ant hills in my hard, for example, and it is not harmful to humans or animals. Make sure you get food grade DE, which is readily available.
I have heard some chicken raisers use a bit of DE is feed to keep internal parasites under control, but I only use it by putting down a bit in the areas where they enjoy their dust baths and I put some down in their nesting boxes under the pine shavings.
While it is only needed in Winter, the ability to provide a source of fresh water that doesn’t get frozen is pretty vital to chickens. Of course, my dogs share their water with the chickens and expect the same in return.
In my case, my chicken run has power available to it, so it is easy for me to just get a heated waterer and plug it in. We have power because we have our run butted up against a nice tough shed that has power. We have been pretty lucky in how some of our earlier decisions have helped out.
Sure, chickens can get wet, and they will be fine. After all, they are outdoor animals. However, being wet takes away from their ability to keep themselves warm. One of the keys to our run was that we bought clear poly roofing panels that are supported with 2×3 wood studs. So far, they have held up to a couple of really heavy snow storms. If I had to redo it, I would turn the 2×3’s on their side to provide even better support for the roofing panels.
We were also told that it is a good idea to staple some plastic sheeting on the sides of the run to keep out blowing rain and snow. I will take it off once the weather warms up, but it has certainly been a big benefit to the chickens.
I cleared off a corner to show the roofing. It was fairly cheap, and provides a great deal of additional warmth in the cold months.
Keeping chickens protected from predators is another very important concern. Of course, most of us recognize this, but I don’t think we all look at the most common predator for chickens: domestic dogs.
I thought we might lose a chicken to a hawk, a raccoon, or even a skunk, but I never thought about dogs being our biggest concern.
We lost one chicken to a friend’s dog (our fault for not watching over it) that just wanted to play with the chickens, and its prey drive kicked in.
We lost another chicken to a neighborhood dog that jumped our fence. It killed the poor bird and ate about a fourth of it. It also wounded two of our other chickens. This terrier jumped over a four foot fence into a neighbor’s yard, then jumped over another four foot fence into our yard.
We made a quick run to the parent’s house, and found him in our yard and piles of feathers everywhere. It was horrible.
Now, we have a 6’ high fence all around to help protect our hens from future disasters. My recommendations:
- High fences around the yard.
- Bushes and other cover that chickens can run under if there are hawks or eagles in the area and they need to run and hide.
- Good strong hardware fabric (a little different than chicken wire). Make sure that when you use this in your runs and coops that you it can extend into the ground a bit to help keep chickens safe from digging predators.
- High roosts for the chickens to fly and jump to so they can evade ground predators.
I never even thought about this being a danger, but I have seen too many reports of people having their coops catch fire, and also their houses.
Supplemental heat is not needed. I have to admit that I was not fully believing everyone, but common sense took over. There are small birds all around the neighborhood all Winter long. They can survive. What convinced me, though, was picking up one of my chickens on a day when it was about 4 degrees F outside. My fingers felt the warmth in the down and feathers. It was pretty clear that she was not cold, at all. In the worst nights, they would just all huddle together, and they stayed plenty warm.
What really sold me on them not needing additional heat was that my Rhode Island Reds were still laying eggs in the bitter cold. Granted, it wasn’t every day, but we were still getting eggs every other day from them.
This really seemed counter-intuitive to me. What do you mean, they need good air ventilation? Won’t that mean heat loss?
Yes, ventilation means heat loss, but most importantly, it also means that the humidity from their poop has a place to go. The moisture in the air is more detrimental than any heat loss that they might have from the air transfer with the outside.
Please note, this does not mean that drafts are OK. Ventilation is very different than drafts.
Those that support supplemental light say that chickens will lay more during the short days in the Winter. This is, somewhat, true.
The other side of the argument is that chickens should be allowed the time to recover from the stresses of egg production every now and then, and nature provides that natural break with the Winter months. Another reason for allowing chickens to reduce production in the Winter is that chickens only have so many eggs in them when hatched, and by forcing them to produce more during the Winter only reduces their laying lifetime.
I chose to go with nature’s plan.