What Do We Do For Our Chickens In The Winter?
We've received the question a few times, as a farm that experiences some pretty serious winters, what do we do during those months to keep our chickens warm?
Chickens aren’t exactly what people would consider “winter animals”. Usually, when one thinks of animals well adapted for the cold, they’d think of things like polar bears, penguins, or yetis.
But believe it or not, chickens do have an innate potential for dealing with colder climates. While there are things we humans can do to provide them a better chance of survival, it’s in their best interest that we stay as hands-off as possible and allow them to harness their own innate resilience. In our book, a resilient chicken is a healthy chicken, and a healthy chicken is one that supplies healthy meals.
Maslows Hierarchy Of Chicken Needs
When it comes to caring for or chickens, there’s not much we do differently in the winter than any other season. Although it does get much wetter here from December to March, that’s not so much of an issue for our chickens so long as we have their basic need covered - an option to get away from it all. The number one amenity a chicken needs on the farm is a covered structure to seek shelter from inclement weather. So long as they have a roof, a place where they feel secure, not much else matters for a chicken. (Some attention and words of praise certainly don't hurt, of course.)
Even Igloos would work...a roof made of ice is better than no roof at all!
Who Turned The Oven On?
The most common misconception we’ve seen with handling chickens in the winter is that you, their owner, should provide extra heat inside their coop. Although it may seem like common sense to keep your chickens warm, doing so with an external heat source can actually increase their risk of frostbite or death.
As soon as they’re fully feathered, chickens are regulating their internal temperatures around the clock. Once they’re in the habit of self-reliance for keeping warm, any external heat source can disrupt that behavior. The risk in that is if the heat source experiences a sudden power outage, or if a coop door opens unexpectedly. The sudden and drastic shift in temperature to a chicken, one that’s been lulled into complacency and is no longer working to keep itself warm, can be fatal. So, as counterintuitive as it may be, the best heat source for your chickens is no heat source.
Start giving chickens too much help and all sorts of crazy stuff happens
Water Doesn’t Have Feathers
While chickens do a fine job of keeping themselves warm, there is the issue of their water…
Unlike chickens, water doesn’t have its own circulatory system to keep it moving and prevent it from freezing when temperatures start to drop. That’s one area where a little outside intervention is required. Whereas some companies sell power-generated water heaters to keep a bird’s waterer warm, we at Fulcrum Farm use a cheaper and more “natural” method.
We have a simple system that leverages the warmth of active compost to keep water winter-ready all season long. The setup looks like this: we have a large trough that we store water in and next to it is a big heaping pile of compost. We use beer grains from a local brewery as the nitrogen layer and add woodchips on top as the carbon layer until the compost heaps are full. A rubber tube takes the water from the trough, runs through the middle of the compost heap, and back into the trough. The heat that is produced naturally from the compost acts to warm the water all winter long and costs us minimally!
Let Thy Chickens Be Chickens
The beautiful part about raising animals of any kind is that the more you allow an animal to do what it does naturally, the easier life gets as a farmer. Of course, there will always be issues that arise, farming will never be “easy”. Although, as famous farmers such as Joel Salatin have shown, the more opportunity you can give to the animal to express their true nature, the more problems they solve on their own. That’s what we find with handling chickens in the winter - we do less and they benefit more from being allowed to do what they do naturally. This is why we are able to donate as many meals as we do to veterans in our area, and why we are so committed to our farming practices and sharing them with the public!