Backyard chicken care in winter: Expert tips
As another chilly winter comes around, you’re probably wondering—can backyard chickens survive winter outside? Do you need to do anything different in winter?
I will show you how you can help prevent illness in your flock naturally, how to avoid a wet, smelly, muddy backyard, and have healthy, happy, thriving chickens year-round.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this blog—prevention is always better than cure.
Here’s what I’ll cover in this expert backyard chickens and winter care guide:
- Why aren't my hens laying?
- Litter management
- Common diseases
Ready? Let’s take a look at what to do with backyard chickens in the winter.
1. Why aren't my hens laying?
“Why aren’t my chooks laying?” Many owners worry that few or no eggs are coming from the henhouse. But eggs are a seasonal food. While pullets that were hatched last spring should lay through winter, your older hens take a break after moulting in autumn.
You may not see an egg from them until mid to late winter, or even spring for your older hens. This is completely normal.
Different breeders have ‘secret recipes’ and tricks for bringing hens back into lay. I’ve found making sure they get lots of sunlight and quality feed to be the most effective.
Reducing the stress on your flock and excellent husbandry are the best ways to keep your birds healthy and happy.
When birds are stressed, they're immunocompromised—just like humans! Many factors can stress a chicken out—change of feed, a new flock mate, late moulting, and overcrowding.
Overcrowding is the number one mistake I see in new backyard chicken ownership. People want to fit as many birds into their backyard chicken coop as possible—but it's just not good for the birds.
Keeping backyard chickens in winter means there's less dry space for them, so make sure there's enough shelter and enough dry area for them to stand.
Also, be conscious of the space around their feeders. We don't want these areas to become compacted and muddy in winter. See Litter management below.
How much space do backyard chickens need? I work off a minimum of 1m² to 3m² each during the day. Following these measurements means you’ll have much healthier, stress-free birds.
Do my chickens need extra warmth in winter? Short answer, not in Australia. If it snows heavily where you live, deep litter is recommended. Wherever you live in the world, make sure the house is well ventilated so there’s no humidity. Airflow through the top of the house is ideal, so they are protected by the walls of the house, and they're not copping a brunt of cold wind.
Are you struggling to keep the open spaces for your backyard chickens in winter from becoming a muddy mess? In that case, you could cover areas of wire roofing with Perspex or horticultural plastic —the type that is used for greenhouses. It gives your flock somewhere else to shelter but still allows sunlight to come in - reducing mud and bacteria.
Even covering where they eat and dust bathe makes a huge difference. And it doesn't have to be permanent—you can keep things dry over winter and then remove the cover for summer.
As for your backyard chicken coop (where they sleep), it must be draft-free but well ventilated. So, cross-ventilation airflow is paramount. It's my number one rule when it comes to housing.
Cross-ventilation is also essential because of a little thing called ammonia.
Ammonia is the gas that's released from moisture and wet chicken poo. It's a massive problem for backyard chicken keepers in winter.
If you can smell your chicken coop, and it smells like ammonia, you've got a problem. You need to deal with it ASAP. That means either increasing the airflow (see the image below) or changing the way you manage their litter, or you may need a coop clean-out!
Why is ammonia a problem?
Ammonia affects the cilia in the respiratory tract. It affects the way that chickens can naturally work mucus out of their system.
How do you make a flow without a draft?
Chickens don't like the wind. So keeping backyard chickens warm in the winter just means you need to get a little creative! Airflow through the top of the coop is ideal, so they are protected by the walls of the coop, and they're not copping a brunt of cold, windy air.
Stacking straw bales up against the chicken coop gives the hens a place to huddle, which helps in keeping backyard chickens warm in winter.
4. Litter management
Caring for backyard chickens in winter also means maintaining their litter. The goal here is dry, friable litter that the chickens can turn over when scratching.
A wet mess and muddy backyards aren’t good for anyone—not for you, not for your chooks.
Your chook house will have a chooky smell, but it shouldn’t stink. If there’s piled-up chicken poo or wet patches inside the house, it’s time for a clean-out!
This is a two-step process. First, ensure you have adequate drainage and then manage your litter.
If you experience significant rainfall in your area, where does the water go? We don't want it running into the chicken coop or run. So if you've got a small space, or your backyard chicken coop is on a concrete slab or concrete tiles, I would cover those areas (see above) to give the water somewhere else to go.
Relieve muddy, compacted areas by turning the litter over with a shovel or a garden fork before adding any more litter.
Let’s talk about deep litter. A deep litter system is a way of managing poultry manure and litter. It’s a great alternative to regular dry litter, which involves regular clean-outs. But it must be dry (or just the right amount of moisture), and it needs to be deep for it to work.
Deep litter systems are terrific, but like a good hot compost, getting deep litter microbes and heat is an art!
What do you use for litter? My two favourites are:
- Chemical-free wood shavings, and
If you opt for sand, choose ‘river sand’. It is also known as ‘equestrian sand’ or ‘propagation sand’. It drains well and won't clump when it gets wet. You ideally don't want the play sand from the kids’ sandbox that when you squeeze it; holds its shape.
What about straw?
Straw is okay if you don't have a parasite problem. However, if you do, straw isn’t a great option because lice and mites can get into the shaft of straw and cause havoc and multiply. Straw also works better in covered areas as you don't want it getting wet and matted—it can compact and resemble a mat!
Options for litter are abundant, but as a rule, make sure the litter isn’t dusty or something that can go mouldy. I go into detail on litter in my online course, A-Z Natural Chicken Care.
Scaly Leg Mite
Parasites aren’t less of a problem for your backyard chickens during winter just because it’s cold out.
When you’re learning how to raise backyard chickens, discovering a good quality feed is an investment in their health and will save you many headaches in the long run.
What feed do backyard chickens need?
Look for a layer feed that's 16% protein or more. You’ll find lots of fantastic brands and products. Read my blog about choosing a feed here.
Then, you must provide your backyard chickens with green feed. If you have attended any of my workshops or courses, you'll know I harp on about green feed! But I can't stress how vital access to it is in maintaining winter health.
One product I wouldn't do without in winter is Chicken Coach Resistance Assistance—a fermented probiotic complex, and it’s the only probiotic I recommend. Simply add it to the chicken feeder or waterer. It's great for helping with respiratory illness symptoms, restoring gut health, increasing immunity, and stimulating appetite.
I also swear by Solaminovit, a poultry multivitamin and amino acid supplement. If you're breeding birds, you should be practicing feeding for breeding in the six weeks before you collect eggs. If the nutrients aren't in the egg, they won’t be in the chick!
All products found in the Chicken Coach store are veterinary quality and exceptional products.
7. Common diseases
As far as health goes, various diseases affect backyard chickens in winter. They can take the fun out of chicken keeping. Chicken diseases are very complex; multiple conditions often coincide, and secondary infections are common.
Respiratory diseases are the enemy of backyard chicken keepers and exhibition poultry breeders. Some of the common ones to watch out for in winter are:
If you're worried you may have sick chickens, read my helpful guide here.
Be on the lookout for any discharge of the eyes or nostrils and unusual breathing. Night time is the easiest time to do health and parasite checks on your flock. A book I recommend to every owner is Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. If you’re concerned about a flock member, isolate her straight away and seek veterinary advice.
Gail is a brilliant American author, and the book has a beautiful section about disease prevalence, what to do, treatment, post-mortem findings, etc. I have found the symptom information clear and accurate and is a must for any backyard owner or poultry breeder.
Caring for your chickens in the winter isn’t too tricky with the right tools. And, when summer rolls around again, I have a guide to help your backyard chickens survive a heatwave.
Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshops, online programs, phone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.
Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now!