A few years ago I wrote a post about what chickens need in winter. But in recent years, I’ve seen a variety of things suggested online, which are either unnecessary or a downright bad idea. Some people have unfortunately killed their birds with kindness. So, today I’m going to talk about six things that chickens do not need in winter.
I cringe every time I see a picture of a chicken in a sweater on social media. No, chickens do not need sweaters. In fact, this is a very bad idea for several reason. Chickens stay warm because their feathers are fluffy. When you put a sweater on them, that weighs down their feathers, removing the air, and they will actually be more cold.
A sweater will also prevent them from their usual grooming and preening. Many of the pictures I’ve seen cover the chicken’s body completely, including the wings, which means it can’t even flap its wings like a normal chicken. This would be like putting a person in a straight jacket.
And if they are wearing a sweater, it could get caught on something and cause them to get injured or caught by a predator.
If you own a down jacket or a down comforter, think about how warm it is!
Petroleum jelly on their combs
Some people say you can prevent frostbite on combs during the winter by putting petroleum jelly on the combs. For starters, this is really impractical if you have more than four or five chickens, especially if it is getting below freezing every night. And I’m not sold on the idea that it would actually prevent frostbite.
What really causes frostbite on their combs is moisture. If you have them in a coop that is insulated, moisture will build up, and they are more likely to get a frozen comb. Once in awhile one of our roosters will lose a few tips on his comb, but our hens are totally fine, and we’ve had temperatures get as low as 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The other thing I don’t like about this is the petroleum jelly. It is a petroleum product. I don’t use any petroleum products on my body, and I’m not going to use any petroleum products on the body of any animal that is producing food for us.
If you live in an area that has a lot of low temperatures in the single digits, you could get a breed that has a flat comb, such as a rose comb, which is not as susceptible to frostbite as a large single comb.
And no, it is not true that a rooster will become sterile if his comb freezes.
A heated coop
Heating the coop will result in chickens that are not acclimated to your climate, and if you have a power outage, they will be really unhappy. Also, when people heat their coop, they usually insulate it, which is a bad idea.
In two decades of keeping chickens in northern Illinois, we have never heated our chicken coop. We get below zero temperatures every winter. Our average low in January is 22 degrees, and we have seen temperatures as low as 25 below zero — yes, that’s -25 Fahrenheit. And it was part of a cold snap where the temperature did not get above -15 for 36 hours. All of the chickens were fine, but we did lose a peahen who decided to roost outside rather than go into our unheated barn with the other peafowl.
I think these temperatures are on the lower end of what they can survive. The other thing to consider is how long the temperatures are that low. After a couple of days, they would likely start to get more stressed, so if you are in northern Canada or norther Alaska, you might need to do something to raise the temperature of your coop at least 10 or 20 degrees, if it’s below zero for many days at a time.
An insulated coop
Insulating the coop will cause moisture build-up, which will result in frozen combs, as well as respiratory problems.
Here is one time in my life when procrastination paid off! When we built out chicken house back in 2007 or so, we had plans to insulate it, but we never got around to it that first year, and then we went through winter and realized our chickens were totally fine, so we never insulated it.
Now, some of the most vocal proponents of NOT insulating your coop are people I know in the Chicago area who were on the ball and insulated their coop when they built it — and they spent a lot of time at the vet with sick chickens their first winter because they kept getting respiratory illnesses.
The next winter, they realized the coop needed to be well ventilated (but not drafty) so they kept a window open, and their chickens were much healthier.
We’ve been keeping as many as 80 chickens most years since 2002 and have never had a chicken with a respiratory problem.
A lighted coop
Your chickens don’t need a lighted coop. They’ll be totally happy with the longer nights in winter. However, that means they won’t be laying as much or may take a break until the days get longer again.
We don’t light our coop because I feel that if Mother Nature thinks the girls need a break, who am I to argue. I really believe that one reason we have had virtually no sick chickens in two decades is because we don’t force them to lay 12 months a year.
If you choose to light your coop to keep your hens laying over the winter, be sure that you do not use the Teflon-coated light bulbs because they emit toxic fumes that can kill your chickens.
Also, if you want to add supplemental lighting to keep them laying, you should put the light on a timer so the light goes on in the morning for the added hours of light. If it goes off at night, the chickens will not be able to roost because they can’t see in the dark, so they will be stuck where they are standing when the light goes off.
Apple cider vinegar to keep water from freezing
The freezing point for vinegar is 28 degrees. The freezing point for water is 32 degrees. If you put a splash of vinegar in water, it is not going to lower the freezing point much, if at all. And if it gets lower than 28 degrees, there’s no point at all.
If you have a problem with water freezing, either buy a water heater or use two bowls, and swap them out as one freezes. Don’t worry about water overnight, as chickens don’t drink overnight. They’re practically blind in the dark and don’t leave the roost until sunrise.
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So, what do chickens need in winter?
Keeping chickens in a cold climate is not hard. I’ve even met southern Alaska chicken keepers online who’ve said they don’t do anything special during the winter other than use a water heater.
Your chickens do need a place where they’ll be protected from wind, snow, and rain — 365 days a year — but other than that, they’re well equipped to brave the cold far better than we are. For more details, check out my previous post on chickens in winter.
Want to learn more about raising chickens? Check out this beginner’s guide plus pro tips.
17 thoughts on “6 Things Chickens Don’t Need in Winter”
Good article. People are always posting pictures of chickens with sweaters on , on my FB page. I have to keep telling them that is cruel and inhuman treatment… But I did always wonder about the insulated coop. Ours is not and I wondered if we should. So thank you…
I too was wondering if I should insulate chip coop. Now I know not to. I have a dog dish that keeps water from freezing and they seem content with that. Because they are stuck in coop when it rains or snows I put straw on a bunch so they have something to scratch in until they can go outside. My grandmother raised chixs for eggs and she had a lite that she turned on at bout 4:00 or so on morning, switch was at the head of her bed so she set alarm and turned on lites .Said they laid better by being awake in morning. So we have a timer.
I’m new to chicken keeping, so it’s good to kmow I’m doing the right things here. Thanks for the reassurance!
I took in the ‘hatch’ from my daughter’s school one year, (she is a teacher). They turned out to be Leghorns in a cold, New England climate. Roo lost his comb and part of his wattles last winter, in a non-heated, non-insulated coop. Wattles are turning blue once again, but this year, I turned on a heat bulb over them for the night time (up high that can’t be reached) when temps get below 20°, if power goes out overnight and remains out longer than a day, we have two generators we run to replace the power. We also refrigerate goat’s milk, can’t afford to lose farm income! We wouldn’t have chosen them as a breed for New England, but, they needed a home and the eggs were donated to the school without consideration as to where the chicks would be living. I try to use that heat bulb only sparingly to keep Roo and his girls out of pain. They go outside when the sun”s up at their own discretion.
Lately my hands have been roosting on the 5 inch wide board that runs in front of their nest. Instead of posting on the quite adequate roosting post. Any ideas about how to discourage this is every morning I have to clean this board off. Sometimes they want to sleep in the nest also. Does that mean that they’re cold? It hasn’t been that cold lately maybe 30° at night
Sleeping in nest boxes doesn’t mean they’re cold. Some do that in summer. They feel secure when they’re hiding, which is why they lay their eggs in nest boxes. They even make commercial nest boxes that have a roost that folds up to block their entrance in the evening, so they can’t sleep in there. But that means you have to be out there first thing in the morning to put it down so that they can get in there to lay eggs.
Is the roosting bar metal? If so, that gets very cold and can actually cause frost bite, so it’s good that they’re not roosting on that, if it’s metal. If there real roost is wood. that’s great. My other question would be — is their official roost closer to the ground than the board in front of the nest boxes? They will want to roost on whatever is highest in their coop because they will feel safer the higher they are. So, bottom line is that they need a wooden roost that is higher than the board in front of the nest boxes.
Here in western Washington, where winter means WET, even with uninsulated coops, moisture will build up inside. It’s a fact of life around here. Everything is damp all the time. So, if the temperature drops, the combs gets frostbite. Thankfully, many years it doesn’t get that cold, but it’s supposed to this year. In fact, we are supposed to get pretty cold next week.
We lived in Bremerton back in the late 1980s pre-homesteading, but I do know what you mean about the wet winters. That makes ventilation in the coop even more important than for most areas. And if you worry about frostbite a lot, look into breeds that have a flat comb like a rose comb rather than the large single comb breeds.
Great article , I might add that if you live in the great north , you can put compost beds with worms in a hoop house with ventilation , this compost will provide heat to the beds providing some warmth and worms for food. It will also help to keep water from freezing, the coop will be inside the hoop house.
I second p jelly point!!! If chickens do get frostbite massage combs w coconut oil! Works great
I don’t think you really meant “massage” as you should never massage any part of the body has been frostbitten as it will damage the area even worse. Nothing can cure frostbite once it happens, so I’m not sure what coconut oil is supposed to do, but gently dabbing it on shouldn’t hurt.
OK Ive read many reassuring articles that say they’re fine without even a “radiant heater” even down to 20 degrees below zero F. I’m not reassured yet about when it gets to, and it has, -30, -40, -50 below or one winter -60 … That is BELOW! And withOUT wind chill. First-timer here.
I would NOT assume they can handle anything below -20 F. I even say in the article that -20 is probably about the lowest they can handle. If you are in one of those places where it get -30 or worse, then you need something to bring temps up somewhat.
We live in Canada and temperatures can get below -30. If we need to bring temperatures up during those colder spells, how do you suggest doing so? We tried a couple different types of heaters, but both didn’t seem to help. Some of the chickens got frostbite on their combs. Any ideas are much appreciated!
Frostbite is not a big deal and has no long-term consequences. It’s a myth that it makes rooster sterile.
The goal is not get it warm enough to avoid frostbite — simply to keep it from falling so low that you have chickens dying from the cold.
One of my girls’ combs is light gray today after a couple days below 10F in Denver. Dry, but cold. Coop is dry and not insulated.
Temps should stay above 20F the next couple nights/weeks. Will it get worse if she’s out and about or sleeping in temps under freezing (32)?
Thanks for any advice. J
If it’s gray, sounds like it’s frostbite, which I would not expect on a hen at only 10F unless she has a huge comb like a leghorn. But there’s really not much you can do about it. The damage is done. The frostbitten part will fall off in a couple of weeks. I’ve never had one get infected or anything bad. The less comb there is, the less risk of frostbite in the future.