by Jenny Brown

“How do you keep your chickens in winter?”
That is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked about raising poultry. Several years ago, when I first began teaching ‘Raising Chickens 101‘,  I taught my students to do what I did. At the time, I pretty much did everything by the book.  I still follow some of those guidelines today because it’s just good common winter sense.

Such as…

   Make sure they have enough floor space in the coop when it’s too cold or wet to venture outside.

The rule of thumb is to provide 4 square feet of floor space per bird. I say with personal experience that this is a good rule to follow. You will enjoy going out to your coop to feed and gather eggs most of the winter. Putting a knee down in the straw to reach in the nests won’t mean a change of clothes when you go inside. The bedding will stay clean longer, your nose will be at ease (which is also important for your bird’s sensitive respiratory systems),  and your chickens will be less restless and less likely to pick on (and at) each other. Even in winter they can be outside with room to forage around but it’s  those extremely wet or snowy spells you need to be prepared for when they could be confined to the coop for days…or weeks.

A crowded bird is a grumpy bird


And this, my friends, is where our story today begins……

I learned this lesson three winters ago when I went into winter with more birds than I had planned on. Forty-five hens in a coop with a 9′ x 12′ floor. That’s 2.4 square feet per bird. I knew I was stretching it a bit…quite a bit, but I figured they’d be fine since they had three plus acres to spread out on. What I didn’t anticipate was the harsh weather that was approaching.

That year we had the heaviest snow storm  since 1991.  Our winter-resilient town that never seems to slow down for snow, was stopped in it’s tracks for a few days. The wind that accompanied the storm created deep drifts in areas. One of which was my chicken coop. One morning I had to dig my way out to the coop door to feed and water my birds; they were literally snowed in.

Large snow drifts blocked my access to the coop. The chicken door was almost buried.

I could see from the outside that the windows were steamed up.  As I stepped inside, the snow- insulated coop felt like a closed-up bathroom after a hot shower. The dampened bedding from the  moisture brought out a nostril stinging smell of ammonia. (Did you know chickens have the highest respiratory rate of any animal for their size? That’s why they can steam up a coop so easily.)

I spent the rest of the morning shoveling out a chicken yard so my birds could get out into the fresh air and have a little more space to move around.

After two hours of using muscles I forgot I had (but would be reminded of for the next couple days), I opened the door expecting a wave of happy Rhody’s to come pouring out and I would experience that satisfying feeling of knowing I did something good for my feathered friends.

Not quite.

They all stood in the doorway staring at the snow and cackling at me ” Do you expect us to WALK on this stuff?”
I spent the next half hour figuring out how to coax them out of the coop. After laying down straw (to disguise the snow) and throwing kale leaves around, I finally got those funny bird brains outside.

Tossing kale around the entry was what finally convinced them to step outside.

A shoveled out yard with yellow carpet rolled out for the royal flock.

(Royal pain in the butt, that is. )

 I vowed I would NEVER go into winter without adequate floor space again. I love my chickens, but that amount of slaving for them, especially when it could have been avoided, is just not my cup of tea. In weather like this, this is more like it…

 So, if you want to keep your birds happy and healthy, and your coop cleaner longer during the cold winter months, then make sure they have enough space on those cold and wet winter days.  Otherwise you too might be out cleaning a coop in the dead of winter, shoveling out an entire yard, and laying down yellow carpet for your birds.

In the next few posts, I will be discussing some issues that are definitely NOT ‘by the book’, they have been learned through experience, trial and error…and yes, success.

To heat or not to heat…that is our next post.




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4 Responses to “Keeping Chickens in Winter – Give them their Personal Space or You’ll become their Slave”

  1. Renee Says:

    I’m so happy to have found your website!! Thank you so much for your information 🙂

  2. Jackie King Says:

    Well Jenny, that was a good story! Thanks to you and your Chickens 101 a couple of years ago, we have 8 happy hens and a good size coop 5 feet wide 6 feet deep and 6 feet high at the peak inside. I took pictures of the inside layout when I was there and made a poop box under their roosting bars. I do need to redo it this spring because I did not perfect it the first time. They have been living there for 9 months now and I now know I need to make a couple of changes. I can’t wait to get out there!
    People always ask me about my venture and I tell them I learned everything I know in a one day class called Chickens 101!! I sure wish you would reconsider giving them again! I am proud to say I have 8 very happy and healthy hens who have given our family 8 yummy eggs every day since they started laying! Even through winter!! I enjoy their personalities and love having them!! Last week one layed the largest egg I have ever seen! Looks like a torpedo! I will post a picture of it on your site.
    I do have a couple of questions for you.
    #1 I have 2 rows of nesing boxes on the back wall about 4 feet long not sepatated with a ramp taking them to both levels.The hens always lay in one spot. Bottom row close to the wall. All piled together! Should I try to change that or leave it alone? Is it because the far corner under the top box is more private ?
    #2 I have not yet used any wormers and they are 10 months old!
    #3 Also I have not been using the Mite dusting stuff during these winter months. How important is this during the winter?
    I will look forward to your comments!

  3. Jenny Says:

    Hi Jackie,
    To answer your questions…
    #1 – If it aint broke, don’t fix it. 🙂 Hens can sometimes be persnickety about where they lay their eggs. I’ve noticed that heavier breeds, such as the Buff Orpington, generally prefer the ‘lower level’ nesting boxes if they have a choice. As long as the eggs are not in a thoroughfare where they are consonantly being walked over by other hens to get in and out of the nests, or are laying in an exposed area where other chickens might be temped to peck at them, I’d leave it alone. They are apparently happy back there and it’s not causing any harm. And, how handy for you to be able to gather them all in one place!

    #2 – For dewormer, at times, I have used Molly’s Herbal mixture (about 1 Tbl. per 6 chickens). You just sprinkle it over their feed once a week. There are other natural dewormer mixtures available, I’ve seen them advertized in hatchery catalogs and poultry raising magazines. It can get pretty costly though if you have a larger flock of chickens. To cut costs, I have substituted other natural deworming ingredients at certain times of the year when they are available. For instance, in the summer, all my overgrown, overripe, and extra cucurbits go to the chickens (zucchini, summer squash, etc.). Later in the season I crack open ripe pumpkins and winter squash with an axe and throw it over the chicken fence. The seeds from the cucurbits work as a natural dewormer. Powdered garlic sprinkled in their feed and raw apple cider vinegar are other ingredients I have used. (1 Tbl. per gallon of raw apple cider vinegar in their waterer once a week, especially during season changes) – NOTE: Do not put the vinegar in a galvanized waterer, the metal reacts with the acid in the vinegar causing the water to become toxic to your birds- I pull out the plastic waterer when I offer it). I tend to rotate and use what’s available at the time. That, in theory, prevents one ingredient or mixture from being overused and stop working. It also helps keep costs down.

    #3 – The only time I personally would ever use the mite dusting powder is if I actually had a mite problem. Keeping the bedding clean and sprinkling the bottom of the nesting boxes with diatomaceous earth before putting in fresh straw and a little sprinkled on top has kept the mites away.

  4. Francisco Huezo Says:

    You are owsome, love reading about your experience. Thanks Jenny

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