Chickens are heat loving creatures, but with appropriate shelter, food, and access to water, they will thrive and make it through our harsh winters of -40ᵒCs.
Shelter: out-of-the-wind insulated space
Our roosters live in an unheated un-insulated greenhouse, which shields them from the wind. They have slowly adapted to the cold as winter progressed, but with observable reluctance to eat/ move when it reaches -35ᵒC and below. As roosters tend to fight in small spaces, it is better to provide a larger cold space over a smaller warm space when weather permits (i.e. mild winter with short cold snaps of -35ᵒCs). Some of our roosters have frostbites in their combs and wattles, while the Barred Plymouth Rocks (a more cold-tolerant breed) have thrived without injuries. We have lost a couple roosters due to clogged vent from frozen poop when they roost close to the ground on the extreme cold days of -40ᵒC, but that can be remediated by thawing the poop with a blow dryer, removing it and drying the chicken out.
In the meantime, our 90 hens stay in a well-insulated hut with a 250W heat lamp inside, and they were able to keep the small space above freezing throughout this winter with their body heat. While most of them prefer to stay inside, some of the Barred Plymouth Rocks like the unheated area better. Although the high stock density has kept them warm and allowed for continuous egg production throughout the winter (averaging 40-50 eggs per day!), a better living condition (enough indoor space to feed and exercise) is recommended even if it is slightly below freezing close to the ground. The thawed ground actually makes them more susceptible to frostbites on their claws as their excrement slowly accumulate into a ball stuck to their feet when they scratch, and will freeze when they spend time outside the heated space. None of them have frostbites on their combs and wattles since they have a warm space to retreat into, but a few of them have lost their toenails.
Food: cooked grains, fermented grains, food waste, and cooked waste fish Cooking the assorted grains (whole oats, whole barley, chicken scratch) increases the digestibility of their food and the volume of feed by 20-40% (which makes the feed stretch for longer and reduces our feed cost). We have experimented with feeding the same feed dry while providing them cooked ones, but they would choose the cooked ones time after time. The cooked grains also acts as a means to meeting their water needs, and reduces their dependency on water access. Due to the high moisture content, these cooked grains can freeze faster than the chickens can eat them, hence, multiple small feedings (of portions that they can finish without frozen leftovers) are recommended if your chickens stay in an unheated uninsulated space like our roosters. For a heated insulated space like our hens’, we feed majority of the grains inside and bring in the minority frozen feed inside to thaw/ feed.
Some of the grains are soaked for 5-6 days indoors to ferment anaerobically in order to introduce microbiology and diversify their diet. The length of soaking depends on the temperature, and shall be ready to use when it bubbles and smells like sauerkraut. Multiple buckets are soaked at the same time to ensure a continuous supply.
We collect food waste from a local supermarket to feed our chickens and pigs. While majority goes to our pigs, our chickens benefit from the occasional greens, melons, bread, yogurt, and salad dressing to increase the caloric value and supplement their diet. As produce freeze in the winter, it will be wise to feed shredded vegetables rather than full piece to allow fast consumption. It is also helpful to feed in a shallow weighted container so unfinished frozen food can be transferred indoors to thaw and be fed again.
By-catch from local fishermen is a great source of protein, and is certainly one of the reasons our hens can continue to lay in winter. Since chickens have trouble peaking & tearing apart raw fish with their beaks, it is cooked to enable consumption.
Water: a bucket of snow and day-time access to water
A fresh bucket of water is provided every morning to our chickens and taken away in late afternoon as drinking happens typically during daytime. Our chickens always have access to snow in case they get thirsty when their water bucket is frozen or away. A small bird bath heater can also be used to keep the water above freezing.
Others: grit, calcium source, and dust bath
Chickens need grit in their gizzards to grind down their food, just like how we need teeth to chew. It is important for them to always have access to grit to digest their food. If you’re harvesting your own grit, make sure to have enough for the whole winter in case your pile freezes.
Laying hens need a calcium source to produce a strong eggshell and replenish their continuously depleting reserve. While layers ration are typically supplemented with calcium, limestone and crushed oyster shells are also commercially available for this purpose. If you find eggs with brittle shell, it is a sign of calcium deficiency, and you can remediate/ prevent it by providing them constant access to calcium. You can also bake your used eggshells after you eat the eggs, and crush them as a calcium source (the baking help discourage development of a taste for raw eggs).
Dust bath is chicken’s way of cleaning themselves and keeping parasites at bay. It is especially important if you have a crowded coop of chickens pooping over other chickens. We put sand, wood ash and diatomaceous earth in their bathing pit or a bin (big enough for them to roll themselves in), and the hens love it! Roosters in the greenhouse on the other hand don’t seem to bother for it as they’ve stayed pretty clean with the big space they have.
Learn more about other tips we have about raising livestock in the North.