Keep your chickens warm, healthy and productive this winter with these cold-weather guidelines.
By Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
Courtesy Hemera/ThinkstockHelp your chickens avoid frost-bitten feet by clearing a path in the snow for them in the chicken run.
1. Fight Frozen Water
Perhaps the most frustrating (and foreseeable) part of overwintering any livestock is the endless battle against frozen water. Unless you have electricity in your coop or barn, I’m sorry to say that all solutions include a bit of heavy lifting.
One option is to use a heated dog bowl or heated waterer base. It’s easy to install and inexpensive, but there is one catch: You must use a double-walled, galvanized-steel water fount in place of the standard plastic.
If running electricity to your coop is not an option, you may be carrying your weight in water to the flock several times a day. In this case, have two or more waterers ready to alternate by thawing indoors.
“One idea is to fill the waterer with hot water and then drop a chunk of ice (or a good amount of ice cubes) into the water to slowly cool it down over the course of several hours,” recommends Ashley English, chicken keeper and author of the Homemade Living book series.
Whatever method works for you, the important thing is that your chickens have access to fresh water at all times.
2. Protect Combs and Wattles
In a cold spell with below-freezing temperatures, your chickens' combs and wattles may be susceptible to frostbite. Use petroleum jelly (or olive oil, as a natural alternative) to fight frostbite by applying it to the affected areas. Apply the lubricant when your chickens have gone to roost at night. They may not find it pleasant, but it beats the alternative.
Keep in mind that chicken breeds with large combs and wattles, such as Leghorns and many roosters, are more prone to frostbite. You’ll find that cold-hardy breeds with small combs, such as rose or pea combs, will fare better come winter.
3. Provide a Path in the Snow
If the snow is piling up to a few inches or more, shovel out a path for your chickens. Frostbitten toes or feet can be very painful but are easily avoided by protecting chickens from the snow.
“You don't want an intrepid flock mate deciding to brave a wall of snow,” English says. “The snow will win, every time.”
4. Heat the Coop—or Not
Some chicken keepers swear by heating the coop during the harshest of winters. While there is a benefit to using a heater or lamp (supplemental light means more winter eggs), consider the safety risk. Heaters plus dry pine shavings or other bedding can quickly become a fire hazard unless properly or professionally installed. Also consider the possibility of power outages and a subsequent drop in temperature. Chickens cannot adapt to a sudden plunge in mercury, and it could spell disaster for your entire flock in one night.
As an alternative, you can allow your chickens to gradually acclimate to the cooler weather during autumn without heat. In the fall, check your coop’s roof to ensure it won’t leak during heavy snows. Protect your chickens from heavy drafts, but be certain there is adequate ventilation in their enclosure. Accumulated moisture during the cold months can lead to frostbite.
Finally, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of insulation in your coop. Your birds will roost together and create a good amount of heat on their own (the equivalent of 10 watts of heat per chicken). All you have to do is help the heat stay there.
5. Give Feed a Boost
Consider supplementing your flock’s diet with cracked corn or scratch.
“The fattiness of the scratch will allow the birds to pack on an extra layer of body fat, which aids them in better combating colder weather,” English says.
That said, scratch and corn are treats and do not contain the complete nutrition your flock needs.
“Continue them on their regular feed, tossing a few handfuls of scratch during evening rounds,” she says.
6. Collect Eggs Often
If you’re one of those poor souls, like me, who makes multiple trips to the chicken coop to change out water, remember to collect eggs each time you go. Because chicken eggs are nearly 75-percent water, they’ll freeze and crack quickly once exposed to the cold air.
Use your judgment when it comes to your flock and your particular setup—what will work for some may not work for others. As always, check your flock daily and look for signs of illness. And once everyone is tucked in, curl up with a hot cup o’ something and enjoy the season.
About the Author: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart writes from the mountains of western North Carolina, where she lives with her menagerie of animals, including a mixed flock of chickens. She contributes to several Bowtie publications, and you can find her regular column, “Fowl Language” in each issue of Chickens magazine.
More tips from Kristina:
If you give your chickens supplemental lighting on a timer, it should come on early in the wee hours of the morning and continue until it is light outside. If you want to leave it on 24/7, that seems to work also. Do not set the timer to come on at dusk and go off after it is dark. Since birds are night blind, the light will go off while they are still active and they will be unable to find their roosts in the dark. If you set it to come on at 3 or 4 AM, they will crow too early, but will use the natural dusk to migrate to their perches to sleep. I use a clear heat lamp and just leave it on 24/7. So far no problems and they still come into the coop and put themselves to bed when it gets dark outside.
Our domesticated fowl require a balanced diet provided by most commercial feeds. Layers, in particular, need the correct ratio of protein, calcium and other nutrients to be healthy due to their high egg production. All chicks should be fed a Starter feed (labeled as such), until about 19 weeks or so -- or until you see the first egg. Once a pullet begins to lay, she should be switched to a Layer feed, also labeled as such. It is highly recommended that you provide grit to break down any treats (usually commercial feed has some grit in it), and oyster shells to provide for added calcium. Both should be offered free choice at all times -- a hen will only take what she needs when she needs it.
Scratch and cracked corn have their benefits, but consider them like candy for the chicken world. It is not a sufficient daily diet, and should only be offered as a treat. Given sparsely in the winter, scratch will increase a hen's body fat and allow her to stay warmer. Because of the same reasons, do not give scratch in the summer. If fed scratch/cracked corn year-round, your hens may run into trouble due to unecessary fattening, such as egg binding and prolapse.
Last tip: allow them to free range and pasture as much as possible, but remember your flock still requires access to Layer feed to be healthy.