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Winter Blizzard Prep for Backyard Chickens

Blizzard preparation is a must if you raise chickens in the northern part of the world. Even though chickens are generally very cold-hardy, they still need a secure, dry place to sleep out of the wind and drafts.

Winter is on it's way. When we lived in Virginia, we didn't ever get too much snow nor temperatures much below freezing for too long a stretch, but now that we're in Maine it's a different story.

I'm a New Englander born and bred so I know all about nor'easters, blizzards, snow storms, freezing rain, sleet and bitter cold. With just a bit of effort you can help your flock better handle the cold and make sure you don't run out of feed or other supplies.

Winter Blizzard Prep for Backyard Chickens

The most important thing in the winter is that your coop is dry and draft-free with good cross air flow and ventilation higher than the roosts.  Frostbite is partially caused by damp conditions, so having adequate ventilation not only provides clean fresh air but helps prevent frostbite. 

As long as they stay dry (a wet chicken loses the ability to fluff their feathers to stay warm), and can get out of the wind and elements, chickens do just fine in temperatures well below freezing, and in fact don't seem too concerned until the temps dip below 18 or 20 degrees F.

Roosting bars should be wide enough that your hens' feet are flat when they roost and completely covered by their bodies/feathers from the top and the roost board from underneath. That will keep their toes protected from frostbite.

And the floor of the coop should have a nice thick layer of (preferably) straw on it for insulation.

Here are a few more easy things to do to prepare for the approaching cold weather as well as prepare for a  blizzard to help keep your flock warm and also to make your life easier.

Scatter some Straw and Set up Some Stumps, Logs, Pallets or Outdoor Roosts in the Run

Chickens generally don't like to walk in the snow. They would much rather stay inside than have to walk on a cold surface. I put down straw 'paths' from the coop door to sheltered areas of the run for them in the winter when it snows.

I also have set upturned stumps along the edges of the run.  We had a few trees fall in the last hurricane that swept through, so the trunks were re-purposed into 'run seating'. 

I constructed some roosts out of branches in the corners of the run for our chickens to perch on.  They love to line up and watch the world go by.

The hens, especially those with feathery feet, really like being able to get up off the ground and out of the snow, ice and mud.  

Free wooden pallets or logs are another great way to get them up off the ground, as are benches or even lawn chairs.

Add Scratch or Suet as an Evening Treat

Scratch grains should only be fed as a cold weather treat. The act of digesting the scratch warms up the hens' bodies, so I throw down scratch for them each afternoon all through the winter. You can purchase scratch grains in a commercial mix or make your own.  

Nuts or peanut butter are also a great source of energy and fat for your chickens in the winter. Unsalted varieties are best.

Suet is also a great winter treat for your flock. The fat in the suet provides energy for chilly chickens. Save up your meat grease in a small dish, then stir in peanuts, raisins or other grains and seeds and freeze until solid. 

Warm oats also makes a much-appreciated treat in the winter. Pour some water heated in a teakettle over a pan of old-fashioned oats and mix in some cinnamon, raisins, wheat germ or sunflowers seeds.

Your chickens will love it!

Stock Up on Feed and Bedding

Especially if you live in an area that gets lots of snow and isn't close to town, keep in mind that a deep snow or blizzard might prevent you from being able to get to the feed store, or even prevent delivery trucks from being able to make their deliveries to the feed stores.  

Your flock will also eat more in the winter, since grass and bugs aren't available, and they need more fuel to keep warm, so plan on going through feed faster than you do in the warmer months. 

Keep extra feed on hand.  Keep grains and seeds on hand that you can sprout also. Mung beans, broccoli, winter rye and other sprouts or fodder can feed your flock in a pinch and provide them excellent nutrition.  

Since the feed will keep in a cool dry place just fine, plan on keeping at least a month's supply on hand. I also keep extra straw on hand to stack in the coop along the walls to provide natural "insulation".

Rethink adding Supplemental Light Or Heating your Coop

I don't recommend either heating or lighting chicken coops in the winter. However, as the days shorten, laying will slow or stop completely in some instances.  Think about whether you will be adding supplemental lighting in the coop to prolong laying through the winter (again, not my recommendation).

And if you heat your coop, you might want to reconsider that as well. If you have a storm and lose power, your chickens won't be used to the cold and could freeze to death, not to mention that electricity is a huge fire hazard.

If they are allowed to get used to the cold gradually, they can handle pretty extreme temperatures. 

Figure out How You Will Keep Your Water from Freezing

Obviously in addition to food, providing your flock with clean, fresh (unfrozen) water is important.

You can buy (or make) a heated base for your metal waterers, but of course they do present a fire hazard of sorts - and I found they won't last all that long and are too expensive to keep buying new ones. 

We stopped using the metal waterers a few years ago because they rust and they aren't optimal for ducks.

Instead, we use deep black rubber tubs for water.  Set in the sun in the winter, the black rubber absorbs the heat from the sunlight and seems to keep the water from freezing far better than a metal waterer.

Also, the greater surface area and depth both work against freezing.  A few ping pong balls floated on the surface of a water tub will also create just enough movement to prevent the tub from freezing.

We're lucky to have ducks who play in the water all day long, so that also seems to keep the water from freezing for the most part, but we do use an electric heated dog bowl in the winter.

Inexpensive, safe and easy to clean and refill, I find this is the easiest way to keep the water from freezing.

Cover Part of the Top/Side of the Run to Create a Wind Barrier

Chickens are actually pretty cold hardy and on all but the most frigid days would rather spend their days outside. 

Covering part of your run with a tarp, sheets of plywood or plastic can create an area where they can get out of the wind and snow and enjoy some fresh air. 

We use clear tarp in the northwest corner of our run to create an L-shaped protected area for our flock in the winter. They really seem to appreciate being able to get outside but out of the wind.

But a word of warning about run and coop roofs. Snow is heavy. Be sure to keep the top of your run and your coop roof free of snow so they don't collapse.

Even netting-type tops on runs can collapse under the weight of snow that collects on them. I use a broom from underneath to bang the snow off the netting top of our run.

Just making these few simple preparations can ensure the winter will be far more comfortable for your chickens and easier on you.  Then you all can relax and enjoy the beauty of the season.

Summary of Winter Blizzard Prep Tips

After this experience, I know that I will be far more prepared in the future for impending weather. Here is my flock blizzard preparedness list:

3) Feed to last at least a month (through the duration of the storm and to allow for the possibility that feed stores won't be open or accessible to delivery trucks during the cleanup)

5) Several bales of straw

6) Treats including sunflower seeds and other things that can be scattered for them to find to keep them busy and prevent pecking issues

7) A safe, dry, well-ventilated area - could be a garage, mud room, basement, barn stall,  etc. that you can easily get to - to store your supplies

8) Broom and snow shovel!

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