9 tips for keeping chickens in the winter

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Winter Chicken Keeping ….now in Maine!

We’re new to Maine. Winter chicken keeping in Maine has got to be the ultimate test for anyone. Although I grew up in New England and our family raised chickens, having them as a kid and basically only being responsible for collecting eggs is far different than raising them as an adult and having sole responsibility for their livelihoods. Plus, Massachusetts isn’t quite as cold and snowy as central Maine is! So moving to Maine with our flock of nearly two dozen chickens and ducks last August, I was understandably a bit nervous about how they would fare this winter. Fortunately I know some winter chicken keeping tips.

Moving to Maine

I had been raising chickens in Virginia for several years before my husband and I relocated to central Maine last August  when he retired from the Navy. We had wanted to get up here a bit earlier in the year to allow the chickens in particular (ducks are naturally pretty cold-hardy) to acclimate to the colder climate and have a chance to molt and grow in new feathers well before winter set in, but the timing worked out that it was mid-August before we arrived on our new farm.

We rushed to get our new coop set up and our run built before the weather got too cold, and the chickens molted right on schedule in late fall. And then winter set in. I crossed my fingers. Chickens generally do well in the cold, but moving them 900 miles north would certainly be a test of their mettle. In Virginia, temperatures rarely dipped below freezing for more than a few days in a row and never went below zero. Here in Maine, I know the winter temperatures often don’t reach freezing, even during the day, for days or weeks on end and wind chills well below zero are the norm. So my winter chicken keeping has been ramped up to a whole new level.

Fortunately this winter has been a very mild one in Maine. Our lowest temperature has been -4 with a wind chill down to -16. And that was only once. There has been some snow (far less than Maine “enjoyed” last year, but far more than my Southern hens are used to), and relatively mild temperatures. Overall, it’s been a good winter to let us all acclimate to our new home.

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The chickens are doing great. They have been outside for at least part of every day. I leave the little pop door in the coop open all day, and lock it at night, allowing them the choice to be inside the coop or out. I’ve not seen any signs of frostbite (white or black spots on their combs or wattles, black feet or legs) nor are they shivering or suffering any signs of hypothermia (lethargy, lying on one side, cold to the touch, ice crystals forming on the feathers).

The ducks are unfazed. They walk on the snow, try to swim in it and love eating it. I’m not worried about them! They enjoy the snow nearly as much as our dogs do! I’ve filled a kiddie pool for the ducks every day that our hose unfreezes in the afternoon sun. They will swim when the temperatures are in the thirties and forties without blinking an eye.

9 Winter Chicken Keeping Tips

But back to the chickens. I was worried about them. Cold is one thing, Maine is another. Our coop is not heated. Heat often contributes to frostbite since it creates moisture. Heated coops often catch on fire. It’s heartbreaking every winter to read stories of entire flocks lost to a coop fire. Heat lamp bulbs can also break, or if you lose power or the bulb burns out overnight, your chickens actually can freeze to death, not being used to the cold temperatures. So we don’t heat our coop. Instead we do a few things to keep our chickens warm naturally.

  1. We use the Deep Litter Method. It’s an old timers method of in-coop composting that is easy, economical and creates some natural heat inside the coop.
  2. Even if you don’t use the Deep Litter Method, lots of fresh straw on the floors and stacked along the walls of your coop make for excellent “insulation” against the cold.
  3. Right size coop for our flock. I didn’t want a huge coop for our flock here in Maine. Chickens generate a fair amount of body heat and if you have the correct number of chickens in your coop, they can manage to keep the coop warm using that body heat. (Rule of thumb: 3-4 square feet of coop floor space for each hen and 8” of roosting bar)
  4. Scratch grains before bed. When chickens digest grains and seeds overnight, that creates energy which helps to keep them warm. I toss a few handfuls of cracked corn, sunflower seeds or mixed grains such as barley, millet and oats to our chickens about an hour before dusk.
  5. Create a wind block for them. I wrapped a corner of the run in clear plastic. Not only does it create a nice wind break and encourage them outside in nice sunny days, the clear plastic lets the sun in and creates a bit of a greenhouse effect in the run.
  6. Shoveling paths and putting down straw will encourage your chickens to come outside without having to step in the snow. Unlike the ducks, chickens aren’t big fans of walking on it. Getting outside and getting exercise and fresh air is important for your chickens.
  7. Logs and stumps in the run allow your chickens to get up off the cold, snowy or icy ground, as do some outdoor roosts. A sawhorse makes a wonderful movable roost.
  8. I offer warming winter treats to our chickens like cooked oatmeal with raisins or dried cranberries and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper (cayenne pepper is supposed to increase circulation, reducing the chance of frostbite and increasing your chickens’ body heat) and homemade suet cakes made with cooking grease or coconut oil and chopped nuts and seeds.
  9. Snow is a great insulator. Piling banks of snow around your coop will actually keep it warmer inside, and banks of snow along the sides of your run create a good windbreak as well.

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Providing your chickens fresh unfrozen water is also very important year round and can be a challenge in the winter. I’ll be talking in a future article about some tricks I’ve learned to make that easier – even here where the temperatures often stay well below freezing for days or weeks on end.

Doing these few simple things have really been helping our chickens get through their first Maine winter. I’m sure they are wishing they were back in Virginia right now, but come summer, they will be grateful for the lower temperatures and humidity here than they had to deal with in the South. Heat is far harder on chicken, and most animals, than the cold, so all in all, they should be much happier living in Maine. I know we are! And I feel comfortable with my winter chicken keeping skills.

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Lisa Steele

About Lisa Steele

I am a bestselling author and freelance writer who also happens to be a fifth generation chicken keeper. I grew up in Massachusetts across the street from my grandparents chicken farm and raised chickens and rabbits as a kid. After college and a brief stint on Wall Street, I got married and spent the next decade as a Navy wife on a farm in Virginia. Now, my husband has retired and we've moved to Maine, ready to continue our farm journeys with our flock of chickens and ducks.