Fowl Keeping Tips for Winter Success!
One of the most asked topics we receive this time of year is how to keep fowl warm in the winter. This is a very broad topic so in this post we will briefly go over some tips we have used with success here at our farm. These tips apply to all fowl we carry, not just chickens but ducks, geese, quail, guinea, and turkeys.
This topic is really customized based on location, and your climate. We are fortunate to have lived in Southern California where temps in Winter were rarely under 40 degrees, evenings possibly cooler but to us that was cold! For your birds, they acclimate to the conditions in their area. Here in Vermont – we get cold! Like bone chilling cold into the negatives, we are only 1.5 hrs from Canada. This makes Winter unique in that we have to prepare for temps in the negatives and address freezing conditions. We would love to discuss the why and the anatomy of birds and how they stay warm, we will cover that in another blog post.
Housing setups can vary. Depending on types of fowl, location and weather. For Winter, housing should be draft free and ventilated. Ventilation is critical in all seasons but for Winter it is extra important to keep the air flowing. Birds need air flow for good health, remember there is significant ammonia buildup from their droppings. No ventilation will cause humidity with wet conditions and sickness. We generally have our ventilation areas in the rafters, roof pitch areas and some areas that are not “tightly” built. Don’t have any drafts where they sleep, play or roost. With housing in the Winter, we want an area for comfort from the elements, an area for fun an entertainment – they do get bored in the Winter, and area for egg laying if this is what you are wanting. Check out our post on chicken boredom busters.
Depending on where you live and what is available, bedding is important for overall health and warmth. In our area the goal is warmth and keeping ammonia buildup at bay. We also have certain bedding materials readily available. Our suggestions will be geared towards that.
Peat Moss – we use peat moss all year. It absorbs ammonia really well. That is always our base layer. We don’t use it exclusively because of the dust. Peat moss is available at your local garden centers. Stock up in the Spring, not sure if available in the Winter. If you are in a warmer climate, this is a great choice all year round.
Pine Shavings – we use this as our second layer. Depending on the coop, the configuration and number of birds, you could do both of these successfully and create deep litter. We use large flake shavings.
Deep litter works by piling new bedding on top of old every day. The key is to create a deep enough litter that it naturally composts. There is aerobic and anerobic composting. You will not be able to get a hot compost or aerobic compost in a small setting, it is just not possible. If you have a very large area or barn you can achieve this using the right ingredients and practices. If using deep litter and properly done, there will be no smell and you will see it breaking down over time. If it smells, turn add more bedding. You generally don’t change out the bedding until Spring! When doing deep litter, we add in hydrated lime which helps break down the litter more rapidly and absorb odors.
Hay – hay is another type of bedding folks use. Hay is good and bad. For general use in Winter I suggest piling up as many bales as you can. We use bales for wind and draft reduction and in many cases as part of our deep litter program. We use mulch hay NOT hay for eating. It is too damp and can cause aspergillosis in birds. WET HAY IS VERY BAD FOR BIRDS. I can’t stress that enough, so use cautiously. If using hay as your bedding source any wet hay must be replaced immediately with dry. We love using hay in the Winter in our runs, structures and coop areas. The birds love hay. Tip: Remember to have grit free choice, it will help breakdown the hay if they eat it.
Straw – we dont typically use straw here. It is more costly and not readily available. Straw is great bedding for waterfowl. We do prefer it over hay since it seems to keep longer when wet. If using for other birds, use just like hay above.
Shredded Leaves – we use shredded leaves as part of our deep littler program. If you have access to lots of fallen dry leaves, save those in bags, as many as you can. They will need to be shredded though, if the leaves are left whole, they trap moisture and disease, so they do the opposite! We have not had much success doing leaves alone and it will not alone keep them warm in the Winter.
Sand – we don’t recommend sand ever and, in the Winter, it will most likely keep them colder. Sand traps disease and bacteria especially if not done correctly with proper drainage and depth. We found it to be not very sanitary and do you recall fowl being born on a beach? I don’t think so.
Other Choices – we have not tried the following since not in our area: hemp, rice hulls, shredded paper (seems like too much work).
To Heat or Not to Heat?
This is a topic that is constantly brought up on Chicken forums, groups and sites. Heating the coops. Our recommendation is do what you think is best! These are your birds and you know what is best for them. There are many safe and reliable choices if you choose to heat them. If not, that is ok too. this is really a personal decision and with a little guidance you can make the best choice for your situation and circumstances. Chickens body temperatures are naturally 105-107 degrees. They are toasty little birds! Waterfowl goes without saying – they do excellent in the Winter and in fact they have veins in their feet and toes to help with warmth.
Choosing to not heat is a decision. Your fowl will acclimate to the conditions they are presented with as long as you provide ventilation, good bedding and some insulation if needed. Birds are good in numbers. Having many of them to cuddle close to when roosting is very important for heat. They can help each other out. A single bird will not generate enough heat alone and you risk them getting frostbite and very cold. If you find it will be dropping into the negatives or extremely low put tons of hay in there around the roosts and birds for that night to help. Make sure all windows and doors are closed no drafts, check your thermometer. You can even limit where they go so, they use their body heat effectively.
Under no circumstances do we ever suggest using a heat lamp and heat bulb – 150-250 watt red or white. They are extremely dangerous. There are several safe heating alternatives. The key is to heat only the roosting area. This is where they will spend most of their time when cold and will help keep them regulated, prevent frostbite and comb damage. There are flat panel heaters, hanging heaters that are very safe and our 2 favorites are Sweeter Heaters and Carbon Fiber Heaters. Sweeter Heaters are very safe, effective, low energy cost. The Carbon fiber heaters are for large areas like barns and large sheds. We have some fowl that have beautiful combs and can’t afford those to get damaged. You can use for waterfowl but we don’t find it necessary. Turkeys and Guineas are fine without heat. Quail depending on your setup can be helpful. For quail we insulate and provide an area of deep bedding for comfort and warmth with no heat.
As the amount of daylight decreases so does the bird’s production. They are now in a state of repair and rest for the Winter, this is a time where we give our fowl a break in order for their bodies to be at their peak performance in Spring, like nature intended. This is mainly a survival mechanism as their offspring would have a very small chance of surviving during a cold winter.
This state of repair during Winter is crucial for layers, because laying eggs throughout the Summer places a huge amount of stress on their body and without this break they will eventually burn out. This is why battery hens are culled within 2 years because their bodies have simply burned out through constant egg laying production.
All fowl eat for their energy requirements. During the Winter, the body needs energy to maintain and keep itself warm. The amount of feed eaten will increase as temperatures decrease because birds need more energy in order to stay warm, it is natures design. Slightly higher protein and more carbohydrates is needed in the winter. They will especially need grit in the Winter. We have a feed custom designed for this season, it helps us here on the farm make sure our breeders and bids are getting everything they need. Adult Winter Feed Blend Non-GMO
For feeding, when selecting feeds or water supplementation, choose more carbohydrates, always complete nutrition and we always add something to our water. The cold or damp conditions can bring stress and stress can lower immunity. We put Oregano Oil in their water daily to help with immunity protection.
Scratch or Cracked Corn – we keep cracked corn on hand in the really cold months of Winter. We give this to all our fowl when we have temps in the negatives or single digits. There is really no nutritional value to these however they do provide a bonus of warmth! We recommend feeding them an hour before bed, this way it slowly digests in their tummies and hence keeps them warm. We have noticed a difference when we do this.
- Keep excess moisture out of the coop, eliminate any drafts, and do not allow cold air to blow directly on the birds.
- Administer VetRx on the combs to help stimulate the capillary blood vessels just under the dermis and bring more warm blood closer to the surface of the comb to help prevent frostbite. See blog post here on this.
- Eliminate as much stress as you can, protecting underweight or marginally healthy birds as they are most vulnerable.
- Feed birds as late as possible to make sure that all consume a sufficient quantity of feed before going to roost while allowing them to give off the maximum amount of body heat. Make sure all birds are properly hydrated so they will achieve maximum efficiency digesting their feed.
- Have a good feed program in Winter and use cracked corn or scratch ONLY before bed for slow digestion and warmth.
- Provide ample roost space so that all birds can be together for maximum heat utilization. If you must use a heat source, choose one that is economical and safe. Monitor your flock during the cold weather for symptoms of hypothermia and take the appropriate action to relieve these conditions. Some symptoms include pale or dark blue- to black-looking comb, dark mouth tissues, rapid breathing, and darkened skin color.
- No wet bedding, monitor wet bedding.
- Check fowl for bugs – mites, lice, etc. This can lower immunity and eventually kill your fowl. Provide a winter dust bath if you can.
- If you find a bird that is experiencing any of these symptoms, warm the bird by wrapping it in a warm towel, then administer warm liquids orally. A bird’s body temperature will rise faster when being given warm fluids orally.
Nicolle, aka The Fowl Guru, has been raising animals for over 20 years, and a self-trained fowl expert. She is one of the founders and owners of Sugar Feather Farm LLC, mother of 5 children and consultant for Civil Engineering firms. Nicolle is a Certified Vermont Master Composter and volunteer for several charity organizations. Nicolle offers consultations and mentorships to fowl enthusiasts who have concerns or questions.
Sugar Feather Farms LLC are producers of this article, and all pictures and information are copyrighted information and not to be used without permission from Sugar Feather Farm.
I wanted to thank you for such thorough informative articles! I am not new to raising chickens however your articles go beyond the basics of most articles I read. Keep up the good work. From a neighbor here in Maine.
Dear Robin – thank you so much for the feedback. We try to be as helpful as we can. Appreciate you!