Cold and Snow vs. Open Chicken Housing: Who Will Win?

by Robert

Chickens in the Snow. 7:30 AM, 18°F, Light Wind

It's 18 F outside and there's about four inches of snow on the ground. My chickens are all in open coops that most people would consider suitable only for summer housing. All my feeding and watering is done outdoors. What's up with that?

Yesterday there was snow, and the day before there was a little bit of snow, but it was above freezing. My chickens didn't like the looks of the snow and most of them stayed inside. To get them out to the feed, water, and nest boxes, I drove them out of their houses. The first time, there was hardly any snow, and you could see their reaction of "Hey, this isn't bad!" Once out of the houses, they were in no rush to go back in. Later, with more snow, they were less certain, and some jumped back inside right away. We'll see what happens today. They'll get used to it eventually, but they need to keep eating if they're going to keep laying, so I want them to get used to it now.

Today, the temperatures are going to stay below freezing all day, so I'm going to have to schlep buckets of warm water out to them. In very cold weather, the water in the buckets will freeze, but I just bring them back inside and put them next to the stove, and eventually they thaw. A lot of people like rubber feed pans because the ice can be dumped on the spot, and I'll be trying that, too.

My houses don't have insulated roofs. It usually it doesn't matter, because with open housing like mine, the inside temperature is the same as the outside temperature, so water doesn't condense on the ceiling and drip on the chickens. If temperatures are above freezing but there's snow on the roof, this isn't true anymore. The floors in the houses were pretty nasty yesterday. No doubt they're frozen now. I haven't been out to check yet.

I'll report back later and tell you how it's going. Based in past experience, the chickens' health will be completely unaffected by any of this, just like it says in Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, (great book, by the way). I'll post some photos, too.


First Look, 8:15 AM, 20°F, Light Winds

Chickens using range feeders in the snow

This photo shows some early birds hanging around the range feeders.

Chickens in fresh-air chicken coop on snowy morning

Here is one of my "low houses," whose occupants don't seem to want to go outside. Note that some of the hens are roosting on the front wall rather than inside. The cold doesn't seem to bother them.

Only a handful of chickens were moving around outside, but I scattered some whole wheat and drove the chickens outside. Once there, a lot of them started their usual routines, heading off to the feeders or the nest boxes.

Chickens foraging in the snow

Here's a view after I scattered some grain and made them go outside. Business as usual, more or less.

The snow is a very light powder and my houses are very open, which means that there's some snow in all the houses. The chickens look active, alert, and dry, though they would like the snow to go away.

The chickens all looked fine, except one hen who was shivering badly. I think she spent the night outside. I put her in a nest box, which gets her out of the wind and should allow her to warm up quickly.

Later I'll bring them some warm water. Their waterers are hidden under the snow and are frozen solid.

Noon, 21°F

Partly sunny. I brought two buckets of water out to the chickens, who pretty much ignored them. Obviously, they aren't very thirsty. They showed more interest in the grain I scattered for them, but they aren't acting like they're starving. There were a reasonable number of eggs to collect. The hen I'd put in one of the nest boxes died, which surprised me, because I didn't think she was in that much distress. I also thought the nest-box trick would work. I have community nests (with are big nests that hold a lot of hens at once, and have no interior partitions), and I knew that there would be other hens right up against her in there, which would help warm her up. It wasn't enough.

All the other chickens look fine. The situation looks stable. Tonight at dusk I'll go out with a flashlight to make sure there aren't any other hens sleeping outdoors.

This cold snap is supposed to last about a week and will reduce egg production significantly unless the hens get used to snow in a hurry. I don't expect any other ill effects (except for any remaining chickens that sleep outdoors).

This kind of cold snap occurs only about once every five years. If it happened more often, I'd have feeders and waterers in every house. Filling them would then become such a nuisance that I'd have fewer, larger houses.

7 PM, 19°F. All Quiet

I took a a tour around the houses. One hen was sleeping on the roof of a house, a couple were roosting on the side walls, and at least a dozen on the low front walls. I moved them all inside.

I retrieved the two galvanized buckets I'm using for waterers, since they'll just freeze solid if I leave them out. I'll take them back onto the pasture first thing tomorrow morning. I used to have some bucket heaters, which would keep the water in the buckets from freezing, but I tossed them after I stopped running hundreds of feet of extension cord onto the pasture for winter lighting. I still have enough extension cords, but no heaters.

By the way, I have two products to recommend. One is Coleman's wonderful new LED flashlight, as shown in the Amazon box below (though I bought mine at BiMart):

r are "Hot Shot Hunting Gloves." These are wonderful winter gloves: waterproof, with Thinsulate insulation that keeps your fingers toasty. I have the kind that are fingerless gloves with mitten flaps. The standard gloves are probably even better.

I forgot to mention that I've seen weather this cold before, and this much snow before, but not both at the same time. Before, with cold weather but no snow, the hens were not reluctant to leave the houses and visit the feeders, and my only problem was providing water. In previous snowstorms, the above-freezing temperatures meant that the watering system worked and (more importantly) that the snow didn't last long enough to cause much trouble. We're in for a week of this snowy, below-freezing weather.

Tuesday Evening, 19°F

Today was more of the same, except that the chickens look happier now that they're getting used to the snow. They're spending more time outside. They greeted buckets of water and scratch feed with little more than polite interest, meaning that they're probably making it to the feeders on their own and learning to eat snow. If anything, they looked less cold today, although the temperatures weren't any higher than before.

Bottom line: except for one hen sleeping out in the open, none of the chickens seem affected by the cold, in spite of wide-open housing and temperatures as low as 15°F. Being freaked out by their first encounter with snow has been by far the biggest problem.

The weather report is for pretty much the same kind of weather for another week -- highs in the twenties or low thirties, lows in the teens or twenties, occasional snow -- which is very unusual for around here, a once-a-decade event at most.

Our household water system nearly gave out, but we kludged a fix for it. We have a two-pump system, with a submersible pump in the well, which pumps water into a 1500-gallon cistern, and a jet pump that pumps water out of the cistern and into the house. The path between the well pump and the cistern was frozen. I didn't notice until I peered into the cistern this morning. It was almost empty and had a skin of ice on top. Not good! The pipe-heating cable that was supposed to keep things flowing had failed. We managed to bypass it with a length of garden hose from a convenient spigot at the wellhead and into the top of the cistern. The water comes out of our well at 50°F, which should prevent any more ice from forming in the cistern.

(In a colder climate, we'd have put this 1500-gallon black plastic cistern in a shed, but as it is, we just left it out in the open.)

Saturday

The weather is slightly above freezing but there is more snow than ever. The chickens are behaving normally and there are no problems. As I said before, my previous problems were not caused by the cold but by the chickens' reluctance to go out in the snow, but they had to in order to eat and drink. In a normal operation with feeders and waterers indoors, there would have been no difficulty at all.

The snow causes another problem, though. Normally, my highly ventilated houses don't have any problem with condensation. The air inside the house is the same temperature as the air outside the house, so there's no tendency for moisture to condense on the ceiling or walls. But when the temperature is above freezing and there's snow on the roof, water condenses like mad and drips into the house.

I only have to put up with this for a few days a year in my highly ventilated coops, but people with ordinary coops put with this all winter. By going to great lengths to shut their coops up tight and to keep the temperatures higher inside than outside, moisture is condensing on the walls and ceiling all winter long and dripping back into the house. It turns the chicken house into a disgusting, unhealthy mess. The dampness leads to frostbitten combs, the sight of which tends to make people redouble their attempts to add heat and prevent ventilation. It's a vicious cycle.

I've republished Prince T. Woods' excellent book, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, to help get the word out. You should at least click on the link and read the sample chapters. This week's bout with unusually cold weather (for here) has certainly vindicated Dr. Woods' main points.


22 comments

Comment from: Oogiem [Visitor]
Have you or anyone you know tried the same type of system when it's 5 or lower and a strong wind?

I've been locking the chickens up for winter once our temps start getting down that far. We always have a morning wind and an evening one, wind chills can really be significant here and I worry about my chickens. They are in an unheated barn but inside.

I do have heaters for the water, otherwise it freezes way too fast.
12/21/08 @ 06:55
Comment from: Robert [Member]
People can quote anything on my Web site if they give me credit and (if possible) a link back to my site.

As for temperatures of 5°F and lower, my own experience only goes down to about 15°F, but the consensus of the old-time poultry authorities seems to be that open housing is good down to zero. Below zero, you'd prefer it if one side weren't completely open. At twenty below, the hens start suffering no matter what you do.

I would think that in a barn, the hens would be fine if they can find places out of the wind to roost. If you left a couple of lights on, they would be willing to move from place to place to get out of the wind if it shifted.
12/21/08 @ 09:01
Comment from: Robert [Member]
Predators can be a serious problem. I use a two-strand electric fence of the kind used to keep raccoons out of gardens (one strand at about 4" off the ground and another at about 8-10"). This works pretty well, though I sometimes have to use snares on predators who insist on getting past the fence. Permanent fencing can be more reliable than this.

Before the fence, I discovered that predators would show up at dusk, before the chickens were willing to go inside for the night, so having a door I could close at night wasn't enough. Not unless I wanted to keep guard for an hour or so every night, until the last chicken went indoors. Since I'm not willing to do this (or to get up early to let the chickens out again), I don't put doors on my chicken houses.
12/31/08 @ 12:52
Comment from: Sandra Ross [Visitor]
*****
A wonderful website with lots of info for the beginning poultry keeper. That would be me.
Interestingly, I bought my 6 Buff Orpington hens and rooster from a man who has been farming his entire life. He lives north of Toronto in Canada where the temps probably range from 32 degrees down to 0 degrees throughout the winter, He raises heritage and endangered breeds, chickens, turkeys, and geese.
I have never seen such beautiful birds.

i was surprised though when I went to pick up my birds - all the housing was open on one side!
And there were chickens and turkeys housed together. He said that his birds are just healthier, and don't transmit disease.

Then I found your site. And bought the book.
Spring will be building season for the new chicken quarters - open of course.

Keep up the great work.

01/02/09 @ 18:53
Comment from: Debbi [Visitor]
*****
Robert, I am new to chickens as of June this year and am always on the lookout for practical, sensible information. You seem to have the info I am needing. I have been pleased with the A frame coops my husband designed and the ventilation is great. I am using the deep litter method and also using "stall dry" maybe every couple of weeks just sprinkled lightly over the litter and stirred in, which contains diatomaceous earth. It has a fresh scent and absorbs odors and dampness and is a natural deterrent to bugs. It is not harmful to animals. My chickens are happy free ranging to their hearts content. We are in north Texas and have had several freezing or below days so far. They all came through in fine shape. Keep up the good work.
01/02/09 @ 19:29
Comment from: Lynn [Visitor]
I live in Minnesota and we get a number of nights each year down to -20 degrees as well as a week or so of subzero highs. Last year we stopped using our enclosed chicken house in the winter and went to a type of open chicken tractor and were very pleased with the results. I have 3 pens that are set right next to each other. The top, north and half of the east and west sides of the pens are insulated and totally enclosed the rest is enclosed with cattle panels and chicken wire. When it starts to get really cold I set bales of hay to cover up the entire west and east sides and part of the southern sides. The doorway is always completely open. I do hang a trouble light in each pen since 9 hours of daylight just isn't enough. For water, I have a electric base that I set my waters on top of. The chicks and I were very happy with this set up. Clean up was great, I just moved the tractors at the end of the season.

Unfortunately this year I haven't had access to my lovely winter pens so my poor chicks have been stuck in their summer chicken tractors with just plastic tarps on the side and a wooden top. We had an unexpected cold snap that got down to minus 18 degrees and windy. They all survived (terrible egg production) except for one the low chick on the totem pole who refused to roost with everyone else. I set hay bales around the pens, and set it up like I did last year. Everyone is happy again. Wind seems to be a bigger issue than the actual air temp.
01/02/09 @ 21:12
Comment from: Janice [Visitor]
*****
Remarkably helpful, and timely, as I'm learning these same lessons just now with winter really setting in.

Just rounding out my first year of chicken raising here in NE Kansas, I dutifully insulated and sealed up my coop-extraordinaire, provided a milkhouse heater because we've already had two spells of week-long single-digit temps and 3-4" of snow and I didn't want frozen chickens. (Very odd for KS this early, yes.)

It took me awhile to learn effective anti-predator tactics, unfortunately, so I'm down to 2 roosters and three hens--buff orpington, red sex-link, and a white leghorn (all still laying one-a-day, along with the ducks!). They free-range all day, and I close them up at night to keep them from being eaten. Both roosters and the leghorn have large single combs, and all three now have frostbite, in spite of some vaseline, and keeping the coop above freezing.

So I'm beginning to understand the reason for the frostbite is not the cold temperature, really, but the humidity. I thought the coop had adequate ventilation, and it didn't seem damp to me, but clearly, that's the culprit. Interesting that "all the books" tell us to carefully seal up the cracks to prevent drafts, mention that adequate ventilation is required, but offer almost no details about how to seal cracks AND ventilate!

I'm convinced by this great writing of yours, Robert, and greatly appreciate your personal account here of the great open-sided-experiment! Tomorrow I'm opening up a good portion of the south side and will just put up wire mesh there. (Already I leave the large human-door open all day, but it's obviously not enough to dry the coop out properly. It's quite humid in Kansas anyway, but I forget that in the serious cold times.) So I'm thinking I'll gradually take down one portion at a time until that side is entirely wire mesh, and see how we do. (BTW, I've slathered the poor combs with antibiotic ointment, and both roosters are fine. The leghorn looks kind of pathetic, but seems fairly happy, eats well, and lays regularly.)

Interesting aside... I also have 7 guinea fowl, which originated in Africa, so of course ALL the books say they MUST be kept dry, and fairly warm. Well, they're a remarkably stubborn creature and once they're set in the trees for the evening, they're simply not coming in. Period. One night a couple weeks ago they insisted on roosting in the tree above the coop/yard in spite of heavy sleet turning to ice. I thought sure I'd come out to find them all frozen solid guinea statues, but instead they were running around (still believing there must be SOME ticks to eat somewhere!) They are quite hearty and healthy in spite of it. Perhaps a little less hard-headed, but I doubt it...

Thanks again for this great work. It's helping me and my birds tremendously!
01/02/09 @ 22:21
Comment from: Jill [Visitor] Email
*****
I too like this website and the helpful tips about the cold winter weather and chickens. I live in Iowa and we have had some very cold and snowy weather. I only have a few chickens, 8 laying hens, 1 big red rooster and about 10 bantams that wonder all over the neighborhood. Everyone is home to roost at night usually in the cold weather. I have an insulated house and use a heat lamp for 3 hours in the evening and 1 hour in the morning. My egg production went up once I started the heat lamp. I keep the food trays in the house full and I have a heated waterer in the house also. To avoid chick loss I shut the chickens in the house everynight and let them out in the morning.
It is fun to read how others take care of their chickens.
01/04/09 @ 07:34
Comment from: Terrie Webb [Visitor] Email
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My chickens have stopped laying since it has gotten cold and I don't understand why. Any suggestions.
01/05/09 @ 19:33
Comment from: Simone [Visitor]
*****
I live in Brooklyn NY and have 7 laying hens. The weather here is going to be very cold the next few days and I was thinking about putting a heat lamp in the coop overnight. I have an automatic chicken door, a heated waterer and my hens live in a coop that really was a kit I got at Lowes that was supposeto be a green house/ shed. I have been getting between 3 and four eggs a day and the hens go in and out as they please. Maybe after reading these posts I am thinking I really do not need that heat lamp later this week.
01/13/09 @ 19:25
Comment from: ANITA [Visitor]
*****
I came upon my leghorns from a school project and discovered that I LOVE my chickens! My questions are about their feet looking red in the cold temperatures, if the rooster will eventually attack me as his spur is getting longer, my one chicken coughs when I feed her dry food, and the black spots on the comb. I've got one rooster, two others were taken by a fox, and 9 hens. The chicken coop/run is now a fortress because we'd already lost two, with a nice long run so they have access to the ground. Lots of inside and outside purches. One of the hens, the smallest, seems to be last in the feeding order and frequently gets pecked. After isolating her at feeding time, she's got a nice comb, put on some weight and her tail feathers, which appeared to have been missing have come back. This has all been recreational but I enjoy them so much, I'd like to expand in the spring with more chickens. Do I make another fortress coop or put them with the existing flock. They are part-time free range as I have hawks sitting on the ground or in nearby trees during the day and other predators at night so they roam free when I'm outside and can keep an eye on them. Once while I was outside a group of vultures swirled around overhead and began getting closer and closer to us. It was freightening as I couldn't keep track of all of them to see if my chickens were being snatched up, luckily they all survived by hiding in the bushes.
Also, with the rooster around, I haven't been able to get the hens to allow me to pick them up. I can get close and they get close to me but when I reach for them, they go away. Any advise would be appreciated. Lovin' Leghorns!
02/05/09 @ 08:09
Comment from: John [Visitor]
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Living in Centeral Oregon where the temp goes to zero or below on a regular bases in the winter I am trying smaller enclosed coop with a covered pen. I am placing straw bales around three sides of the coop. I also leave a 100 watt light in the coop to ensure adequate light for them. The snow did freak them out, we found one hen outside but got her in time, so no loss. During the day we leave them out to wonder where ever. So far so good, temps have been in the high teens at night and low 40's in the day.
10/06/09 @ 07:28
Comment from: weez [Visitor]
*****
Thank you so much - I was undecided whether to get chickens now or wait till spring, but here in England it doesn't get nearly as cold, so I was worried for no reason. I knew they could survive an African winter, but it is good to know even in America you don't need fancy heating and insulation.
10/15/09 @ 21:36
Comment from: dianne bordieri [Visitor] Email
*****
Great info . Mychickens are near rice lake. My problem I go once a week. Will aquarium charcoal keep water fresher or is there anything you can suggest.Is light bulb better than water heater in pail? Last year plastic pail melted. Is eating snow harmful? Thank you. A while back I gave them away instead of stressing, I lost a good brooder, will or how can I get another from these?
10/16/09 @ 09:05
Comment from: Scott [Visitor]
*****
Great site. Very informative!
10/18/09 @ 17:04
Comment from: Roy [Visitor] Email
*****
We have started a flock this summer. My wife grew up in the city so it has been an adventure for her. We have a cam for our blog in our chicken house, this morning you can see a little snow that blew in but the chickens and guinea fowl do fine with it. My parents had guineas when I was growing up but they lost most of them to an ice storm. We trained ours to come in with the chickens and so we don't have to worry about it. Good job, I look forward to following your adventures in farming.
10/21/09 @ 13:29
Comment from: sheeplady7 [Member] Email
Hi Robert,
I am wondering if you have any ideas for chicken producers who live in actually really cold climates. I live in Northern Alberta where we get -40C which is the same as -40F every year. We also get extended periods of time where it is around -20C. I don't know what that is in F except it is really cold. I want to have a feed made up at the feed mill but I am not really sure what to have in it. I don't like to buy the small bagged stuff because I don't know what is in it nor do I like the price. this is the 2nd year I've had hens through the winter and they seemed fine last year I would just like them to be better this year.
Thanks
Chris
11/18/09 @ 05:46
Comment from: Robert [Member]
Chris,

My personal experience doesn't go below about +15F. According to the literature, chickens in reasonably windproof housing don't suffer until the temperature hits -20C or so.

Traditional wisdom is that heating the whole chicken house works, but is too expensive, and if you do it wrong the house tends to burn down (the chicken manure and ammonia tend to rot equipment, and feathers and straw are bad for fans and heating elements, etc.)

Grain and Exercise. The traditional method of keeping the hens warm is to have fluffy litter, usually of straw, and to scatter grain in the litter first thing in the morning and again before dark. In the daytime, the hens warm themselves through the exercise of hunting for the grain in the litter, and the grain provides the fuel to keep them warm. At night, the hens to to roost with a crop full of grain, which they digest throughout the night to provide readily available calories to keep them warm.

I haven't tried the following, but I suggest two methods of keeping the roosting area less frigid:

Aluminized bubble insulation above the roosting area This stuff goes by brand names like TekFoil and AstroFoil, and consists of a couple of layers of bubble wrap sandwiched with layers of aluminum foil. It reflects heat. Stapling this to the ceiling and back wall, above and behind the roosts, should make the area warmer.

Heated roosts. I've always meant to try this, but it's just not cold enough to be worth my while. Make roosts out of electrical conduit or galvanized pipe. Run heating cable down the inside of the pipe. Hook up to a thermal switch if the cable doesn't have one already. Plug in. In sub-freezing weather, the thermostat will turn on the heating cable, and the roosts (and the hens perched on them) will be warm.
11/18/09 @ 07:01
Comment from: Roy [Visitor] Email
Well our open air hens and guineas did just fine last night, it was down to -19 with a 15-20 mph wind, the wind chill was around -35. I do add some oil (black) sunflower to my scratch mix when it gets that cold, the oil give them a boost in energy. They will pass by all the other seeds to get the oilseeds first. My homemade water heater worked like a champ and so I know it is rated for at least -19.
12/09/09 @ 10:19
Comment from: Sue (England) [Visitor] Email
*****
I found your website when anxiously looking for advice about our 4 chickens - we have had them only 3 days and are experiencing an unusual cold snap with temperatures of -5 degrees celcius (which I think is around 23F - sounds really hot compared with what you are describing!). As the girls were Christmas presents for my 3 children we are keen for them to survive! Reading all this makes me think that we have nothing to worry about. I am just wondering where we can get hold of something to run up an open coop tomorrow - having of course just bought an expensive 'normal' one.

Oh well, you live and learn!

Greetings from the middle of the UK!
01/05/10 @ 13:06
Comment from: sue [Visitor]
***--
During very cold weather I heat up a housebrick & wrap it in an old towel. This I put in the hen's sleeping quarters to take the chill off overnight.
There is evidence that my hens snuggle up to the brick. Plenty of warm water & high enery foods seem to be keeping the girls going. They won't step on the snow & are content to stay in the run during the day - even when I clean the run & they could get outside...
01/07/10 @ 06:10
Comment from: trish [Visitor] Email
*****
we are awaiting our first chicks ever and I'm loving this site and all the input. We live in upstate NY near VT border-cold winters and would have closed up a coop way too much if not for finding your site, Robert. I love the hot brick idea. AS it is early spring, our first issues won't be cold but predators (hawks, coyotes, raccoons...) and preventing rats. We'll just use common sense on the latter and hope for the best but any advice appreciated from you more experienced types (we don't like rats)
03/28/10 @ 21:35