Welcome to part #7 of our Raising Backyard Chickens series. Urban chicken raising is easier than you think! You can raise backyard chickens for eggs in a rural yard, suburb and even the city! Not to mention, it is a fun project for the whole family and a very rewarding one when you can enjoy farm fresh eggs – as fresh as possible! This is part of a series that will walk you through Raising Backyard Chickens step-by-step. Next up…how to help your chickens survive their first winter!
I think getting chickens through their first winter is arguably one of the harder parts of having chickens. Your pullets have all their feathers, but they are not yet winter-hardened. The important thing is keeping them alive while properly preparing them for next winter. Some people put heat lamps on their coop and keep their chickens laying throughout the winter. I do not recommend this for several reasons.
- Fire hazard. Running a hot lamp inside a wooden coop stuffed with straw is dangerous. You have to know exactly what you’re doing, which I don’t, so I’m not going to recommend it in this article.
- Detriments to the chicken’s health. Chickens are wired to have a rest from laying during the winter. If you don’t let them have it, you’ll have tired out hens who burn out and stop laying much earlier than hens who get a rest.
- Difficulties in winters to come. If you use a heat lamp, your chickens can’t deal with the cold this winter or any winter to come. You’ll have to do all the same prepping every single year.
- Danger to escaped chickens. Chickens who have heat lamps all winter don’t go through a normal moult, they are not prepared to deal with cold weather. Which means the chicken who escapes the coop is going to find themselves in temperatures they can’t handle and they will quickly freeze to death.
In light of all these hazards, I do not recommend a lamp on the coop at all.
Above is a picture of what we did with our coop the first winter. I’ll explain more in steps below.
- We piled the coop and run with straw. Enough so the chickens could huddle together and have straw up to their combs.
- We put straw bales up against the sides of the run. This insulated the run, cutting down on drafts and allowing the hens to use their body heat to stay warm.
- We put plywood on top of the run, then piled straw on it, then covered the whole thing with a shower curtain.
- We piled logs up against the open space under the coop, once again reducing wind chill.
After all this was done, the coop was fairly cozy! Your hens should be fine with this if you usually confine them, but if they are normally free range, get ready to have some grouchy chickens! Keep in mind that it’s okay to let them out in the snow as long as you are there to keep an eye on them. If they start to huddle away from the snow, put them back right away.
Another thing that makes winters tough is water. Chickens can’t drink ice, obviously, so you need to make sure they always have access to water that’s not frozen. Best way to do this? Buy a heated waterer. I don’t have one but I’ve always wanted one, it would make things so much easier. So if you can, do it! You’ll save yourself a lot of time. This is how I do the water without one, though. I like to use a large container, because it doesn’t freeze as quickly and they can’t knock it over(especially if you have ducks too, they will swim in anything no matter how small so you need to be sure they can’t tip it.). Check the water at least 3 times a day. Don’t bother worrying about them at night, chickens are completely diurnal and rarely try to drink at night anyway. Just make sure they have water early in the morning. Yes, going outside at 8 in the morning when it’s below freezing out is so much fun, I know. 😉 But chickens get dehydrated fairly easily, so it’s a must unless you have a heated waterer.
Food is a pretty simple matter. Just always keep a good quality layer feed out for them, it’s not good for them to go without when it’s cold out because they burn so much energy.
One last thing: Do not assume your chickens will go in the coop at night. They most likely won’t, at least not the first year. Instead you’ll find them roosting somewhere, freezing. You’ll probably have to bring them in at night. Good news is, chickens generally just stay still and let themselves be carried once it’s dark out.
This article was written by Erin, a pro at raising her own chickens and eggs in her family’s backyard! She’s just a teen, but loves animals of all kinds and wants to be a veterinarian and is studying to do so. In addition to raising chickens, she raises ducks, geese and bunnies in her family’s urban backyard!
Be sure to check out the entire Egg Page with lots of tips on eggs (including raising the chickens for your own and the rest of this series!)