Winter Care for Chickens
Here at our farm, we do our best to provide healthy offspring to our customers. You cannot have healthy offspring if you don’t have healthy breeders, and there is no way around that. Our breeders are usually here at this farm for the long run. They tend to slow down laying eggs around 3 years old, but they will continue to lay eggs nonetheless, even if only 2 to 3 times a week. With that in mind, they will earn their place with the layer hens used for eating eggs only. We endeavor to keep our guys healthy and with good health comes a productive and long life for our chickens.
Keeping our flocks healthy is more a challenge in the winter months. I’ve read lots of material stating how hearty chickens endure the cold with a grain of salt, but honestly, they need our help. Winter can be just as challenging for a chicken as for anything else that lives outdoors in the cold winter.
Of course, there are chicken breeds that do just fine in cold winter months, but not all chickens are created equal. The way a chicken handles the cold is in-large dependent on the breed. Some breeds, such as Silkies, cannot handle cold damp temperatures well because they are not equipped with the right feathers. Silkies alone with Frizzles cannot handle wet, rain, or snow in the winter. They become like little sponges holding moisture, because their feathers will not repel water this can be deadly for these breeds in the winter. Wind is also a concern. Without sturdy outer feathers to block cold gusts, these fancy chickens get chilled to the bone.
Chickens of most breeds trap air in between their feathers which insulates them and keeps them warm during cold weather. Pullets and hens will tuck their head underneath their wing while sleeping which also helps them to retain heat that is lost through the comb. Their feathers function as a bubble to hold warm air near their body. One of the worst thing you can do for your chicken is to put a chicken sweater on them. Sweaters can cause all kinds of health issues. With sweaters they can’t dust bath to get bugs off, instead the bugs are trapped next to their skin making a nice snuggly place for lice and mites, but a miserable place for the chicken. If they try to scratch their claws stuck in the sweater and the sweater can get hung on all kinds of things. Sweaters make a nice carrier for chicken hawks to carry them away with. Sweaters are not a good idea at all for chickens. Feathers are made to keep chickens dry and warm.
The number one thing that we watch out for at our farm is moisture. Chickens generate moisture just by breathing, and 85% of their manure is liquid! Also, moisture can come through drinking water, rain, and snow. Depending on how cold your climate gets, if wet conditions are left unchecked moisture can cause mold and mildew that causes respiratory problems, frostbite, diarrhea, and freezing conditions that can literally cause their toes to freeze completely off.
It’s important to keep coops clean, dry, and well-ventilated especially during cold winter months. Damp air must have a way up and out. Beginner chicken owners make the mistake of battening down their coops so tightly that not any air can get out. Then manure, which is mostly water, plus the ammonia from the breakdown of nitrogen in the manure, can cause respiratory disease without ventilation. So, the best things one can do to keep a flock healthy during the cold months of winter is to keep their coops clean, dry, draft free and ventilated.
Make sure the coop is rodent proof and if necessary, add light to the coop during the daylight hours since winter months are also dark months. Make sure the coop has sufficient space for the chickens that live there. Block all openings that would blow drafts directly onto your birds. There needs to be ventilation, not drafts. The ventilation should be above their heads, not in their face.
At our farm we lay down about 10 inches of pine shaving in the floor of our coops to insulate the floors. Be cautious about insulating with straw or hay bales on the inside of coops. Both of those things will begin to break down with their own moisture and grow mold. Heat lamps are not necessary, but on the contrary, can cause perspiration that can cause chills and frost bite, not to mention they’re a fire hazard around flying birds. But outside areas could use windbreaks such as a wall of straw bales lined up against the north side.
If you don’t have chickens yet, you might benefit with some investigations on the right breed for the climate where you live. Brahmas, and Orpingtons are cold hardy birds that do well in the cooler climates. You can also look at the comb. Combs are used to expel heat from the body, so smaller combs are typically more efficient in the cold weather.
Never let your chickens go without water, this will have an adverse effect on egg production. Also, it is very important to keep the water clean. If you wouldn’t want to drink it, chances are, they will not either. It’s very important that chickens drink clean water regularly throughout the day. Chickens need water for proper digestion, and prevention of crop impaction. Do not leave water inside the coop area, remove all water out of their coops. Usually when chickens go up for the night, they will not come down until it’s time to start a new day, so water inside the coop is unnecessary and can not only put off a lot of moisture in the coops, but becomes a source of cold that cools down the coop.
One way to prevent water from freezing without the use of electricity, which can be a fire hazard, is a food grade product Glycerine, also known as Glycerol or Glycerin. Usually it can be found in the home baking section of your supermarket or on-line. Glycerine can be added to water to stop the water from freezing. You may need to experiment with the quantity – A few drops usually protect a 6-quart container below freezing but if the temperature falls further, you may need to add an extra drop or two.
Chickens need to exercise in the winter months. Chickens hate walking on the snow or on ice, if you throw out some straw or something similar it will encourage them to venture out. Adding logs and stumps in their run for chickens to stand on is comforting when they want to get their feet off the cold ground. Having large rocks to collect heat can be a great help to generate heat and block the wind. Chickens will need protection from the wind and from air predators during the winter months when most of the green bushes have lost all their leaves. One way to warm the water up is by placing water behind a leaning window or Plexiglas that can serve as a warmer. Chickens prefer warmer water in the winter.
Keeping a coop full of chickens is a clever way to keep your girls warm during cold winter nights. Through the evenings chickens roost close to one another and fluff up their feathers which creates a way of sharing body heat. If you have too many chickens it can cause health issues, but if you have just enough, their body heat can warm up a coop to keep them snugly warm during the nights.
Chickens naturally feel inclined to eat more over winter this is because they rely on extra feed to keep their core body temperature high. If you can add extra grain or other healthy treats to their feed, it can assist a great deal in keeping them warm through the winter, but that doesn’t mean getting them fat. Being overweight is just as bad for chickens as it is for anything.
A fruit or vegetable can keep your chickens moving and active, which in turns aids them in staying warm. Tie a cabbage or a piece of fruit together with string and then hung where they can peck at it during the day to keep them warm in winter. Not only will giving your chickens treats in the winter help keep them warm, but will also alleviate some of the boredom. The extra feed will power their internal furnace that will help keep the entire flock warm at night when they all roost together on the perches.
If they have a very small coop and run, there may not be a whole lot to entertain your flock like there is during warmer months. They don’t tend to have nice places to dust bathe and not as many bugs to catch or greens to forage when snow is on the ground. Chickens that are bored and cooped up in tight spaces tend to begin bad behavior which is hard to break. Keeping things like cabbage to peck at, roosts out in the run to stand on, and things to climb on can go a long way in keeping the peace during long, cold, boring winters. Suet cakes work well for a tasty treat which is high protein. Scatter scratch grain on the ground to give them something to scratch in and the extra fat will give them extra calories that will help keep them warm. During the winter months chickens need extra cracked corn to help them heat up their body.
Collect eggs daily, even in winter. If you have cold weather chickens, some may continue to lay during the winter, and their eggs could freeze. While this doesn’t really hurt them, exactly, it can be a risk for bacterial contamination. Frozen egg contents will expand, and can create tiny hairline cracks in the shell you might not see with the naked eye. The cracks can let bacteria into the shell. It’s best to collect rather than take a chance.
Keeping your flocks healthy and entertained will go a long way in egg production and quality of life for your roosters and hens. Giving them a little extra in the feed bowl with some things to do when they’re out in the cold will help them have a healthy winter life which in turn will yield more eggs in the long run. Keeping the coops dry and without drafts, but with ventilation will go a long way in keeping them warm and healthy during the cold winter nights. Make sure to research severe cold weather you may have in your area and how your breed of chickens deals with that climate.