This post is our sixth post in our Managing Chickens Series. You can read previous posts by clicking the following links:
Although we have touched on the topic of how we handle the cold weather in some of the previous posts, we decided to dedicate an entire post to the topic to bring all the information into one place and to go into more detail.
We live in the high-altitude Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Our winters involve times of bitter cold, where the temperatures drop down to the -20s and -30s at night. We sometimes go several days without the daytime temperatures getting above the single digits. We also have quite a lot of wind. Several times each winter we will get gusts up to 60-80 mph. We also get snow. We have snow storms from October through May. Our deepest snows occur in the spring when we are not getting our coldest temperatures. We usually have a spring blizzard or two that drop 4-6 feet of snow on us. The great thing about our snow is that because of the huge amounts of sunshine we get, the ground is not covered with snow all winter because we have several melts throughout the winter that get rid of it before the fresh stuff falls again. However, shady spots can keep snow all winter long.
Bitter cold temperatures, wind, snow, and high altitude can be a recipe for disaster with chickens if you aren’t prepared. We have found several ways that work for us to raise our chickens successfully in our climate.
All of our housing is double walled (exterior wall and interior wall with space in between), insulated (in the space in between the walls), and the wall cracks are sealed to prevent drafts. We have used many different types of insulation – most of the time it just depends what we have on hand when we are building our coops. Our favorite insulation for the coops is wool. When a fleece is shorn off of a sheep there is quite a bit of un-useable fiber. The fiber from the legs, belly, and rear end are usually ruined with hay, straw, and sheep waste. Once the fleece comes off the sheep it is laid out flat and “skirted.” Skirting means removing the waste wool from the edges so it doesn’t contaminate the whole fleece. We keep this wool from our sheep and use it for insulation in the chicken coops. We have also been able to get this wool from our breeder since she shears so many sheep so many times a year she often throws away the skirtings – she is happy for us to take them away for her. If it is dry it doesn’t smell at all and it provides excellent insulation value. It is also a deterrent to rodents. Mice and other rodents do not like lanolin, which is an oil found naturally in sheep’s wool. All of these things help keep the drafts out and give them an excellent shelter to go to out of the wind.
At this point we do still use heat lamps in our coops. We are working to breed our chickens to be extremely cold hardy, but since we are still in the early years of our selective breeding program, and it gets so very cold here, the chickens are not yet able to handle the severe cold that we are dealing with. Heat lamps are absolutely a fire hazard in a barn or coop. We had one fall into the shavings early in our farming experience and almost burn down the coop and barn. Thankfully, we heard our farm dog barking and went to investigate. We got there before the flames broke out, but there was plenty of smoke and some minor damage. We take the use of heat lamps very cautiously and seriously.
Almost all of our heat lamps are installed into a light fixture. We put a 100-watt heat bulb into a normal light fixture in the coop.
However, this doesn’t always work and we sometimes need the lamp to be closer to the ground, as is true in the Mama Hen Pen that has a 9-foot ceiling. In these cases we hang the heat lamp from the rafters on a metal chain.
Almost all of our heat lamps are on thermostats. The exceptions are the ones used for the mama hens – the one in the Broody Coop and the one in the Mama Hen Pen. Those two run constantly and we turn them off when they are not needed. But the rest of the heat lamps are on thermostats set for about 35-45F.
The last thing we do in our housing to help with the cold is use the deep-bed method of bedding the housing. We use pine shavings and put about 12-18 inches of them in each coop. We keep our waterers outside, so the bedding stays dry. The bedding gets cleaned out completely whenever needed – which is usually only about 4 times a year.
We free-feed our chickens store-bought chicken feed. We have never had a problem with this since we free-range them. They never hang around the feeders and chow for hours, nor do they sit there and wait for their next meal. They choose to go scratch in the compost heap and eat the scraps we provide them before they choose to eat the feed. Some birds are better at this than others, but we have never had a problem. I have heard some people have a problem with free-feeding their flocks.
In addition to their store-bought feed our chickens are given plenty of kitchen scraps. All of our plates are scraped for the chickens, as long as they don’t have any chicken or egg products on them, and don’t include excess salt or sugar. We also give them all the extra cuttings off of veggies, fruits, and meats when we are preparing food.
The main thing we do differently in the bitter cold weather is to feed them hot mash twice a day. Hot mash is just store-bought chicken feed with hot water added to make it the consistency of a hot cereal that humans eat. We hot-mash the chickens anytime the temperatures are below about 15-20F. We do it right before they go to bed, and right when they wake up in the morning. So if it is 20 degrees or under at dusk we hot-mash them, and if it has gotten 20 degrees or below over night we hot-mash them in the morning. They love it and come running for their chance at some hot mash. We are careful not to give them so much that there is any left when they are all full, because that freezes into a solid mess. But we make sure to give enough that even the birds low on the pecking order can get their fill. We use the bases from large plant pots to feed them the mash.
Keeping water thawed and drinkable can be a challenge in the winter. We use “chicken nipple” spouts attached to the bottom of 5-gallon buckets to water our chickens. We have tried many methods to keep them thawed, but finally found the best option this year. We use sinking bucket de-icers down in the buckets. So far, the one we purchased that sits about 1/2 inch off the bottom of the bucket and is 500 watts has been able to keep the spouts thawed all the way down to -24F. It is in a bucket that is kept outside all the time. And we have not had trouble with it damaging the plastic of the bucket, nor keeping the water too warm. The thermostatic control in it seems to work just right for the 5 gal bucket. We use lids on the buckets that have a hole in them (the kind for painters). This makes it easy to run the power cord down the rope that the bucket hangs on and through the hole on the lid.
As you can see in the pictures above (the 2 pictures with brooding hens in them), we use small gravity waterers (the ones with yellow plastic bottoms) in the Broody Coop and Mama Hen Pen. Husband used duct tape to make a hook on top of those to hang them in those areas. Those are hung close enough to the heat lamps in those areas to keep the water thawed.
We have dealt with frostbite both on feet and on combs & wattles.
The severe foot frostbite we had was due to a broken toe. We don’t think he would have gotten the severity of frostbite he did if his toe hadn’t gotten broken. We have had a few hens get mild frostbite on just the tips of their toes as well. This is one of the reasons we are working to breed the feathered feet into our stock.
We have had severe frostbite on both combs and wattles. We are now choosing stock with small combs and wattles and are also selectively breeding them to get them even smaller. Our rate of frostbite this winter has been much much lower than previous years, so it seems the selective breeding is going in the right direction. We are hoping to get it completely under control next year.
We treat the frostbitten combs and wattles with a homemade herbal salve to help heal them and protect them as much as possible.
We are continuing to learn new ways to help the chickens survive the bitter cold and continuing to selectively breed them to withstand it on their own as well. For now, the methods I have listed are working well to help keep them healthy and happy through the long winter months.