Luckily chickens are pretty tough animals, so caring for your flock in the winter is surprisingly easy. The human involved will most likely experience more discomfort during the freezing than the birds. There are a few things to remember, especially if you are interested in keeping your egg production up.
First, the hens need to be able to get out of the snow and off the ice. Straw is recommended for bedding during the cold months because it is warmer and more insulating than pine shavings. Keeping clean dry bedding is much more important during the cold than it is when the weather is nice. Frost bite can become a problem on the feet and comb if the coop does not provide sufficient protection from the wind. Although there should be sufficient air flow for ventilation there should also be plenty of space to escape the draft.
Water supply is definitely the most difficult and the most important issue to deal with in freezing conditions. A poultry water heater is a must, unless you want to chip ice out of the water dish every morning and refill it with warm water; not my idea of fun. I have heard of people using dog water heaters as well. When the weather isn’t too extreme, especially if it warms up during the day, you may get away with placing a heat lamp just above the water. If you are looking to increase your egg production you may want a heat lamp anyway, so it could serve two purposes. When you do not have access to electricity in your coop there are other options. The least expensive option is to have two waterers, keep one in a heated area (like a garage) and keep the other one in the coop. Every morning when you go out to feed, switch the waterers. You can also use a rubber dog dish which allows the ice to pop out of the dish more easily. My husband made a solar water trough for his pheasants. The water is stored in a 50 gallon rubber trash can buried under the ground, a water pump (run by the solar panel) slowly pumps water from the can to a small trough, when the trough is full gravity pulls the water back into the trash can. The constant circulation of the water along with the insulation from the ground keeps the water from freezing.
Giving your chicken’s warm water each day can also keep them from getting uncomfortably cold. (Although my husband says chickens don’t mind being cold, I like to think they appreciate when I do something nice for them.)
Decreased egg production can also be a problem during the winter darkness. Although most chickens will produce less no matter what you do, there are ways to increase a low supply. The secret is to trick the chickens into thinking it isn’t quite winter yet. Do this by adding a lamp to the coop. Use a timer to increase their amount of daylight to at least 10 hours, possibly 12. The artificial daylight should be added to the morning rather than the night. Chickens like to ‘put themselves to bed’ when the time is just right, heading to the roost just as the daylight slips away. Having a timer suddenly turn off in the evening can stress the birds as they scramble to their roost in darkness. However, they really don’t mind waking up at 4 or 5am.
Food intake will increase during the winter, especially if your chickens are typically free ranging. Not only do the birds require more calories to stay warm but they are getting less supplemental food supply because they are not able to forage. Raising their supply of scratch grains (corn especially) will help them put on some weight and keep them warm. I also recommend giving them plenty of high fat table scraps like cottage cheese, pork roast, and even bacon grease.
Pecking problems can increase during the cold season simply because the birds get a bit bored. Giving them food that they have to work for can keep them occupied in small spaces. Old apples, pumpkins, and heads of cabbage will give the hens something to peck at so they will, hopefully, leave each other alone.
To sum things up, your chickens are very capable of managing a contented lifesyle during the winter. Keeping water from freezing, increasing food supply, and providing shelter from the cold wind and wet snow will be sufficient measures to keeping a healthy flock.