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How to Care for Poultry in Freezing Weather

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Let's get right to the meaty parts of this article. It's getting cold, and we haven't got all day.

I have been raising poultry on open pastures for two decades, and my homestead is located right smack in the middle of the United States. Over my years raising birds, I have learned what they need and don't need to survive harsh winters, including polar vortexes.


In my first year with chickens, we built a very expensive coop complete with R-13 insulated walls. I provided them with heat lamps to keep warm, and that first winter, the birds would sit so close to the heat lamp that it would singe their feathers. They also refused to leave the coop to do any grazing or exercise in the yard because it was warm and comfortable in the enclosure. This kind of housing led to fat and unhealthy chickens that hung out around the feeder all day every day and gained enough weight to stop laying eggs, even with the added light. Since the birds refused to go outside for the most significant portion of the day to engage in regular outdoor activity, all droppings were collected inside the coop, which required weekly cleanings. Not to mention the $50.00 to $100.00 monthly addition to the heating bill depending on how many lamps I was running.

It made me question everything about raising poultry. Chickens are supposed to be affordable! I could buy a ton of eggs and fried chicken strips for the cost of the coop upgrades, pine shavings, feed, electric bill, and fuel to make it to the nearest feed store and back. None of this included the cost of my labor for cleaning the coop, changing water dishes daily, feeding, and washing and storing eggs. I wondered how they raised poultry on farms a hundred years ago before decent insulation existed (early insulation was paper fiber) and when nobody had electricity running to a coop.

I started collaborating with some old-timers in the area and visited their farms and found I was making it a lot harder than it should be. I studied how people raise chickens in remote places like Alaska, which often see temperatures below zero in the double digits. My studies turned up a discovery. There are two kinds of poultry people in the world - People who coddle their poultry and people who raise birds au naturel. There is nothing wrong with either method. Some people cherish beloved pets, and others like me raise them for meat, eggs, and, well, chicken therapy. Here are the fundamentals to help you decide what is best for your birds.

Adequate shelter is the most important. Insulated buildings and heaters can do more harm than good when housing poultry. Birds will confine themselves to only the warmest places in the coop and refuse to acclimate to the colder temperatures. If you still feel compelled to use a heater or heat lamp, the only goal is to keep the temperature above or only slightly below freezing. Chickens can tolerate freezing temperatures just like songbirds, woodpeckers, crows, delicate doves, and owls. My flock does not have any heat source other than the sun. I prefer to raise them as close to nature as possible. I believe poultry become more hearty and robust, adjusting naturally to the weather, which saves me complications down the line.

If you want to run a heat source, running your heaters on an outdoor timer at night can cut costs of heating 24/7 and can help take the edge off for them while they are resting. There are plug-in thermostats that come on at freezing and shut off at around 40-degrees(F), but I have not used them, so I can not recommend how to use them. Using light in the coop that runs all night will cause stress in your poultry. They need a circadian rhythm to detox correctly in the dark as they sleep. Ceramic heating elements do not emit light and are available HERE on Amazon. They fit into a normal brooder light assembly and run anywhere from 60 to 150 watts like a regular light bulb but without light. However, they do get hotter than a light bulb to the touch and will fry your fingers or anything else that touches them. They must be installed in fire-safe areas where birds and bedding can not contact the ceramic heater. When using timers, use outdoor timers in outdoor locations. Indoor timers are not designed to run in moist or dusty environments and cause fires. Consider that extra 12-dollars for the outdoor timer an insurance policy for your coop that will last for years. Coops are not covered as a permanent structure on a property and are rarely if ever, covered by fire insurance.

Poultry will eat styrofoam or fiberglass insulation board that isn't covered with wood or tin as soon as they figure out it is peckable. They also have an appetite for aluminum foil duct tape often used to hold these panels together or to wrap water lines with heat tape. Electricians tape is irresistible to rodents when used in outdoor applications and is often the cause of coop and barn fires. That is why electrical wiring (the taped parts), when done correctly, is done in junction boxes. Avoid using these items at all costs if you can't cover them with something critter-proof such as conduit.

Electric heat tapes used for home water pipes can cause fires when in contact with hay, pine shavings, excessive dust, or other bedding materials. Heat tapes can hit as high as 160-degrees(F) which can warm feces-covered bedding to a combustible point, especially around a water source that dampens and fuels the biological material that creates the heat just like a compost pile. This is a reason I don't use a deep bedding system. Chicken litter combusts at 190-degrees(F). Although winter fires are rare, these bedding systems are usually still around in the summer months due to the difficulty of cleaning up unless you own a skid steer or tractor with a bucket. Only use heated bowls or buckets rated and designed for heating livestock water. Use them in areas clean from debris to prevent fires.

Keep in mind that if a heat source raises a bird's acclamation and if the power goes out, the sudden shock of freezing temperatures could kill some of your birds. Poultry will bunch up in a bunch on the floor, which causes the birds to sweat in the center of the pile. Once warm, they can not leave the crowd without getting chilled, so they tend to lay down and get trampled to death by flockmates seeking warmth.

Click Here for more literature on how poultry litter can combust.


Coops need to be kept arid. If there is any moisture gathering on your walls, floors, or windows inside the coop, at any hour of the day, you will likely lose some birds to chill or pneumonia. A bird's down and feathers have to remain dry to protect them from the elements. Poultry feathers and down hold in the correct amount of heat and humidity as long as birds have appropriate shelter.

Birds need a dry place to come in from rain, mist, drizzle, or snow. There should be enough space for each bird to comfortably move around on the dry, solid ground as long as there is any accumulated precipitation on the ground outside the coop. Chickens and turkeys can not stand in the snow, ice, or frozen mud for more than an hour or two without damaging their feet. They have to find a dry place to roost to warm their shanks and toes before returning for another outdoor run. Geese and ducks will lay on their well-insulated fat-covered breasts and place their feet up under their wings to warm them. They, too, need a dry place to lay undisturbed to maintain warmth since most waterfowl do not roost. If your coop is too small, remove snow paths by shoveling, using a leaf blower, a propane flame thrower (safely), or a tractor blade. Never use rock salt. It will kill your birds in a few hours because they consume it.

There must be enough airflow to keep the coop dry. Airflow in an enclosure is essential but requires a delicate balance to keep out the brisk wind but allow enough airflow to dry the coop in winter. Coop design comes into the equation here, so I use an open coop system. Old-timers usually didn't have the funds for an extra outbuilding to only house chickens. They certainly couldn't afford extra insulation or electricity. Nobody even had a light in their backyard tool shed when I was a kid. Poultry ran the yard, hanging out in lean-tos and large drafty barns over the winter months.

An open coop system mimics barn housing allowing enough floor space for social mingling all day during winter storms, deep snow, or rain. It has enough airflow to keep moisture from collecting on the walls, and roosting bird bodies, created from the droppings on the floor. The number of birds, water, and outdoor relative humidity contribute to the dampness in a coop. Each chicken poops 15-20 times a day, and each dropping is full of moisture that needs to evaporate to dry up. Feces caking up on bird feet causes bumbles, sores, and leg problems. So if you have five laying hens, you can easily acquire 100 droppings a day in your housing. Keeping birds out on open pastures or lawns helps eliminate dropping accumulation. Excess humidity and ammonia released from the droppings as they dry in an enclosed area, create respiratory illness in poultry by damaging the airways. The idea is not to treat respiratory diseases but to provide good clean shelter to prevent them. If you can smell ammonia in your coop, their respiratory systems are suffering, and it is a short matter of time before infections develop. A dry coop, enclosure, and run or pasture access are best and one of the reasons I only raise poultry on pasture but do the best with what you have available.

Click Here for literature on the harmful effects of ammonia on poultry.


I have installed a dehumidifier in our brooder-house so waterfowl chicks don't raise the humidity by playing in the water and wetting the bedding in the rainy spring weather. Running too dry of a brooder-house can dehydrate and kill tiny chicks, so I keep the dehumidifier on 50-70% unless it is raining for days on end when I set it lower. The dehumidifier helps cut down on ammonia development in small enclosures and cuts down on wet or damp bedding.

Adult birds housed in a good-sized, dry coop with plenty of roosting space do not need a dehumidifier. We have a month in spring and fall, which is very wet here in the midwest. It isn't enough to harm adult birds that have a dry coop to recover in, even if they play in the rain all day and get soaked. They quickly learn how much weather they can tolerate before needing to return to the coop to get warm and dry. If you keep your birds as beloved pets, don't mind excessive cleaning, have an insulated building and a small heat source, an added dehumidifier can help warm a coop and keep it dry. Of course, dehumidifiers don't work in freezing temperatures, and they will freeze solid and crack.


Roosting space is crucial. Roosters are called "roosters" because roosting is essential for their health. Heat rises, and cold birds should not be standing on the ground trying to maintain their "personal" space, even if the floor is straw-packed. In freezing temperatures, birds need to roost to preserve heat and calories by remaining still, just like birds in the wild. Lack of perches leaves birds circling the floor to stay away from dominant flockmates and even only mildly aggressive roosters; this chills their legs and feet and prevents "fluffing" of the feathers and down to hold in heat. When the bird moves around to maintain space, heat is lost. Exercise is good for periods during the day, but perching is vital to surviving long stretches of cold weather at night. I learned this chicken behavior from running a closed-circuit TV camera 24/7 to watch what adult and day-old chicks do at night when it is cold.