Raising Free Range Chickens is a dream-come-true for many chicken enthusiasts. Your girls are happier, healthier, and your eggs can be organic and free-range. You can save money on commercial feed and there is the added benefit of reducing your pesky insect population.
Chicken owners take great pleasure in watching happy chickens taking dust baths and lounging in the sunshine. The sight of them running helter-skelter around the yard is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
However, along with this privilege comes the need for extra precautions. One of them is taking care of free-range chickens in the dead of winter. Keeping your flock protected in harsh conditions presents a unique set of challenges.
In this article, I want to take a few moments and share with you some tips for caring for free range chickens during winter.
Caring For Free Range Chickens In The Cold Winter Months
Below are some of the tried and true things you can do to care for your free range chickens during the long winter months.
Should You Lock Up Your Free Range Chickens in Winter?
Some chicken owners may wonder “Should I lock up my free-range chickens in the winter or just let them do their own thing?”
Some chickens are lucky enough to have their freedom during the summer, spring, and fall, to range all day and return to the coop at night. As the weather gets colder though, things begin to freeze, and the snow starts to fall, is it best to leave your hens locked inside for their protection?
A Look at Chickens Throughout History
It’s important to look at the history of chickens to get a perspective on the hardiness of these birds.
Picture the iconic farmer’s wife, walking through her barnyard, tossing handfuls of cracked corn from her apron to her flock of hens. In the 1900s, there were no accommodations for chickens. They had to fend for themselves and were only fed if they were being fattened for eating.
A chicken’s diet in the past consisted of whatever they could forage. Housing was usually in the barn with the other animals. Chickens were great for cleaning up the grains of food dropped by other farm animals. Eggs were found in the stacks of hay. This style of life did lead to a rather high mortality rate, but in the spring, new chicks were hatched and life continued.
When Chickens Moved Indoors
It wasn’t until 1923 that Mrs. Wilmer Steele in Delaware pioneered the idea of keeping large numbers of chickens indoors. Her purpose was to raise chickens as broilers. This sparked the beginning of keeping chickens in housing and was the beginning of the broiler industry. Before that time, chickens were pretty much on their own.
With the invention of confined housing for birds, egg production could be increased. The mortality rate for housed chickens dropped to 5%. Keeping your chickens locked up in winter will help protect them and may reduce the mortality rate of your flock. Your chickens may be happier still having their freedom in the winter. They have certainly proven they are capable of fending for themselves in any weather condition.
How Winter Can Affect Your Free-Range Flock
Farmers Weekly points out some of the pitfalls of raising free-range chickens in the winter, especially if you still want to collect eggs.
Chickens Will Eat More in Winter
When the weather gets colder, your hens will need to eat more. The size of the eggs will increase as you increase their feed rations due to a decreased natural food source. The increase in egg mass can lead to weaker shells so you may need to add calcium supplements in the winter.
Interesting fact: egg producers weigh their eggs every week. Eggs laid in the morning tend to be 2 grams heavier than those laid in the afternoon. They use the egg weight to gauge the health of their chickens.
Read More: 10 Treats For Chickens For Winter Months
Cold Weather Can Increase Stress for Your Chickens
Stress may take over as the weather turns colder. Flocks can begin nervous habits like feather-pecking or ‘hen pecking’ each other.
The three main factors that cause these changes are the changes are:
- Shorter Daylight Hours
- Lack of Ability to Range
Due to the stress increase, birds can become nutrient deficient. This may increase the incidence of feather-picking and can even lead to…cannibalism. Keep an eye out for signs of stressed chickens and make sure your flock has access to sufficient nutrients.
Less Daylight Will Decrease Egg Production
The reduction of daylight hours will impact the egg production of a free-range hen. Depending on the breed of chickens you are raising, they may stop laying altogether in the winter. You can add artificial light to the coop for extra warmth and promote laying during the shorter days.
- 10 Tips to Keep Your Chickens Laying Eggs in the Winter
- 9 Best Egg Laying Chicken Breeds For Cold Climates
Tips on Caring For Your Chickens During The Winter
Here are some tips from Farmers Weekly on how to care for your hens in winter:
- Viruses are more prevalent during the winter so keep an eye out for signs like raspy breathing or weight loss.
- Weighing your birds every few weeks is helpful to make sure weight is being maintained.
- If growth rates change, look for signs of a virus or disease.
- Provide access to areas of dry bedding in areas where they do range.
- Consider adding gut flora to your chickens’ diet in the winter to increase health and immunity.
Winter Time Chicken Coop Maintenance
So far we’ve talked about how historically, chickens have almost always been free range. But, we’ve also learned that statistically speaking, keeping your free range birds inside during the winter will increase their survival rate.
If you do choose to keep your free range birds in coop during the winter, here are some winter time chicken coop maintenance tips you’ll want to remember.
Keep The Bedding Dry
One of the challenges of maintaining a coop for free-range birds in the winter is keeping the bedding dry. The birds will track in wetness and mud. Keep a handy supply of chopped straw, pine straw, or wood shavings on hand can be an easy solution. Refresh the bedding with a few handfuls of new bedding when things start looking wet or muddy.
Place Gravel Around The Chicken Coop Entrance
Adding gravel around the entrance of the coop can help with keeping mud from being tracked into the coop. Adding a covered porch and drains are also good preventative measures that will lead to a drier coop in the winter.
Make Sure Automatic Waterers Aren’t Leaking
If you have automatic waterers, be sure that they are working properly and not leaking, adding unnecessary moisture to the coop. Moisture present in the coop will cause a bird to become chilled more quickly than the air temperature.
Minimize Cold Wintery Drafts
Minimize drafts in the shed. Some ventilation is necessary to remove ammonia. Ventilation is also necessary for heat circulation.
Check your coop after dark. If you have proper protection from drafts, and adequate ventilation, your flock should appear comfortable, packed together for warmth on their perches. It should feel reasonably warm and dry and there should be no overpowering odors.
Challenges of Free Range Chickens and Snow
For those that experience not only cold, but large amounts of snow, free-ranging in winter is a challenge for chickens.
Build A Polytunnel
If you want to give your chickens some extra area to range when snow is an issue, you can consider extending your coop area with a DIY polytunnel.
This simple framework, designed by gardeners, is constructed with PVC pipe and can be covered with clear plastic. In essence, you are making your chickens a sunroom so they can still do some wandering when the ground is covered by snow.
Clear The Snow So Chickens Can Roam Around
If you don’t go the ‘sunroom’ route, at least consider shoveling or snow blowing an area near the coop for the hens to get out and range. They don’t do well in deep snow. When you clear an area, and the sun comes out, the snow should melt enough for the girls to get some exercise.
Spread Hay or Straw On Top of The Snow
At the very least, if snow removal is not on the agenda, spread hay or straw on top of the snow around the outside of the coop. Your chickens will rush out to peck and scratch through the hay (hay has seeds for them to peck at, straw is just the stalks).
Create Trails With Larger Livestock
If you have other livestock on the property, larger animals make paths and clearings in the snow. Make a path for your chickens to follow by tossing down some hay or shoveling the snow.
You may discover your chickens have found their relief from the snow by roosting on a shed, garage, or barn rooftop or in trees. Keep a watch on them in extremely cold weather as they may not return to the coop for water.
Place Strategic Watering Stations
Wherever they are spending time, be sure to provide your flock with access to fresh water. Rubber tubs are the best to use. You will have to fill them a couple of times a day when they freeze. With flexible rubber tubs, you can easily dump out the block of ice and refill the tub. Black tubs don’t freeze as quickly if there is any sunshine.
Increased Predator Attacks
Keeping free-range chickens in the winter is certainly possible, but it is almost more labor-intensive than just locking them in. One aspect to consider when letting them out in winter is that there are also more hungry predators when snow covers the ground.
Your flock will be more susceptible to attacks from predators when it snows as food sources become more scarce. Chickens are too easy and tasty to pass up for hungry hunters.
Add A Rooster For Protection
You might want to consider locking your coop door at night and opening it during the day during the cold of winter. If you don’t have a rooster, you might want to add one to your flock. They will help protect the hens and are a good alarm when danger is present.