I waited to share this post, about keeping chickens warm in extreme cold weather, until winter was technically over. I didn’t want to jinx it, and was worried that the second I’d start typing up a “how-to,” I’d lose a beloved chicken to cold. We also spent a lot of time tinkering and adjusting to get everything just right, so there was a huge learning curve that happened this winter. But now that spring is technically here (so that means we have far less snow, haha), I feel comfortable sharing our tips for keeping chickens warm in winter. REAL winter, not the mild, “do I really need mitts today?” kind of winter other chicken keepers seem to have, lol. Honestly, so many people advising about chickens and winter wouldn’t know winter if it slapped them in the face. If you don’t need to plug in your vehicle just so it will start, it’s not a real winter! If you can go outside with your jacket unzipped, it’s not a real winter! If right now your daffoldils have popped up, you never had a real winter. I say this partly in jest, but also with some of the bitterness of someone who looked out on Easter Monday and saw a fresh blanket of snow on the yard. After reading so many articles about how to keep chickens warm in winter, and realizing these people lived where winters are mild, I really felt misled about how to keep chickens safe and warm in the cold.
Anyone who follows me here, or on social media, knows that our winters are long, very snowy, and often bitterly cold. Our chilliest nights have lows below -30 Celsius (-22 Farenheight) – apparently a record cold is -43.2 Celsius (-45.8 Fahrenheit) and that happened in 1996. I remember that, I remember that it being so, so cold – and these temps are without windchill which, living on Lake Superior, can be INTENSE. So I was asked how we kept the chickens warm this winter a LOT, from other chicken keepers, people interested in getting them, and people just enamored with our weird, cold climate. This winter was, comparatively, more mild – the bay here barely froze over, whereas in other years it’s been so solidly frozen neighbors have skied and snowmobiled back and forth across well into spring. Apparently January this year was the mildest it’s been in 14 years. But still, we had some days where the weather dipped to a bone chilling temperature of -30 something Celsius, and our chickens did NOT enjoy it! But they survived, and here are my tips for keeping chicken warm in extreme cold winter weather.
We Chose Cold Hardy Chicken Breeds:
The first step is to pick the right kind of chicken! When researching which breed(s) you’d like, pay particular attention to your climate. We chose a pretty cold hardy breed: the Ameraucana. It has a small pea comb too, so there’s less area susceptible to frostbite. Combs, waddles, and feet are all areas chickens are more likely to get frostbite. Pewter, my surprise roo, is not a chicken I would have chosen because his big comb was susceptible to frostbite, and although I tried my best to treat it, he did suffer some disfigurement and was, at times, visibly uncomfortable despite my best efforts. He is all healed up now, thankfully, and no other frostbite cases occurred within my flock. But picking cold hardy chickens was the first step – although even my Silkies survived and they’re not bred for anything but looking good, lol.
We Built a Sheltered Barn:
The sheltered barn that houses the coop and nesting boxes, along with offering storage for chicken stuff, was my best ideas because the barn provided a welcome shelter on extremely cold days. If given the choice, the chickens prefer to be out in the run, but when it was super cold they would hang out inside the barn and only go outside for food and water. It provided them a lot of shelter and although it was a bit more work to build, I highly recommend a mini barn to enclose a coop if you live somewhere really cold. It was nice shelter for me too, when I collected the eggs and cleaned the coop and just hung out with my flock.
We Got a Heated Waterer:
Frozen water is a big problem and the best solution, for us, was a heated waterer. We never had any problems with it, although the lid would sometimes freeze shut so to fill it up every few days, I’d need to bring it inside the thaw open the lid. But the water inside was always drinkable and, most importantly, contained – so the chickens couldn’t accidentally step or fall into it and freeze. I’ve heard of chickens stepping in an open water source and losing a foot to frostbite and that can be avoided with a heated waterer like this. Protecting them from open water is a key step in keeping chickens warm in extreme cold.
We Covered the Run:
We built the sheltered chicken run with a roof, which kept the rain and snow off. But the sides were hardware cloth, so the chickens were protected from predators, but got lots of great ventilation and fresh air in the summer. For winter, we had to make some adjustments to shelter the sides from snow and wind, which really was integral to keeping chickens warm in extreme cold winter weather. First we bought a few sheets of Lexan and installed those at the corner of the run, facing the lake.
It’s where their roosts are and they liked to hang out. We’ll keep this up permanently to offer some shelter because the winds here can be intense at any time of the year. But it was too expensive to buy for the whole chicken run. For the rest of the run, we bought marine grade vinyl (this is the exact gauge we bought) and installed that with screws and washers to the remaining sides of the coop, just for the winter.
It’s not the prettiest, but it’s better than a tarp because it lets in light and the chooks could still see out. These sheets of vinyl kept the snow from blowing in and heaping inside, and sheltered the chickens from the wind. The vinyl also created a bit of a greenhouse effect with the sun, making it a bit warmer in there. The one issue to watch for is humidity. There were one or two mild days that the run became a little too much like a greenhouse, and the heat became humidity, so we unscrewed a panel temporarily to add ventilation. Otherwise, there was only one spot of ventilation above the man door and that worked out fine. Covering the run was essential to keeping the chickens warm and sheltered in the winter.
You can see the heaps of snow that piled up outside but didn’t disrupt the chickens inside:
We Laid Down Straw and Shavings – But No Deep Litter Method:
I made sure to lay down some chopped straw (I am obsessed with this stuff and order it online, but it lasts a long time) and that enabled me to be able to rake up the poop regularly to keep it clean and dry. Keeping the coop, barn and run clean and dry was essential to making it comfortable in the cold. Plus I think the chickens preferred to walk on the straw as opposed to the frozen soil – I also added heaps of this same straw to the barn floor for a little extra insulation too. In the coop we continued to use shavings and I tried the deep litter method but couldn’t get the hang of it, so I spot cleaned poop out every couple of days and changed it over entirely every couple of weeks to keep it clean and dry in there. It only two a few seconds each day and it made such a difference for humidity too (poop = humidity = bad for chickens respiratory systems).
We Added More Roosts:
To keep warm, chickens will roost with their feet under them and their heads under their wings. In the winter, their little bodies are quite warm so they use it to keep their exposed areas cozy. So we added more roosting spots, at different heights, and protected these roosting areas from the wind with solid sheets of Lexan, discussed above. That helped with keeping chickens warm in extreme cold winter weather and something that can be done without electricity.
We Insulated the Coop During Construction:
When we built the coop, we insulated it, top, sides, and bottom. It’s also built inside the mini barn, which helps shelter it even more. When the chickens are inside, they act as little furnaces in coats and generate their own heat. In a mild winter, this is totally sufficient, but we found that on extremely cold days, they could not produce enough heat to warm the coop. So we made some adjustments and added a heat source for especially cold days, but insulation was key to keeping the heat in, and keeping chickens warm in extreme cold winter weather.
We Then Hacked the Coop and Cut it in Half:
Once we realized the chickens were getting chilly, we halved the coop to keep the chickens warm in winter. We had built it hoping for a larger flock, so when the small flock couldn’t heat the large space, we added a piece of plywood to cut the coop in half. The plywood didn’t reach all the way to the automatic door so at night they had a small area in which to snuggle and heat but there was space for them to access the other side, which contains the nesting boxes. At night they all clustered to the side with the roosts and didn’t mind the cozier quarters one bit. If you’re worried about keeping your chickens warm, keep an eye on the coop to chicken ratio and either get more chickens, or make the coop smaller and cozier. So here it is before, and for the winter we installed a piece of plywood to the left of the roosts, which made their sleeping quarters much smaller.
We Added Heat Reflecting Material Inside:
I also found this heat reflecting material which we stapled up inside the coop. I measured and kept track with our thermometer, and the heat reflecting material definitely helped raise the temperature by a few degrees when the chickens were inside. It helped reflect their own heat back to them. In milder winter weather, this would potentially be enough of an added boost to keep chickens warm without electricity – I know lots of people who don’t heat their coops at all and if you’re one of those people, but think your chickens could use a bit of a “boost” to their own heating abilities, try this heat reflective material.
We Closed Off Some Ventilation:
We had put the “right” amount of ventilation when we built the coop and barn, but maybe it was too low, or too much for our intensely cold and windy climate. We quickly realized that it let in too much of a draft so we closed off one side (inside the half of the coop where they slept) and bought a vent with a foam filter for the other side, to allow air but not as much wind, to travel. We bought a thermometer and hygrometer (to measure humidity) so I could check the humidity and temp regularly, because too much humidity is very dangerous to the health of chickens. Good ventilation is actually key to keeping chickens warm winter (and healthy), so don’t think that sealing off a coop entirely will keep them safe – they NEED that ventilation, but you need to watch them (and monitor exact humidity levels) to determine how much. Here’s a look at the vent we temporarily closed off – it was lakeside, with lots of wind, but we’ll open it up again in the summer.
We Bought a Radiant Heater Designed for Chicken Coops:
There were some cold days here when all of these measures just weren’t enough to keep chickens warm in winter, so we did break down and buy a radiant heater. It was just enough for them to endure those super cold, -30 Celsius night. I did research and this one has the least risk of fire – although no heat source (other than a chicken!) is a risk of 0%. We weighed the pros and cons and decided the risk of freezing was much higher and the reviews were really good, so we bought the heater and have been really pleased with it. It’s just enough to warm them up without getting them too hot or too dependent on a heat source. I read that introducing a heat source too soon could prevent them from naturally preparing their bodies/feathers for winter, so we only introduced this when it was the dead of winter and they really needed it. This is the exact heater we bought and we just hung in on one wall. Obviously this method of keeping chickens warm in extreme cold winter weather requires power, while some of my other suggestions don’t require electricity, but I want to be honest and say that we did need this quite a few nights this winter.
We Fed Them Warm Meals:
Closer to bedtime, on super cold days, I would make them some scrambled eggs and veggie mash (I use a food processor to mash up veggie scraps and herbs and add to scrambled eggs) or some oatmeal with cinnamon, to help warm their tummies. Or I would give them their fave, sunflower seeds, because having something in their bellies before bedtime helps keep chickens warmer in winter.
We Snuggled Them (Kidding, Sort of):
I would go out there on super cold days and tried my best to snuggle them a bit. They’d willingly hop into my lap for a bit of a break from the cold.
Obviously not an actual solution, because you can’t snuggle them 24/7, lol, but I like to think it helped boost morale! Do chickens have morale? They would wait for me at the door all winter, excited for treats and snuggles, so I like to think so. The regular snuggles really just helped me make sure they were healthy and well. I occasionally had to treat Pewter’s comb for frostbite, so it’s good he was ready for a cuddle because I had to get super close to administer the ointment. By snuggling, I checked them over to look for signs of frostbite or respiratory problems (like raspy breathing/sneezing), which helped keep them healthy and also helped me keep tabs on my measures to keep my chickens warm this winter.
We Checked the Chickens at Night:
On super cold nights, I went and checked the chickens even though they have an automatic door – and I’m so glad I did because occasionally they didn’t make it on time and were trapped in the barn, more exposed than in the coop. Coal, my Silkie, then went broody and refused to go inside at night, so I’d have to put her in there every night. I didn’t check them on mild nights but whenever it was cold enough for the heater, I’d go check on them just to be sure. Usually when I checked they were tucked in for the night (whew), and then I’d just peek at the temperature and humidity to monitor our coop winterizing efforts. I’d also quickly pet their bums and then leave them alone. But checking on them regularly through the bitter winter – as much as it sucked for me – was key to keeping them safe and warm.
What We Plan to Do for Next Winter:
We’ve only had chickens for a year and although we did a ton of research, there’s still so much to learn and some of it you need to just learn by experience and figuring out on your own, because we all have different climates and different breeds.
To help keep the chickens warmer next year, we bought more chicks this spring (yay), because more bodies will generate more heat naturally – both in the coop and in the run. So maybe next winter we can keep chickens warm without electricity and the coop heater we bought.
We also plan to build way more roosts, swings, platforms – basically a chicken jungle gym (you can buy this kind of thing too), so they have more areas to roost and tuck their feet under them. We need to figure out some better drainage in the run, and we’ve thought about digging down and removing some soil and adding sand in the run, which can prevent the mud that happens when we get the heaps snow melting. Right now it’s kind of muddy in there, but it’s a cold muddy which I’d like to correct. We have to wait until spring actually arrives to fix this. We’d also like to add some roosts to the barn. I was surprised, but happy, that they used it so much, so I’d like to make that even more comfortable for them. And for me, I’d like to add an awning to the run door because the snow would melt off the roof on rare warm days and then freeze the bolt shut, and create a dangerous patch of ice right there too, so I need to stop that from happening. I also want to install a camera inside the coop instead, so I don’t have to bundle up in the dead of a cold winter night and trudge outside to be sure they’re safely inside the coop. I’d like to make keeping chickens warm in extreme cold winter weather a little more enjoyable for me too.
It was definitely a learning experience figuring out how to keep our chickens warm in really cold winter wearther, because many sources I read about “keeping chickens warm in winter” don’t have the intensely cold and brutal winters we have, so I was shocked when my chickens were cold. But we made it through! Pewter sustained some frost bite damage to his comb, but that was the worst of it. My flock survived the winter and hopefully, with some additional changes and armed with all of the improvements we made to the coop and run, this upcoming winter upcoming winter will be even more enjoyable for them.