This has been the mildest fall since we moved to the smoky mountains. We wore shorts on Thanksgiving. Tomatoes were still ripening on the plant. November’s handful of light frosts weren’t enough to fry the nasturtium that took over the raised beds this year. The bees were grateful to find flowers still in bloom. I was grateful for the mild weather every sunrise, dragging myself to the chicken yard.
Hard freezes are vital for the ecosystem. While it’s hard not to feel a little guilty for enjoying the mild weather, it’s easy to appreciate not having to worry about frozen chicken water. Or frozen chickens.
Half way through week 39 with chickens, we awoke to rain. Temperatures dropped from the 50s overnight to the low 40s by 8 a.m. My bad for not checking weather apps the night before. The wintry weather forecast was now predicted to be more severe – and early. Chris left pre-dawn for work, before the cold weather rolled in. Later in the morning, before the roads froze, I took an early lunch to buy plastic drop cloths and shiny Christmas ornaments at the big box store.
Back at barnbungalow, I winter-proofed, making sure the golf cart was plugged in and the hose was not, stowing container plants in the shed, and covering the nasturtium in the raised beds with the new drop cloths. I hung the shiny Christmas ornaments all over the chicken yard to increase protection from hawks. Cold weather makes predators hungry, and snow was about neutralize the chickens’ camouflage. Except Cogburn, our accidentally white rooster. This would be the time for his camouflage to shine.
Their electric fence needed help, too. Wind had blown a wall of freshly fallen leaves against the chickens’ eastern-facing fence, grounding out the electric. As the rain turned to sleet, I cleared armfuls of wet leaves off 100′ of wire.
Predators aren’t the only concerns for chickens in cold weather. Chickens have tropical origins and are supposed to function best at 65-75°F. So how do people keep them in places like New England, where popular US breeds like the Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock originated? Cold-hardy traits have actually been bred into chickens over thousands of years. It’s widely held that most chickens are fine in temperatures down to -20°F, as long as they’re well fed, dry, and away from drafts. That’s negative 20°, not just 20°.
This is a long read about our chickens’ first cold snap. For a straightforward post about chickens and winter, check out this this helpful post on the informative Bitchin’ Chickens blog.
Dry and Draft Free
Dry and draft free is the mantra of chickens and winter. You’ll find accounts of people keeping coops wide open in -15°F because the ventilation blows away the moisture from poops and chicken breath. The enemy moisture, especially with its friend wind, can cause frostbite in much higher temperatures.
Moisture and wind, we have. Weather events in the mountains are almost always ushered in with high winds, and in the Southeast, snow is almost always wet. This event was no exception. As the temperature dropped, wet mush fell from the sky, and wind blew, and our chickens foraged, seemingly oblivious to how wet they were getting. Didn’t instinct tell them it would freeze later? Why weren’t they staying in their coops?? Should I shut them in, or was being active helping them stay warm?
Our chickens – Brahmas, Langshans, and Easter Eggers – are all “cold-hardy” breeds according to the hatchery website. All have dense feathering and 1 or more of the following: small combs and wattles, feathered legs, beards. Freezing weather shouldn’t be a problem for them, but I was nervous after the first light freeze nearly took out Frida Bakawlo a few weeks ago due to an underlying condition, and more nervous as they started looking like wet mops.
Research v. Reality: Threading the Winter Needle
It’s our first year with chickens, so we had no context for how our sunbeam-loving chickens would deal with 48 hours of sub-freezing temperatures. I was relying on research to prepare, but in the case of chickens and hard freezes, research started to freak me out. Contradictions abound! Here’s a sampling of the “gospel for chickens and winter” according to books and internet chicken bloggers.
- Drafts: Coops absolutely must be ventilated BUT draft-free. So keep all the coop windows open. And closed.
- Moisture: Chickens have to be well hydrated to fend off frostbite, BUT remove water from their coops to avoid excess humidity, and avoid feeding wet things like warm oatmeal or mash (feed with water on it) in case it wets their wattles and causes frostbite.
- Heat: Use supplemental heat for vulnerable birds, like non-cold-hardy or molting chickens, BUT heat lamps will burn down your coop, and even with the safer radiant heaters, if the power fails, birds not acclimated to the cold will perish.
- Bedding: Try “deep litter”: instead of cleaning out the coop, layer new bedding over the old so it composts and generates warmth. BUT don’t let old bedding sit around accumulating moisture or ammonia from the poops.
- Vaseline: Coat tall combs and wattles with Vaseline to prevent frostbite, BUT Vaseline also freezes, providing zero protection for your now goopy rooster.
What a tightrope. One wrong move, and your coop burns down and your chickens’ toes fall off. Here’s how I’ve decided to deal with each issue for now:
- Drafts: Coop windows are open except those that let drafts blow across the roosts.
- Moisture: I like them to have 24/7 access to water, and our humidity is almost always 85-100% anyway, so I’m still currently leaving a waterer in each coop. I also like feeding warm mash and oatmeal on the coldest mornings to help them warm up and hydrate. I never see wet feed or oatmeal sticking to even Cogburn’s glorious face flaps. Pretty sure another chicken would clean that off for him if it did.
- Heat: No heat for us.
- Bedding: Due to mite issues, we don’t use bedding except in nesting boxes. As much as chickens poop, I can’t imagine how fast deep litter would get gross.
- Vaseline: No thanks. Also gross.
Other advice that resonated was to check on the flock regularly during bad weather to make sure they weren’t stressed or sick. What does that look like? Hard to explain. Sick chickens look like normal chickens, with nuances you learn from being around chickens. Every visit with them is a learning experience.
For instance, on one visit during the snow-rain, I learned that the roosters have overtread poor Carrots and are taking feathers off her back at an alarming rate. She’s always one of the first to run out to hang with the boys, and the last to go in at night, and they take advantage. You can see the gap of missing feathers on her back:
The Carrots Crisis
Carrots had mild feather damage over the past couple weeks, but with rain-soaked feathers, the yellow skin on her back was exposed, eek. Chickens’ lungs are on their backs, so an exposed back in wet, freezing weather was not going to work. Plus, Carrots was displaying one of those stress nuances you learn to detect. She let out little squawks as she followed me around. She was cold.
My mind turned over what to do. I trotted up to the barn to set up a wire dog crate in the study with a big box of pine shavings to play in. Because Carrots is social and healthy, her bestie Raisin would have to come in with her. This would keep either from becoming depressed and ease the re-integration process later in the week. Separated chickens can lose their place in the pecking order. Having a buddy to return with with evidently reduces bullying.
That was plan A, but I wasn’t sold on it. Once they were acclimated to 60° temps in the barn, they couldn’t just be plunked back outside in the 20s, so we were looking at multiple days with chickens in the house. Carrots are Raisin are active baby chickens, not suited for life indoors.
It’s always better to let a chicken be a chicken if you can. If her feathers could dry off, they might cover the bald spot, but humidity that afternoon was 95%. Even if I shut the birds in their covered runs against the unrelenting snow-rain, how would she be dry by the time it hit freezing? One other concern that was almost too much to think about: what if none of the chickens were dry enough to safely stay outside? Did I need to start toweling birds right now and hope for the best? I walked back through the wind and slush to think it over with the birds.
The flock followed me into the big coop’s covered run, spreading out around the dry dirt. Some went to the feeder. Others waddled up the ramp to the coop and stood in the doorway just out of the wind. Carrots and Raisin jumped on the chair I put in the run and started preening. In 5 minutes, I had learned another new thing about chickens: they can preen themselves from soaking wet to bone dry in 5 minutes.
The flock usually preens when I hang out with them. It’s fun to watch how much pride they take in shining their feathers. Today, they weren’t just preening their own feathers. Raisin was gently pecking Carrots’ beard. Across the run, Ashley did the same to Stilton, and suddenly their bedraggled beards were fluffy again. Next, Raisin worked on Carrots’ back feathers. Around the run, Brahmas and Langshans pecked their leg feathers dry. Like a wand was waved, all the sad-looking, wet chickens turned back into big, round, dry chickens. Even Carrots’ back was covered, and she stopped squawking. Callooh callay! Have I mentioned how cool chickens are?
The snow started sticking at sunset.
They had oatmeal and mash for dinner because the extra calories supposedly keep them warm overnight. Carrots and the others slept the night away as their coops were blanketed with snow.
Heavy snow isn’t nearly as common at our elevation as it is 10 miles away on the 6K’ peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most days on our mountain reach above freezing, but this day, the high of 31°F did nothing to melt the inches of snow we had overnight.
I went to the chickens at the crack of dawn armed with room-temperature waterers and more warm mash, only to find myself trucking back to the barn for a lighter to melt ice out of door locks.
For the next hour, I worked to make everything as hospitable as possible, replacing frozen waterers and snow-covered feeders and finding ways to give them dry ground.
The feather-legged birds couldn’t play in the snow if it were going to be freezing all day. There are too many accounts of feathered feet turning to ice boots. By some miracle, all the feather-legged chickens had decided to roost together the night before, so they were already together in the big coop. I dug out the snow in their run, along with feed spilled around their main feeder so they wouldn’t be walking around in mud and mush all day. But when the coop door opened, not one bird was interested in leaving the quiet confines of the coop.
Eventually, they ventured into the run by ones and twos to stretch their wings, but it didn’t take long for them to head back up the ramp. I sledded down to the chicken yard several times over the day to clean the coop for them. It looked like they were having a frat party in there.
Our Easter Eggers have clean legs, so snow isn’t as big a concern, and unlike the big birds, they were stoked to run out and survey the scene.
The tractor’s run has a wire floor, so it wasn’t possible to dig out their wet ground. I fetched the box of pine shavings from the dog crate in the study. The plan was to pour the shavings into the run, but the box was a hit (2 weeks later, it’s still in the tractor; chickens love taking naps in the cardboard box).
The wire crate was ready in the barn for anyone who seemed unhappy, but the only chicken acting different was Cogburn. He was turning away from treats. From what I could tell, cold weather put him in protection mode. He’d take a sunflower seed if no girls were around, but the second anyone came over to see what he had, he’d back away, eyeing the treats but refusing them. For the good of the flock. That’s a strong rooster instinct. He’s twice as big as any other chicken here, so he had to be the hungriest.
No matter how many ways I tried to sneak him something tasty, a pullet would always pop up to see what Cogburn had, and he’d turn away. However, he did regularly toddle down to the main feeder to fill up on feed, which is probably better for him anyway.
Snow Day 2
The next day was 40s with sun. Great weather for foraging and photos.
After this cold-weather initiation, the upcoming winter with chickens doesn’t feel as daunting. They took it in stride.
Molting and Winter Laying
As week 40 with chickens began, it looked like Brahma Donna was going to molt. She stopped laying a few weeks ago and had started looking sort of ragged:
Within days, she looked like this!
Look at all the little pin feathers (new feathers) growing in around her neck. She’s lost most feathers on her head and feet. I’ve been watching her in the cold weather, but she’s still her peppy, head-hen self and has more feathers than she’s lost. At night, big fat Peep sits next to her on the roost, which would keep anyone warm.
Peep stopped laying a little bit after Donna, so she might be next to molt, or it may be that she’s stopped laying until warm weather and longer days. Brahmas are supposed to be “winter layers,” but you never know. Miss Eula seems done with molting and looks fluffier than ever. She’s laid 2 eggs in the past 2 weeks.
BeBe seems to be finished molting, too, but like all 3 Langshans, she’s laying nada. Langshans aren’t known as great layers. It’s possible they won’t lay again until spring. That’s okay. This supposedly means they’re more likely to lay into their golden years.
Meanwhile, the Easter Eggers are laying almost daily. This may be because they’re new to laying. It seems like the newest layers are the ones who lay the most, cold weather/shorter days or not.
At the end of this post, the chickens are 40 and 28 weeks old.