Cold weather care for small livestock

Small livestock are a great choice for the backyard homesteader (chickens, rabbits, ducks, etc…).  With minimal inputs, they can provide excellent sources of protein, some of the best natural fertilizers that money can buy, and in some cases (especially poultry), they can even do some work for you with pest control, grazing, and light “tilling” of your soil.  They are exceedingly easy to care for in the summer time, but when winter rolls around, some special accommodations are needed to ensure that they stay happy and healthy.  Here are some of the things that we do for our chickens and rabbits over the winters of eastern Pennsylvania.

  1. Solid walled shelter: free-ranging is great for your animals and your soil (not always your plants though ;-), but in the winter time, your animals need some solid shelter to keep them out of the elements (especially water and wind).  We prefer wood structures for their stability, strength, and availability of building materials.  Here are some pics of a coop that we built for our chickens and a hutch that we built for our rabbits, both of which were made from mostly reclaimed decking and barn wood.
    Chicken coop

    Chicken coop

    Rabbit hutch

    Rabbit hutch

  2. Deep bedding – this is a great idea for most of the year as a means of keeping down smells and creating great fertilizer, but it is especially important in the winter for warmth.  Giving a nice buffer between your animal and the cold floor of the shelter will provide the great majority of insulation that your animals need in the winter.
    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

  3. Fresh water – Clean, fresh water is critical to your animal’s health in the winter, as it plays an important role in helping most animals to stay warm and maintain proper body function.  In the summer, this is a breeze, easily accomplished with large containers and feeding nipples of some kind (we use Aqua Misers for our chickens).  In the wintertime though, this can become quite a challenge as most standard water containers will freeze quite easily, making the water inaccessible to the animals.  While options are available for electrically heated water containers for most small livestock, we instead prefer to keep multiple standard containers inside the garage and swap them out once or twice a day, depending on how cold it is.  This takes a bit of extra work, and is hard to get the motivation to do on bitterly cold days, but to us it is better than running electricity across the property and spending money on expensive units that seem to have a tendency to break/fail quite often.

    IMG_3396

    Drink up before it freezes!

  4. Extra heat/insulation for “extreme” weather.  The coop and hutch that we built are good enough to keep our animals warm and cozy down to about 20°F without any additional help, especially with the deep bedding and tighter packing densities allowing the animals to keep each other warm.  When we get those few bitterly cold days every winter, and the temperature drops below 10°F or so, we like to give our animals a little extra comfort.  For our chickens, we run an extension cord to the coop and put in a small heat lamp which we turn on mostly at night.  For our rabbits, we wrap the exposed portion of the hutch in wool moving blankets, breaking the wind and giving a little more insulation.  In very extreme conditions (wind chills below -10°F), we have also moved the rabbits into an old dog cage inside of our greenhouse to completely break the wind and for a little extra warmth during the day.
    Brrrrr!!!

    Brrrrr!!!

    Heat lamp in chicken coop

    Hutch with wind break

    Hutch with wind break

We have heard that most animals native to northern climates can handle these low temperatures without special care, but it is not a chance that we have been willing to take yet.  With the measures described above, both our rabbits and chickens have thrived regardless of how cold it has gotten (including the recent “polar vortex” when we had wind-chills as low as -25°F), with the chickens still producing at a rate of ~3-4 eggs per bird per week and rabbits putting on weight and staying healthy.  Hopefully some of this is useful to you, and if you have any other tips, we’d love to hear them (especially for the water bit…)!

Winter eggs from 12 birds

Winter eggs…get ’em before they crack!

– Joe