Chickens are hardy birds, but their ability to handle cold climates has limits. If you plan on leaving free-range chickens loose in your pasture during the coldest parts of the year, you are going to have to plan ahead. Your chickens will need some help from you if they are going to thrive despite the cold weather.
Your free-range chickens will need some kind of shelter in the winter. Chickens can get too cold if they do not have a barrier from the wind and snow, especially if conditions become severe. A small coop or shelter will need to be in the pasture to provide adequate shelter your birds can flock to if they feel they need to. The shelter needs to contain bedding, such as hay, as well as have walls that will protect your birds from the elements. Some chicken owners will place a small heat lamp inside the coop during extremely cold weather.
You have to pay special attention to your chickens' water supply during cold weather. A frozen water dish will be undrinkable, and your chicken's wattles can become frostbitten if they repeatedly dip them in very cold water. A water supply that allows your chickens to drink without dunking themselves is essential, as is a heater or warm location for the water supply. Your chickens can become seriously dehydrated during cold weather if they have no way to safely drink.
Free-range chickens eat grasses, bugs, seeds and various other stuff they find out in the pasture during warm months. During cold weather, native food supplies typically dwindle or become completely unavailable, depending on local vegetation and season severity. You will have to feed your chickens additional feed during the winter as well as provide mineral supplements to ensure they get the nutrition they need to stay happy and the energy they need to stay healthy despite the cold. Each chicken needs approximately one-quarter pound to one-third pound of chicken feed every day.
Your chickens can become frostbitten in cold weather. You need to supervise your chickens to make sure they are staying healthy, alert and reasonably active during winter weather. Any chickens who become lethargic, do not want to eat or drink, or develop signs of frostbite such as discolored skin and other health problems need a ride to the veterinarian immediately. If you suspect your chickens are not warm enough you may need to remove them from the cold and place them in a heated, indoor coop.
Jen Davis has been writing since 2004. She has served as a newspaper reporter and her freelance articles have appeared in magazines such as "Horses Incorporated," "The Paisley Pony" and "Alabama Living." Davis earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication with a concentration in journalism from Berry College in Rome, Ga.