Backyard Chicken Care in Winter: Expert Tips
As another chilly winter rears its ugly head, you’re probably wondering—can backyard chickens survive winter outside?
Of course! And you don’t need to don them with little coats or relocate them to a heated house.
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.
In fact, preventing disease and stress in your flock isn’t complicated, and I’m wildly passionate about teaching people how to keep healthy birds as naturally as possible. Try only to use veterinary drugs as a last resort!
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:
- Litter management
- Common diseases
Ready? Let’s take a look at what to do with backyard chickens in the winter.
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 in 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.
How much space do backyard chickens need? I work off a minimum of 1m² per bird in a run and 3m² in the backyard. Following these measurements means you’ll have much healthier, stress-free birds.
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 your area using either Perspex or horticultural plastic—the type that is used for greenhouses. 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, 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 increase the airflow or improve the quality and management of their litter.
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 the system.
How do you make a flow without a draft?
Chickens don't like the wind. So learning how to keep 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.
3. 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.
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 to give the water somewhere else to go.
Relieve muddy, compacted areas by turning the litter over with a shovel or a garden fork.
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.
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’. You don't want the play sand from the kids’ sandbox—-when you squeeze it; 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 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 their 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 practising 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.
6. Common Diseases
As far as health goes, various diseases affect backyard chickens in winter. 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.
I recommend you get your hands on the Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow.
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.
As you can see, learning how to care 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.
Become an expert in Backyard Chickens 101 and check here for the latest tips and trends all about chooks.
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.