Winter is on it's way. Although we're fortunate here in Virginia not to get too much snow nor temperatures much below freezing for too long a stretch, I'm a New Englander born and bred so I know all about nor'easters, blizzards, snow storms, freezing rain, sleet and bitter cold.
The most important thing is that your coop is dry and draft-free with good cross air flow and ventilation higher than the roosts. Frostbite is partially caused by damp conditions, so having adequate ventilation not only provides clean fresh air but helps prevent frostbite.
Roosts should be wide enough that your hens' feet are flat when they roost and completely covered by their bodies/feathers from the top and the roost board from underneath. This not only prevents frostbite, but also rats or mice nibbling on the chickens' toes while they sleep (believe me, this can happen). A 2x4 with the 4" side facing up with the corners rounded off a bit is perfect.
Here are a few more easy things to do to prepare for the approaching cold weather to help keep your flock warm and also to make your life easier.
Set up Some Stumps, Logs, Pallets or Outdoor Roosts in the Run
Chickens generally don't like to walk in the snow. They would much rather stay inside than have to walk on a cold surface. I put down straw 'paths' from the coop door to sheltered areas of the run for them in the winter when it snows.
I also have set upturned stumps along the edges of the run. We had a few trees fall in the last hurricane that swept through, so the trunks were re-purposed into 'run seating'.
I constructed some roosts out of branches in the corners of the run for our chickens to perch on. They love to line up and watch the world go by.
The hens, especially those with feathery feet, really like being able to get up off the ground and out of the snow, ice and mud. Free wooden pallets or logs are another great way to get them up off the ground, as are benches or even lawn chairs.
Add Scratch as an Evening Treat
Scratch should only be fed as a cold weather treat. The act of digesting the scratch warms up the hens' bodies, so I throw down scratch for them each afternoon all through the winter. You can purchase scratch grains in a commercial mix or make your own. [Read more here about scratch...]
Make a Scratch Wreath
Make Homemade Suet Blocks
The fat in the suet provides energy for chilly chickens. Save up your meat grease in a small dish, then stir in peanuts, raisins or other grains and seeds and freeze until solid. [Read HERE for instructions on making your own suet blocks]
Consider Trying The Deep Litter Method
Using the Deep Litter Method in your coop is probably the one best thing you could do over the winter. Easy, inexpensive and an old-timers' tried and true method for overwintering, it's what all three of us Fresh Eggs Farm Girls do for the winter. Basically the methodology is that you keep adding layers of bedding to the coop, turning over the old soiled bedding which decomposes into beautiful compost by spring. It doesn't smell (trust me) and is actually beneficial in that pathogen-controlling microbes are a byproduct. [Read more here about The Deep Litter Method...]
Hopefully you will decide to try the Deep Litter Method instead of heating your coop (we don't recommend it as a general rule), which can lead to fire or frostbitten or dead chickens if the heat source goes out unexpectedly. [Read more about heating your coop here...]
Stock Up on Feed and Bedding
Especially if you live in an area that gets lots of snow, keep in mind that a deep snow or blizzard might prevent you from being able to get to the feed store, or even prevent delivery trucks from being able to make their deliveries to the feed stores.
Your flock will also eat more in the winter, since grass and bugs aren't available, and they need more fuel to keep warm, so plan on going through feed faster than you do in the warmer months. Keep extra feed on hand.
Since the feed will keep in a cool dry place just fine, plan on a month's supply on hand. I also keep extra straw on hand to stack in the coop along the walls to provide natural 'insulation'.
Think about Supplemental Light in the Coop and/or Freezing Eggs
As the days shorten, laying will slow or stop completely in some instances. Think about whether you will be adding supplemental lighting in the coop [Read more here about adding light to your coop...] to prolong laying through the winter (although not our recommendation) or freeze some of your excess eggs now [Read more here about freezing eggs...] to use over the winter (what we recommend).
Figure out How You Will Keep Your Water from Freezing
Obviously providing your flock with clean, fresh (unfrozen) water is important.
You can buy (or make) a heated base for your metal waterers, but of course they do present a fire hazard of sorts - and I found they won't last all that long and are too expensive to keep buying new ones.
We stopped using the metal waterers a few years ago because they rust and they aren't optimal for ducks. Instead, we use deep black rubber tubs for water. Set in the sun in the winter, the black rubber absorbs the heat from the sunlight and seems to keep the water from freezing far better than a metal waterer. Also, the greater surface area and depth both work against freezing. A few ping pong balls floated on the surface of a water tub will also create just enough movement to prevent the tub from freezing.
We're lucky to have ducks who play in the water all day long, so that also seems to keep the water from freezing for the most part, but we do use an electric heated dog bowl in the winter. Inexpensive, safe and easy to clean and refill, I find this is the easiest way to keep the water from freezing.
Cover Part of the Top/Side of the Run to Create a Wind Barrier
shade fabric in the northwest corner of our run to create an L-shaped protected area for our flock in the winter. They really seem to appreciate being able to get outside but out of the wind.
Start Growing Sprouts or Grasses Indoors
Since in many areas of the country, there are no grass or weeds to be found through the winter, growing some indoors for your chickens helps supplement their diet with healthy greens. Easy to do, you can buy a Grass Growing Kits or grow sprouts in jars on your windowsill. [Read more here about sprouting seeds...]
Just making these few simple preparations can ensure the winter will be far more comfortable for your chickens and easier on you. Then you all can relax and enjoy the beauty of the season.