Winter Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet. Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates. Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons. First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight. This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once. They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer. The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.

How to Winterize Your Coop

If you live in the north like me, the nights are getting chilly, the leaves are changing and there has even been some frost on the pumpkins in the mornings. All this means…winter is coming! Whether we want it to or not, it will soon be upon us. So instead of scrambling with frozen fingers when it’s really cold and snowy, prepare your coop now for a healthy flock through winter.

Check the health of your birds. Any health issues will be exacerbated by the cold weather. Treat any ailments, keep waterers and feeders topped off so their immune systems are at their peak.

Things to do:

Clean and disinfect feeders, waterers and perches
– Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
– Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.

Muck out and deep-bed your coop
– Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust or straw.
– Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
– Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
– Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.

Feed and supplement your birds correctly
– Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
– To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.
– To beat boredom, consider adding a Scratch Block to the coop for a healthy distraction!

Check for drafts
– Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
– Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
– Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.

Set up any heat lamps and water heaters
–  Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
– Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
– If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand.

Hopefully this got you thinking and adding to your winter-prep to-do list. I know I have a big list for my husband and I to work on in the coming weeks!