How Cold Is Too Cold for Your Chickens?

Cold chicken walking in the snow

This article is going to focus on answering the question, “How cold is too cold for my chickens?” We’ll also discuss exactly how you should prepare your chickens for the winter months. 

Do My Chickens Need a Heat Lamp in the Winter?

Chickens can actually deal quite well with cold temperatures. Their bodies are equipped with a plumage (their feathers) which is comprised of several layers of protection to trap warm air near their skin.

If you look closely at molting chickens, you’ll notice that they have different types of feathers, which help to form several insulating layers.

  • Contoured plumage feathers, which means the feathers are shaped to the bird’s body to offer increased warmth
  • Wispy feathers, which are closest to the skin; they’re fluffy so they trap warm air against the chicken’s body like a cozy blanket
  • And a combination of contoured and wispy feathers
Six chickens around snow

Adding to those layers is the fact that chickens have an exceptionally high metabolic rate that also works hard to keep them warm. By high, I mean their heart rate can reach 400 beats per minute. This makes them extremely resistant to cold temperatures.

Simply put, chickens can survive in temperatures well below freezing, but I wouldn’t overdo it.

Also, keep in mind that chickens living together in a coop will generate their own heat, so when the outside temperature drops, your coop will be a little warmer.

There are a lot of people living in extremely cold climates like Alaska that keep chickens all year long without any added heat. As long as your coop is weatherproof, you’ll likely be okay. But surviving and thriving are not the same thing. We want our chickens to thrive since it’s our responsibility to care for them

Preparing Chickens for Winter

Now that we know our chickens can survive in extremely low temperatures, it’s time to make sure they can thrive in these same climates. Here is a quick look at some essentials that you’ll need to stock up for winter. 

Chicken Feed: Make sure you have enough to last up to two full weeks. Scratch should also be included in this category. 

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Water: Fill up several plastic containers with water just in case something happens where you can’t access it for a few days. The rule of thumb is that one gallon of water will hydrate eight chickens for one day. Make sure you have enough water stores for up to three days. 

Balm or Petroleum Jelly: You need a large can of this in order to protect wattles and combs. 

Bedding: Most people use straw but you can use anything you want. Chickens hate walking on snow so give them comfortable bedding. 

Feeding Chickens in Winter

Three chickens around snow

First off, you can feed chickens greens or fruits once a week as a treat but this is not always cost-efficient. However, it does keep them happy. One way you can try this is to talk to a supermarket manager in your area. They tend to throw away old and slightly damaged fruits and vegetables. These might not be good for humans, but they are a perfect treat for chickens. Sometimes managers might let you have it or sell it at a huge discount just to get something out of it. 

Treats are one thing, but your chickens must have food of some kind at all times. As stated above, make sure you have enough feed for two weeks just in case of an emergency.

Each evening, you should throw some chicken scratch or corn out because they help keep the bird’s digestive system working through the night. This adds warmth to their body. Just be moderate with this. Try aiming for two beaks-full per chicken. 

Watering Chickens in Winter

Water is a huge problem during winter unless you are invested enough to have heated drinkers. But those without this luxury are going to struggle. You will have to make three or four trips per day to make sure that your birds are properly hydrated because it doesn’t take long for the water to start freezing.

You can also try using heavy plastic bowls so that the ice takes longer to form. When it does, it’s also easier to remove the ice from a plastic bowl. 

Some experts also suggest giving your chickens Apple Cider Vinegar and vitamin powder at least once per week.

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Keep Your Chickens Dry and Warm in Winter

This is an essential step. You cannot have a damp coop during the colder months and you cannot have drafts blowing through either. Chickens require a safe place that they can turn to when the wind is blowing or during cold precipitation. While your coop must be well ventilated, this air should not blow directly onto your birds. 

If your coop happens to be draft, then luckily enough there is a way you can address the problem. Try wrapping it in Tyvek or a cheaper tar paper to see if it eliminates the draft. It only takes a few hours and your birds will be so much happier. 

Vents are placed above the heads of your chickens so that moist air can move out of the coop. When chickens sleep, they release moisture into the air surrounding them. This moisture is not healthy for the flock so it needs a place to escape. If it is allowed to build up, then it can turn into mold spores that will cause the chickens to get sick. 

Keeping the area protected from rainwater is just as important. When birds get soaked, their feathers cannot act as intended. The bird will get sick and could even die from hypothermia

Should I Put a Heat Lamp in My Chicken Coop?

This is a common question every winter. It really just boils down to personal preference. Chickens do not require extra heating until the temperature drops down into the single digits. So in most cases, the answer is going to be no. Here’s why:

  • Chickens are coated in feathers that keep them warm even when the temperature gets down in the teens.
  • Heat lamps are a fire hazard unless they are installed correctly.
  • Too much heat is not healthy for chickens. They will also become too dependent on it so they will not be able to withstand the cold as much. 
Chicken in the coop in cold winter

Chickens themselves will actually heat up a coop. Each one is about the equivalent of a 10-watt bulb! When they are piled together then it will generate a lot of heat. 

If you do think that your coop requires heat, then you should avoid heat lamps. Use something like a small oil filled radiator. 

Make sure you add bedding made of straw because it will also help keep chickens warm. This is a cheap option that works wonders. 

If you are raising free-range chickens, then you should make sure there is straw laid out for your birds. They will not walk on snow. Plus, they will need a place to hide from hawks and other predators – not to mention places to stay warm. Predators are especially hungry during winter months since food is scarce. They will be more aggressive so make sure your birds have a place to hide. 

How to Use the Deep Litter Method

Simply put, the deep litter method is a later of organic matter like pine shavings that is placed over the floor. This is an amazing way to manage the litter of your flock while also providing additional insulation during the cold winter months. Rather than being forced to clean waste that your birds accumulate, all you will need to do is stir up this litter with a rake. Then the movement of the flock does the rest. 

When you do this the right way by topping with pine shavings, the litter will form compost that is inviting to healthy microbes. These will eat away the unhealthy bacteria of the chicken’s waste. It also insulates the coop even further, keeping it warmer. 

Use Sunlight to Trap Heat for Night

You should be using as much natural heat as possible to help keep the costs down on your chickens. So using the sun to keep your coops warm for longer into the night is a really neat trick. Install a few well-insulated windows so the sunlight is trapped inside. Then it will stay warm for longer once the sun sets. 

Thermal mass is also important for this method. Simply put, it’s the measure of how much heat absorbing materials you have inside of the coop. The more heat that can be absorbed before nightfall, the longer it will stay warm. Compost, stone, and concrete have a high thermal mass rating. 

Add a Sunroom

Many owners fall prey to the temptation to keep their chickens locked away completely from the cold but they will actually benefit more if you install a sunroom. It gives them more space to move around and provides fresh air. To do this, build a greenhouse-style room for your coop and cover it with clear plastic to keep it sheltered from the rain. 

Chickens will move to this room when they are uncomfortable in the normal areas. 

The Bottom Line

It has to be extremely cold weather in order to become dangerous to chickens because they have an uncanny ability to adapt to low temperatures. The biggest threat is their drinking water turning into ice. Then predators would be the second biggest threat, but that applies to free-range chickens. You will need to take preventative measures to protect from these two factors. 

Charles Joseph

I've been raising chickens since 2012 -- initially for their eggs and to keep our yard clear of bugs and now as pets. If you're interested, you can read my story here.

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