Thinking about getting a flock of hens through their first winter in the chicken coop can be stressful for a small farmer. You may worry about a lack of eggs, frozen water, and cold, unhappy hens. But with attention to a few key details, your hens will keep laying through much of the winter, although egg production might slow down a bit. More importantly, you’ll rest easy knowing that they are comfortable and warm.
Here is a simple winter readiness checklist:
- Light. A hen’s laying is influenced by her pineal gland, which in turn is controlled by daylight. Give your birds sixteen hours of light each day, supplemented by a 60-watt incandescent light bulb or two on a timer. This is ideal for keeping them active – and laying eggs.
- Roosts. By nature, chickens like to roost at night. This is also their way to stay warm: with feathers fluffed, they share body heat by roosting close to each other. Make sure your chickens have comfortable roosts with 6-8 inches of roost space per bird.
- Heated water. Depending on how cold it gets where you live, you might need to keep the hens’ water supply from freezing. Feed stores sell heater bases that fit underneath the typical galvanized metal chicken waterers.
- Deep litter. The deep litter method is low-maintenance, and it keeps hens warm through winter as the litter and manure slowly compost and release heat into the coop. Just start with a clean coop and about 4 inches of litter (hay, straw, wood shavings, or a mix) in the summer or early fall. Simply add more litter throughout the season as needed to keep the bedding fairly dry and clean. By winter, the litter should be about 8 to 10 inches deep. It will be composting nicely and giving off heat. The chickens’ scratching will keep it aerated and turned, especially if you throw scratch grains in the coop for them, but you can give it a hand with a pitchfork every once in a while.
- Warming treats. Throw your chickens cracked corn in the evening before they settle down. As they digest the corn overnight, their bodies will stay warmer. You can also cook them some oatmeal or soften other grains, even their regular feed, with hot water, giving them a nice, warm, soft meal.
- Heat the coop? No. You generally do not want to heat your coop. For one, it can be a fire hazard. But more than that, the birds just don't need it. Follow the checklist above and your hens will do just fine.