Keeping animals in an arctic environment requires some extra care and attention for their health and comfort. Here are some tips for how to overwinter chickens in Alaska.
Our family has been keeping a flock of laying hens for almost five years now. We still have our original ladies and have added a few new ones every year since. There are currently 28 chickensin our coop, including four roosters. We are thankful every day for what they generously give to us and nothing beats a freshly laid egg.
When we first decided to get laying hens when we moved to Alaska and found a little coop inside of our barn, we were concerned about keeping them over the long winters. Experience has shown us that with some extra care, we can keep chickens (and keep them happy) year-round.
How to Overwinter Chickens in Alaska
We are asked so often if it’s possible to keep chickens through an Alaska winter and the answer is yes! We have done it for four winters now and have several friends that also keep poultry year-round. There are a few extra steps that we take when the temperature drops to keep our flock content during the cold winter months.
We do not heat the coop or our barn in any way during the winter. Heat lamps are dangerous fire hazards and put animals at risk, as well as our nearby house. Also, if the birds aren’t able to acclimate to the falling temperatures, then they will be in trouble if power is lost, which happens frequently where we live. It is better to allow the chickens to naturally adjust as the temperatures drop.
Because of the elevation where we live, the temperature is typically 15-20 degrees warmer during the winter than down in town. This means that we don’t see negative temperatures very often and rarely hit negative twenty. Our hens do just fine and we make sure to keep them happy and comfortable.
There are a few ways to help keep them a bit warmer though. Piling on extra straw is always appreciated. We use the deep litter method meaning we keep adding fresh straw on top of the existing straw. We do scoop and clean the coop regularly but we leave the layers of straw. This adds extra insulation in the coop and helps make it a bit warmer. Once spring arrives, we will completely clean the coop out and start fresh.
Making sure the birds have a roost to gather on is important too. Of course, this should be in any coop regardless, but it’s especially important in the wintertime. They can squish together at night, fluff up their feathers, and keep each other warm.
Once the temperature gets low enough to freeze the chicken’s water, it’s time to pull out the water heater. They need to have access to fresh water at all times so this is a must. We use a safe heater that their metal waterer sits on to prevent it from freezing. We keep this on a timer that’s set to one hour on, one hour off.
Lighting a chicken coop during the winter can be a touchy subject. Commercial egg producers often expose their chickens to enough light to force them to lay all winter. This isn’t natural for chickens, their bodies need a break and the dark winter months give them just that. We want out chickens to follow their natural cycle so we limit the light they receive.
We do have a bulb in their coop because it is so dark here in the interior of Alaska but it’s on less than twelve hours during the day and isn’t very bright. Sixteen hours of light is typically needed for hens to continue to lay. This means that we experience a large drop in production during the winter but we are alright with that. Eggs should be thought of as seasonal food, abundant during the spring, summer, and fall but not during the winter.
However, new spring chicks will usually lay through their first winter so it is still possible to get some eggs. We get a few new chicks every spring so the nesting boxes aren’t completely empty. Some of our older layers will surprise us with eggs every now and then so we keep a pretty good supply. (We also keep a couple of ducks who lay right through the winter so they keep us stocked too!)
The best way to make sure our chickens make it through the Alaskan winters is to keep them healthy overall. Fresh feed and water at all times is important as well as clean living conditions.
We also like to boost their spirits with some treats such as mealworms. These provide protein for the chickens and when we sprinkle them outside or in the coop, it gets the hens moving as they scratch and peck to find them. Apple cider vinegar in their water is another healthy addition.
They always have access to the outdoors and are only closed in at night to keep them safe from predators. We lay some straw in their outdoor area to help their feet not get too cold in the snow. Under the eaves, where there isn’t any snow, they can use the dirt to dust bathe. Kitchen scraps get tossed outside for them to enjoy too.
We have purposely chosen breeds that are cold-hearty and don’t have large combs that are susceptible to frostbite. Our flock includes Buff Orpingtons, Easter Eggers, Brahmas, and Wyandottes.
It’s important to check our chickens over for any health issues that need to be addressed. If we see someone’s comb getting frostbit, we layer on some cream to protect it when the temperatures get really low. We also check their feet for signs of frostbite or other damage. Our hens stay healthy all winter long but are definitely excited when spring arrives!
More on Chickens
- Read about how our little flock began in this post: It All Started With Some Chickens
- My favorite online resource for chicken tips: Fresh Eggs Daily