While many snow birds are enjoying the warmth of their destinations, the northern chickens are toughing it out. Winter chicken keeping can prove to be challenging so here is what I do to keep my flock happy and healthy during the cold months.
1. Free Range when Possible
Whenever there is a sunny and moderately warm day (which have been pretty sparse this month) I open up the enclosure door for any adventurous soul. Usually the Svart Hona’s and May (the Cochin) take advantage and go dust bath under the coop.
If there is any grassy patches in the yard I select a few special chickens to get some greens in!
2. Prevent Frostbite
Chickens that have tall combs and long wattles need extra care on cold nights to keep them from getting frost bite. Hens and some roosters will tuck their heads in their wings which helps, but tall combs still stick out. I put unpetroleum jelly on those that need a little more protection during the single-digit nights.
Frost bite is caused not only by cold, but predominately by moisture. To keep moisture to a minimum in your coop do a few simple things: have good ventilation, don’t heat the coop, and avoid excess water surface area.
3. Don’t Supply Additional Heat
Don’t heat the coop! No matter what you think, don’t place heaters or heat lamps out in the coop unless under extreme conditions! Heaters and heat lamps create a fire hazard. Also, if the electricity goes out, the chickens are exposed to sudden coldness. A chicken that has been used to heat, will not survive very well if suddenly exposed to cold temperatures. The more chickens you have the more heat they will produce. Usually the temperature inside your coop will be a few degrees warmer then outside because of the chickens body heat.
4. Pick Hardy Chicken Breeds
Part of raising chickens in colder regions is picking cold hardy breeds. Cold hardy breeds usually have more feathers and/or small combs and wattles. A chicken fluffs out it’s feathers to capture warm air against it’s body. The more feather’s it has, the more warm air it can trap. Feathered shanks and toes also helps prevent frost bitten toes.
5. Provide Perches
Added perching space is always welcome in the winter months. Providing perches with a flat top but rounded edges helps prevent frost bite on the toes. When the chicken perches it can cover it’s feet with it’s feathers.
6. Offer Warm Treats
On cold, windy days I make sure to bring out a warm treat for my flock. Recently, I brought out heated turkey scraps that I had frozen from the Christmas turkey. Oatmeal is also a welcomed treat in my flock.
Increasing carbohydrates in the flock’s diet also helps them stay warm in the winter. Whether its a few more handfuls of scratch or a cup of sunflower seeds the extra energy will be used to replace the energy lost trying to stay warm.
7. Change the Litter
Just this year I put straw out in my enclosure for my chickens. A thick bed of straw provides extra warmth and entertainment. Chickens love scratching around in the straw looking for bugs and seeds. When the straw starts composting, the bacteria and other processes occurring during the composting creates heat. Once the chickens have scratched and trampled the first layer of straw down, just place a fresh layer on top.
8. Provide Entertainment
Boredom is a key thing to prevent in the winter months. Bored chickens will start eating more and start picking on each other. A few good boredom busters include, homemade suet, pine boughs, popcorn and cranberry garland, shiny CDs, and mirrors (be careful with a mirror if you have a rooster, they may think the other rooster in the mirror is a competitor and start ‘fighting’ it).
Expect egg production to decrease in the cold months as the hens are using their energy to stay warm, not make eggs. Also, the shorter day light hours causes a lack of laying. So for now, enjoy those sparse fresh eggs.
Enjoy your flock and have a good week!