Keeping Poultry in Winter & Using the Deep Litter Method

1. How to keep chickens warm in winter:

Do not add heat lamps. Chickens, especially cold-tolerant breeds, can withstand winter temperatures without supplemental heat. A chicken’s body temperature is around 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and they have their own protective layer of feathers to keep them warm.

If you feel it is necessary to provide a source of heat, only provide enough heat to raise the temperature a few degrees. The hens will adjust to the cold temperature, but if it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the coop and 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the run, birds will not be able to regulate their body temperature.

2. What to feed chickens in winter: 

A common myth is to feed oatmeal to birds in the winter. This is not a beneficial treat for chickens. Oats contain some types of fiber that chickens can’t digest which can cause the contents of the digestive tract to thicken. This leads to a reduction in the bird’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients. Greens are also unnecessary. Hens may pick at hay and spread it around, but they are not going to eat it.

3. Ensure feed and water aren’t frozen.

Consider heated waterers. Feed and water birds more often when it’s below freezing. Energy needs increase in winter. Animals expend a considerable amount of energy to stay warm and will eat more feed. Complete layer feeds include all the energy hens need.

4. Allow exploration.

Birds can tolerate snow, cold air, and ice water. There is very little muscle in the lower part of bird legs and feet. The movements are controlled by tendons that stretch from the upper part of the legs down to the toes. Secondly, the blood entering the lower legs and feet is cooled by the blood returning to the heart. The blood returning is thus warmed by the blood going to the toes. The tissue receives just enough heat to avoid frostbite while also being provided with enough oxygen to keep things functioning.

5. Collect eggs more frequently. 

Temperatures below freezing result in frozen eggs. As the egg freezes, the contents expand and will cause the egg to crack.  Also 

6. Keep the chicken coop draft-free.

But don’t seal it completely. Some air needs to be exchanged to prevent ammonia buildup. Open the top vent or higher windows slightly so fresh air can enter and stale air can exit.

7. Keep the chicken coop dry.

Remove any wet spots daily. Provide more bedding than you would in other seasons so birds have a place to burrow and stay cozy.

8. Continue offering activities in the chicken coop.

Hens will spend more time in the coop, so offer toys.  Logs, sturdy branches, or chicken swings can work well, and place a flock block supplement in the coop for a nutritious place to peck.  

The Deep Litter Method

If you’re not familiar with it, The Deep Litter Method is a brilliant old-timers method to manage your coop litter through the winter.

It’s easy, economical, and results in beautifully composted chicken manure and bedding (whether it be straw, shavings, leaves, pine needles, etc.) for your garden come spring.

 the Deep Litter Method. It is an almost-forgotten (at the time I wrote this back in 2012) old-timers’ method that allows manure and bedding in the coop to accumulate and decompose inside the coop all winter.

Then in the spring you clean the whole thing out and have beautiful compost for your spring garden.

What is the Deep Litter Method?

The Deep Litter Method basically consists of repeatedly turning over the soiled bedding, adding a new layer, and allowing the chicken droppings to decompose on the floor of the coop all winter, at the same time creating heat to keep the coop warm naturally.

As a further bonus, same as when you compost, beneficial microbes grow that actually help control pathogens, making your chickens less susceptible to diseases.

Benefits of The Deep Litter Method

In fact according to Harvey Ussery, “An absorptive litter at least several inches thick is almost magic stuff. [Researchers] Kennard and Chamberlin discovered in a number of critically important experiments in the early 1940s that “built-up” litter (litter allowed to become more and more biologically active over time) not only provides a sanitary decomposition of the droppings but provides positive feeding benefits as well.

The decompositional microbes produce Vitamins B12 and K, which the chickens take in as they find interesting things to eat in a mature litter. The experiments even demonstrated that biologically active litter compensates for deficiencies of key nutrients, including protein, in ways that are not fully understood.”

In the spring, you just clean your whole coop out and dump the litter into your compost pile or right into your garden

Now for the deep-cleaning.   Use this same cleaning routine every fall.   Pick a nice, warm sunny day to do my twice-yearly cleaning.  First, shovel out all the soiled straw and sweep out the coop as best as you can.

This is also a good time to check the exterior of the coop for loose screws, hinges, shingles, etc., and make any repairs necessary before winter.

A new 6″ layer of pine shavings go down on the bare floor. With the Deep Litter Method, you should use pine shavings or hemp bedding as your bottom layer since they are small pieces and compost fairly quickly. Then put a thin layer of straw over the shavings.

Note: if you are using the Deep Litter Method, DE or lime shouldn’t be used since it can inhibit the growth of good microbes. It also shouldn’t be needed because a properly maintained bed of litter shouldn’t smell or attract flies or other insects. 

However, a thin layer on the floor of the coop before you start adding your bedding material shouldn’t be a problem to control any insects or smells before the bedding really starts to decompose. And no worries, DE isn’t harmful to garden toads or earthworms.

How to Do the Deep Litter Method

  •  Starting with the 6″ layer of pine shavings on the floor with straw on top, each morning I turn over the top straw so the soiled bedding from the night before ends up on the bottom.
  • You can also use dry grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, or a combination of bedding types.
  • Continue doing that each day, adding straw after that as needed to eventually build up to a 12″ deep layer. 
  • No bedding is removed but rather turned over to let the droppings fall to the bottom and turn over the bedding.
  • You can turn the material with a shovel or rake. The turning and introduction of oxygen will reduce the chance of ammonia buildup, so daily turning is very important.
  • Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen.  Mixing it with a source of carbon (either straw, shavings, or dry leaves) will balance the mixture and hasten the rate of decomposition.  It is important that your composting material contain oxygen, so turning is crucial.
  •  Fortunately, the hens will help you with that part, especially if you get in the habit of tossing some scratch grains or sunflower seeds into the coop for them before bedtime. They will learn to scratch through the litter to find the scratch when they wake up in the morning.

Chicken Coop Winter Composting 

After just a few weeks, the droppings, shavings, straw, and other bedding will start to decompose and you will end up with fine dirt on the bottom that looks like this.

As anyone who composts for their garden knows, when properly done, composting does NOT smell and does generate quite a bit of natural heat.

This is the same idea as you would do in a compost pile or bin, you’re just doing it inside your coop!

Continue to do the Deep Litter Method in this manner all winter.  

Spring Chicken Coop Care

  • Early in the spring, sweep the composted litter into a wheelbarrow and toss it into your compost pile.
  • Then scrub down the entire coop and let it dry.
  •  Replace the bedding with a 6″ layer of straw, shavings, or hemp bedding.
  • Through the spring and summer, I remove the soiled straw and it goes into our compost pile for the following spring’s garden or out into the run to soak up the mud.  
  • Only replace the bedding in the coop as needed to maintain a 6″ base.

The Deep Litter Method is generally not appropriate during the warmer months, since it does generate quite a bit of heat in the coop which you only want in the winter.

research was taken from Fresh Eggs Daily