Chicken Nutrition in Comb-Chilling Months

Sissy keeping cozy in winter months. Photo/Jennifer Elizabeth Crone
By Allison Silshere, Nutrena Poultry Expert, for Backyard Poultry

There's a reason why chickens aren't peckish about cold weather. The average chicken has 8,500 feathers, which is a pretty warm winter coat. In fact, chickens can survive cold temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero.

But there's an important caveat: That chicken must be healthy—and especially so if you're expecting winter eggs, to. A chicken who enters winter in poor body condition will not likely improve during cold weather, unless carefully fed and housed. So be proactive. Know how falling temperatures affect chickens. Second, know how to meet their nutritional needs through the comb-chilling cold-weather months.

Hardiness Varies
Even with their downy surrounds, a chicken's hardiness can vary. A flock will likely start suffering earlier than minus 20 F. Precipitation and wind chill dramatically decrease a chicken's threshold for withstanding cold. So no damp, humid coops.

While many owners are quick to fire up a heater, that may not be the best idea. Chickens should have a chance to acclimate to the cold. Heating too soon doesn't let their bodies adjust to the dropping temps, and they go from one extreme to another. When and if you should heat the coop will depend on your conditions, local temperatures, and chicken breed(s).

Here's a good representation of breeds that are hardy through the winter, and that, with the right nutrition, should continue to lay (although at a limited rate) through the cold-weather months:
  • Buckeye
  • Delaware
  • Jersey Giant
  • Plymouth Rock
  • Chantecler
  • Dominique
  • Orpington
  • Wynadotte
Breeds that may not fare as well:
  • Frizzles and Silkies (their unique feathers make it hard for them to hold body heat)
  • Fancy feathered breeds (Example: Polish). They can have problems with their ornamental feathers in ice and snow.
How will you know if your birds are too cold? Look for signs like huddling in one place all day, sluggish behavior, or any hints of frostbite—cold weather combined with black spots on the combs or wattles usually mean frostbite. These areas may blister and weep. They should dry up and may eventually fall off.

Winter Nutrition Guidelines
Winter nutrition emphasizes calories. More calories. Like any wintering animal, chickens work harder and use more energy to keep their bodies warm. The chickens also go from ranging in summer to near total confinement in winter. That means no extras, like free-range bugs, worms, or greens. To help them maintain body weight and keep hens laying, follow these general guidelines:
  1. Feed extra calories—sooner, rather than later. A good, high-quality (winter is not the time to skimp), commercial layer feed will provide enough nutrients. Feed free choice, as your birds will consume what they need and self-regulate their consumption.
  2. Use scratch only as a treat. Fee no more than 10 to 15 percent of the total diet as scratch. Feeding more than this amount will dilute essential protein, vitamins and minerals which can result in decreased laying, feather pecking, etc. The right amount is what your birds will eat in about 15 minutes.
  3. As daylight shortens, chickens will usually begin to molt (beginning around 18 months old) and stop laying. It's especially important to continue with high-quality rations through molt. This will help your birds get back to laying eggs as quickly as possible.
  4. Continue to offer grit and oyster shell free choice year-round.
  5. Water is as important in cold weather as it is in hot weather. Water should be kept clean and at a non-freezing temperature. Some research shows that animals prefer water above 55 degrees. Use common sense here. Heated pet bowls, founts, or bases are good options for chickens during freezing temperatures.

Artificial Lighting and Nutrition
Preventing egg reduction due to changes in natural day length requires artificial lighting. To maintain production, day length must increase or remain constant at about 15 hours per day. While the type of bulb doesn't matter, the light should be just bright enough to read a newspaper. (If you are going to use light bulbs in your coop—for added warmth or to keep the hens laying—o not use Teflon-coated bulbs as the fumes are toxic to birds.‚ Remember, if a lighting program is started, it must be continued. Even a one-day lapse can have a negative impact on egg production.

Especially if you're using artificial light, feeding a high-energy layer feed is important. Continue to offer oyster shell and grit. This will help ensure your hens are able to properly digest their food and have enough calcium to continue laying hard-shelled eggs, all while maintaining body weight, and staying warm and happy.

A Quick Word About Winter Coops
Preparing your coop for winter really is a whole separate topic, and too long to cover here. However keep in mind that a smaller coop in winter is not necessarily better. Cramped coops can breed bad habits among chickens (thus, the phrase, "all cooped up"). Also, don't sacrifice ventilation in an attempt to keep the coop warmer. That will just increase humidity, and the likelihood of frostbite, which can happen in air that's just near freezing. Aim for a dry, draft-free, ample coop coupled with nutritious feed, drinkable water, and cozy bedding. 


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.