Keeping your chickens happy in the winter

With the worst of the already brutal winter bearing down on Wisconsin for the next week or so, we thought it would be a good time to review the basics of keeping chickens healthy and happy in the cold and snow. This story from Michigan State University has some very good, common-sense advice. The information is very consistent with that we have heard at our seminars at CLUCK, but it never hurts to review the basics.

The article covers feed, water, light, ventilation, bedding and boredom. Yes, boredom makes the critical list. All of the other subjects have pretty straight-forward answers or recommendations, but “cooped-up” chickens do get cabin fever and sometimes the results aren’t pretty. We get a lot of questions at this time of year about how to keep chickens from pecking each other, and what to do if they do start pecking.

Unfortunately, there’s no single good answer to behavioral questions. We recommend chicken toys, scratch blocks and plenty of space, but those aren’t sure-fire solutions in every case.

Water is also a big topic at CLUCK the Chicken Store these days. With our own chickens, we use a combination of double-wall metal waterers and UL-listed heater bases. We have used those for several years in the worst of winter weather and have never had a problem. The heater bases are great because they are thermostatically controlled and produce just the right amount of heat to keep the water thawed, but not heated. However, we recognize that the heater bases are kind of pricey and there are several alternatives.

Some of our customers have built what are commonly called “cookie tin” heater bases because they are made from the common cookie tins that many people have cluttering up the house at the Christmas season. They take a little bit of skill and very little money to build. We don’t know how well they work and we don’t sell them because they’re not UL approved. You can see how to make one here.

The low-tech solution is to bring your chickens fresh water every morning and afternoon. The Michigan State story has some good tips on what kind of containers work best for that strategy. Other people use heated dog bowls, although they can get dirty very quickly and often must be cleaned out every day. We also have tried the plastic waterers with built-in heater elements. So have several of our customers and everyone we have talked to has either returned the waterer or junked it. Enough said about that.

We haven’t tried a heated automatic water system, so if anyone has had good luck with that, please let us know. You can see a home-built example on YouTube here.

In addition to the Michigan State information, the University of Wisconsin-Extension has several publications that cover the basics of keeping backyard chickens (not necessarily in the winter). You can browse the UW-Extension Learning Store here.

Happy chicken keeping, and stay warm, everyone.