Winter Demands for Your Hens

backyard chickens free ranging in snow

A lot is happening for your hens as winter approaches.  The natural decrease in daylight hours in the fall causes big changes for your hens.  Your birds are using a massive amount of their nutrition to molt and replace their feathers.  They are preparing for the winter ahead.  Today, we are going to talk about some of the nutrient demands that winter places on your flock.

Winter Nutrient Demands

As you can imagine, dropping and rebuilding an entire set of feathers can be a very nutrient-demanding process.  In many species of birds, the molt requires between 25 and 40% more energy just to transition through that process.  Since molting and feather replacement are often absolute requirements for survival, a bird will funnel their available nutrients to feather growth and will pull nutrients away from other bodily functions – such as egg production!  Since egg production is light sensitive and other more important bodily functions are demanding essential nutrients, it’s no surprise that we often see a decrease or a complete cessation in egg production during the fall and winter season.

How Can We Help Keep Our Birds Healthy?

Make sure your birds are in good physical condition before the winter season begins.  During the winter months, your birds are going to expend a lot more energy maintaining their body temperature.  As most of us are aware, fat is how we store excess energy in our bodies.  While we don’t want chickens to get too fat, it’s actually okay for them to carry a small amount of fat into the winter so they can tap into those energy stores when the temperatures start to dip.

Most animals store their fat right underneath their skin.  In other species, it’s quite easy to tell if an animal is storing fat.  However, chickens store most of their fat as visceral fat and on their fat pad.  This makes it more difficult to tell if a chicken is storing extra energy (e.g., fat) for the winter through visual examination alone.  

One easy way to tell if your birds are in good condition going into winter is to do a quick exam of their body condition.  Make sure you know what to expect for your breed/s.  Small-framed egg layers (Single Comb White Leghorns, ISA Browns, etc.), do not have the genetic potential to carry a lot of body mass.  They will likely feel boney but should have a small amount of body condition.  Large-framed birds (Wyandottes, Orpingtons, etc.) will usually have much more body condition over their keel bone.  

Once you know generally what to expect, pick up your birds and feel for the keel.  The keel is a long straight bone that runs right down the center of the breast of a bird.  You should be able to feel the breast tissue along the sides of the bone.  As long as you can feel some cover (this usually isn’t fat, it’s muscle!) beside the keel, then your birds are generally in good physical condition and should be ready to go into winter.  Remember, make sure you know what to expect for your particular breed.

Another way to make sure your birds are ready for winter is to weigh them.  Familiarize yourself with the average weight range for your breed/s.  Going into winter, your birds should be well within those weight ranges.  I like for my birds to feel just a bit heavy for their size (like picking out a watermelon!).

Choosing the Right Feed

Choosing a high-quality feed is an essential factor in helping your hens stay as productive as possible.  Think beyond just the price of your bag.  All feeds are not created equal.  Nutrition is extremely important and being in good physical condition going into winter will help your hens deal with the challenges of the changing weather.   

If you use a feed with only minimal nutrient value, the negative effects may not be obvious in spring and summer when energy demands are not as great.  Birds are usually getting extra nutrition from free-ranging and they are not expending massive amounts of energy trying to stay warm.  However, once winter comes, you birds will definitely start to show the effects of less-than-stellar nutrition if they are not eating a high-quality feed.

Prepare and Enjoy!

Winter doesn’t have to be a stressful or scary time if you’re a poultry keeper.  Birds are amazingly adaptive and covered in nature’s best insulator – feathers!!  They can adjust and thrive during the winter.  However, we do need to make sure we are giving them the best possible chance for a smooth transition with high-quality feed and good nutrition.  Cheap feed options are often formulated to the absolute minimum requirements and won’t provide enough nutrition for the changing environmental conditions and the increased nutrient demands that often come with winter.  The best way to prepare your birds for winter is to make sure they are getting good quality feed and have a cozy coop.

Keeping poultry is such a wonderful experience and the rewards are many!  At Kalmbach Feeds, we are always here to help.  If you have any questions about the nutrient needs of your birds, feed options, or general poultry keeping, please let us know.  We are so excited to continue writing about all of the topics that are important to you and can’t wait to continue learning about your flocks.  Stay tuned and thank you for choosing Kalmbach Feeds!

The most important thing to remember for molting is to enjoy the season!  This is a wonderful time of year for all of us – our feathered friends included!


Nancy Jefferson, Ph.D.

Dr. Nancy Jefferson has been a member of the Nutrition and Technical Services team at Kalmbach Feeds since 2013. She received her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2008 and has worked in the feed industry for over 15 years. She lives on a farm in Crown City, OH with her husband, John, and their children. Dr. Jefferson is a passionate poultry enthusiast and loves her chickens! Together, she and her family raise beef cattle and she keeps an ever-growing flock of backyard chickens.