Cold temperatures and lack of fresh forage in winter can challenge the good spirits of even the cheeriest chicken (and chicken keeper, too!). On our farm, we take several steps to keep our chickens cozy and content.
Chickens have the great physiological advantage of being equipped with built-in down jackets. But that does not mean that chickens do not need any help staying warm and comfortable in the winter.
One way that we keep our chickens cozy is to house them in a greenhouse over winter. The greenhouse plastic allows sunlight to light and warm the coop during the day. And the sturdy sides protect the chickens from chilling wind. The chickens’ own body heat helps to warm the space at night.
Keeping chickens dry in winter is actually more important than keeping them warm, as exposure to moisture can cause frostbite in chickens’ combs. To keep the moisture down, we vent our hoop house by opening one or both of the doors during the day, depending on how cold and windy it is outside.
Also, the larger a chicken’s comb, the more susceptible she is to frostbite, so we intentionally include breeds in our flock that have small combs like Ameraucana, Welsummer, and Buff Orpington chickens.
From spring through fall, our chickens spend their days foraging in the shrub steppe. Foraging supplements their diet with fresh wild shoots, sprouts, insects, and worms. In their winter quarters, our chickens do have access to three overwintering garden beds, but the freezing temperatures and snow cover do not allow for significant grazing.
While we feed our chickens a high quality, complete organic feed, we also supplement their daily winter diet with sprouted non-GMO, chemical free wheat berries and any fruit or vegetable scraps that we accumulate in our own kitchen over the course of the day. Fresh greens are vital both to the health of our hens, and to the nutritional value of their eggs.
Foraging provides chickens with both supplemental food and also mental stimulation. Chickens are happiest when they can be moving around, scratching, and pecking. Giving the chickens daily access to our garden beds gives them some room to move, which helps alleviate boredom. But their favorite wintertime activity is treasure hunting for grain in their straw bedding.
Twice a day in the winter, morning and evening, we scatter a large scoop of organic scratch grains across the top of their straw bedding. The grain filters into the straw, and the chickens find it immensely entertaining to sift through the straw to find the treats. The grain’s high carbohydrate content has an added wintertime benefit of giving the chickens energy to stay warm.
Once a week, we add a layer of fresh straw on top of the soiled straw to keep the coop clean and sweet smelling. The straw that we use contains some seed heads, so the chickens love “fresh bedding day” (usually Saturday) and the opportunities for hunting and pecking for seed heads that come with it.
This method of deep straw bedding has two more big benefits: first, as the bottom layers of soiled straw decompose, they warm up and heat the floor of the coop, and second, in the spring, the decomposed bedding makes rich garden compost.
The promise of large quantities of high quality garden compost to come certainly makes this chicken keeper feel more cheerful in the winter!