All the expert advice you need on how to care for chickens in winter

Make these small changes to your care to help chickens stay healthy in cold weather

Free-range hens foraging in snow-covered grass
(Image credit: georgeclerk / Getty Images)

The first thing to say about caring for chickens in winter is try not to panic when the cold weather hits. Chickens are not are far better equipped than us at dealing with low temperatures.

You can keep chickens warm in winter without installing electric heaters, and you certainly don't need to knit them sweaters or build a chicken run in your basement to ensure they stay healthy and happy during the winter months.

'Chickens are really adaptable to colder weather and some breeds enjoy the break from the summer, so a little planning on our part can go a long way in our flock's well-being,' says urban farmer Jeff Raska.

Close-up of a free-range hen being held carefully in a woman's arms

Chickens are well-adapted to cold

(Image credit: georgeclerk / Getty Images)

6 expert tips on caring for chickens in winter

'There are so many chicken breeds to choose from, and a little education in breed-specific care goes a long way in determining success and maintaining a healthy flock,' says Jeff Raska.

'Chickens have inhabited every continent on this planet, and breeds have been developed for almost all climates,' he says.

Assuming you are keeping chicken breeds which are hardy for your region, you can expect that they're already well equipped for winter. 

All you need to do is take care of their basic lifestyle requirements and be aware of how these might change during cold weather.

1. Ensure they have access to water

Domestic chicken walking and eating on the snow in the winter

Keep water bowls defrosted daily

(Image credit: Pavol Klimek / Getty Images)

Snow doesn't count as a water source, and frozen water bowls are no good to chickens at all. They need plenty to drink during winter and it's your job to ensure they have access to fresh drinking water at all times. 

As you would try to stop a bird bath from freezing, look at ways to ensure your chickens get the same treatment.

'You can buy a heater for the waterer so that the water doesn't freeze,' says Deborah Niemann of The Thrifty Homesteader. Alternatively you can try this Thermo 2.5 Gal. 60-Watt Gray Poultry Waterer at The Home Depot which will ensure their water will never freeze.

'If you don't have electricity in the coop, just give them a fresh dish of water every morning, and as long as it doesn't freeze by sundown, they'll be fine. They spend the night roosting and don't drink, so you only need to be sure they have access to water during the day,' says Deborah. 

Deborah Niemann headshot
Deborah Niemann

In 2002, Deborah relocated her family from the suburbs of Chicago to a 32-acre parcel on a creek in the middle of nowhere. Together, they built their own home and began growing most of their own food. Sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, and turkeys supply meat, eggs, and dairy products while an organic garden and orchard provide fruit and vegetables.

2. Up their protein intake

chickens feeding around a feeder

Protein helps chicken maintain their body temperature

(Image credit: Tao Xu / Getty Images)

If you've been inspired by the likes of Meghan and Harry, or Carrie Underwood and want to keep chickens, it's important that you know how to feed them

'Protein is important for chickens to maintain their body temperature,' says Deborah Niemann. Therefore take stock of what you're feeding your chickens to make sure this is adequate for winter.

'I'm a big believer that chickens should get an excellent diet with 16% protein, 12 months a year,' says Deborah. 'So if you're already doing that, they should be fine. If you are normally feeding something like scratch grain or cracked corn that has half as much protein, then you should switch to a 16% layer feed that contains the protein and calcium that your chickens need,' she adds.

3. Encourage them to move about

Red laying hen close-up on white snow

Chickens need fresh air and exercise even on cold days

(Image credit: Andrey Kanyshev / Getty Images)

Exercise is crucial for chickens 365 days of the year, and winter is no different. 

'Creating a space outside in their pen that's in the sun and out of the wind will encourage them outside for fresh air and exercise, which is so important for them,' says founder of the Fresh Eggs Daily blog Lisa Steele.

'Try wrapping one corner of your pen with tarps or clear plastic to create a sort of greenhouse effect, put some straw down on the ground and scatter treats and you'll be amazed at how much chickens will enjoy spending time outside in your backyard farm on all but the most blustery of days,' she says.

Lisa Steele headshot
Lisa Steele

Dubbed 'Queen of the Coop', Lisa is a chicken lifestyle expert, a New Englander, born and bred, and a fifth-generation chicken keeper who grew up across the street from her grandparents' chicken farm. She spent her childhood raising chickens, rabbits, always an outdoor cat, and the occasional pet goat.

4. Keep them occupied with treats to peck

Group of free range chicken picking food in winter after snowfall

Natural foraging won't be available to chickens during winter

(Image credit: SilviaJansen / Getty Images)

Lisa Steele likes to give her chickens things that take a while to eat, which help fill the time which they would usually spend scratching around for bugs.

'Things like scratch grains, suet cakes, sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and unsalted nuts are all good options, as well as a head of cabbage, halved squash or root vegetables like sweet potatoes or beets,' she suggests.

5. Watch out for frostbite

close up of chicken

Add natural salves onto your chickens' combs to treat frostbite 

(Image credit: Oleg Elkov / Getty Images)

Frostbite can unfortunately affect chickens over cold periods. Lisa likes to combat this by adding some cayenne pepper or cinnamon to their diet, by sprinkling it over their feed. 

'This can help improve circulation, thereby reducing the chance of frostbite on their legs, feet and combs, and also support respiratory health,' she says.

'Keeping some type of natural first aid salve, on hand in case of frostbite, to protect the affected areas, is always a good idea,' Lisa adds.

Morgete Wooden Chicken Coop Chicken House at Walmart

Morgete Wooden Chicken Coop Chicken House at Walmart

Currently available at a huge saving, this chicken house is also suitable for ducks. It has 2 nesting boxes and size-wize is suitable for about 3-4 chickens.

6. Keep their shelters well ventilated

chicken walking on an eco-poultry farm in winter, free-range chicken farm

Good air flow is needed to keep chickens healthy all year round

(Image credit: Sergii Kolesnikov / Getty Images)

The temptation when temperatures drop below zero is to block up every crack in your hen house. But closing areas where fresh air can enter is detrimental to your chicken's health.

Ensuring that your coop has plenty of ventilation and open windows in winter can help support their respiratory health over winter, and humidity build up is a well known cause of their comb's freezing in cold weather.

Heat lamps aren't conducive for a fireproof backyard, but adding extra bedding for them to snuggle into a night is a great way to insulate the coop over winter.

jeff raska headshot
Jeff Raska

 Jeff ”retired” to AgriLife 11 years ago after being in the Horticulture business for 25 years. He currently oversees Dallas County Master Gardeners as well as AgriLife Extension programming and runs the Urban County Farm and research gardens.


What to feed chickens in winter?

'Nutrition is an important factor in caring for chickens in winter as the normal insect and green plant availability will be limited, and we might need to supplement their diet through the dormant months,' says Jeff Raska urban farmer.

'Adding salad greens and berries as well as freeze dried meal worms can help fill nutritional gaps, but always keep their normal layer ration mix available and dry for grazing,' he says.

If you have a liking for feathered yard bird friends, and are concerned for their wellbeing over cold periods, you might be interested in ways to help garden birds in winter.

Teresa Conway
Deputy Gardens Editor

Teresa was part of a team that launched Easy Gardens magazine two years ago and edited it for some time. Teresa has been a Gardens Editor at Homes & Gardens, Country Homes & Interiors and Living Etc magazine since 2020 and has developed close working relationships with top garden designers, and has been exposed to an array of rich garden content and expertise.