Backyard Chickens: Thrive in Winter

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Introduction: Backyard Chickens: Thrive in Winter

About: Architect/designer based between Chicago and SE Minnesota. Resource based problem solver... in other words, I always take a minute to peek in construction dumpsters :)

Chickens are extremely resilient!

This instructable is to help others in cold regions feel more comfortable starting with backyard chickens. Too often we were told stories about people who moved their chickens into the garage or even the house!

Our four ladies thrived through the winter. At times, like when a pipe froze, they were more comfortable then us! Barb, Candy, Lil'T and Kiki3 huddled together and scratched at any patch of ground they could find even on the coldest shortest MN days. See more of the girls on Instagram @KutzkyCoops

In New Orleans I wrote up how I designed/built a first A-Frame Coop. The model works beautifully in MN. Here I'll look at a few of the other concerns we ran into during our first winter.

Step 1: Cold Nights

Our #1 fear going into raising chickens in MN was that the ladies would freeze. Our Isa Browns and California White varieties (like most) are extremely hardy birds. Throughout the winter I would take their temperature by touching their feet. I figured that a cold foot was a sign that the birds were in bad shape.

The easiest way to heat the coop is with a light bulb. The birds will sleep fine. The bulb wattage also let's you easily adjust the amount of heat for different coops/temps. I found I heated only when temps dropped below 15deg F or -10deg C

Coop Design - We built an A-Frame coop and insulated it for winter. See more on Coop Design from one of my first instructables. I built this first A-Frame coop while living in New Orleans. I found it easy to modify mainly with plastic sheathing. No rigid insulation except at the top of the coop. I used a series of hanging plastic strips 3" thick at the door. Similar principle to the way commercial freezes us heavy hanging plastic. Coop Design from '14

Heating - The photo shows my homemade heater... obviously a DIYer. I took an exterior light fixture and added a coffee tin. The tin provided a place to hide electrically connections from the birds. It also served to radiate heat. Typically I used a 40 watt bulb. When temps dropped below zero F or -16 C I switched to a 70 watt. As discussed under the laying section. I found it easy to keep the light on a timer designed for Christmas lights. I just bungee'd it in place along the fence.

Easier still... you could always opt for buying on online and adding a thermostat. Or go Bougie with this heated roost.

Step 2: No Grass

Grass provides the following:

  1. Food (grass + bugs)
  2. Diversion -yes, chickens need to keep their minds active. They love the hunt!
  3. Exercise

1. Food appeared at first to be the most significant lose. While it's tough to lose the yard as a great supplement to their diet (both grass and bugs). We found it easier to supplement the ladies with scraps from the house.

Some may find this objectionable but we fed our ladies meat... all kinds of meat. We don't want to give the meat scraps in the coop and during the summer flies will quickly descend on anything left out. They will eat everything from skin (pure fat) to the bone marrow (protein and minerals) to bone itself (calcium).

An easier option is to buy any of the treats popular online... see here. Most common on forums are the meal worms.

2. Diversion- It's important to keep the ladies active. If they are simply sitting around in the coop waiting for the end of winter they will start bullying. There is a natural pecking order but the lower birds tend to get more abuse when the top hens are bored (maybe you've seen this before...) It played out for me most when the chickens were eating. See the design I used for my auto feeder. A piece of PVC is so easy.

3. Exercise suffered a bit but we made sure to let the ladies out each day. We rigged up a pulley to the door of the coop. We gave them access to the yard even if they didn't always use it.

Step 3: Laying Through the Winter

Chickens will lay all through the winter provided they have at least 14hrs of light. That can be sunlight or artificial.

This makes the heater a useful addition. We kept the light on with the 40 watt bulb all through the winter months. For us it timed out well with the cold weather. I simply connected a garden sensor that went on at dusk and off at dawn. I had used this model before to connect Christmas lights. With a single Xmas light installed it was easy to see everything was working each night. *it never failed.

On some of the backyard chicken forums they say it's important to let the chicken's cycle rest. This is not something we think is important. The modern chicken is bred for egg production.

Step 4: When to Start a Flock?

Spring -is the best time. Followed soon after by summer.

The formula for taking chickens out from under the heating light is as follows:

  • Outdoor Overnight LOW = 95deg - (5deg * Chicken Age in Weeks)
  • At 4 weeks they can go outside if the overnight temp is 75 deg
  • At 6 weeks they go out at 65 deg...

Even in MN I was able to purchase our birds from Tractor Supply on August 20th. They were ready for the yard by late Sept. Timing was perfect for them to be full size by the time of our first snow in late November. They started laying January 3rd. Sign up for the Free McMurray Catalog to get a full list of breeds. I had it coming to the house for years before we first started with chickens.

It's been a great 9 months with our ladies. Planning to add two bantams to the flock in June. Happy to help with any questions. Here is the Instagram link (@kutzkycoops) to see more of our ladies. Also follow on instructables for more tips. I have a few modifications I've made to the coop and useful hacks for managing backyard chickens to follow.

Thank you! Jeff

---Oh, it's so easy to pickup your first batch of chickens. They are stocked seasonally at Tractor Supply Co. Simply call around to find when the next batch is in. They are also always on craigslist. You may have to drive an hour but shouldn't be any longer than that.

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