Wintering Your Flock
By Randy "Chicken Man" Walker
Chickens are very hardy but could use some help from you to get through the harsh winter months. Now is the time for you to ask yourself some very important questions.
Does my chicken coop provide the shelter my birds need to be protected
from extreme weather conditions and predators?
What should I do to prevent their water from freezing?
What do I need to do to maintain their overall health?
What can I do to sustain egg production over the winter?
Keep in mind that your chickens can withstand freezing temperatures if they are kept dry and can get out of the wind. Generally speaking most of their winter problems are due to ongoing wet conditions, lack of fresh water, and poor quality of food. If these areas addressed properly, your chickens will fair well during the colder months.
Since predators are more likely to view your flock as an easy food source during the winter, make sure to inspect your coop for holes, cracks, and weak sections around doors, windows and fencing. Check and repair leaky roofs and make sure all latches are raccoon proof. In recent years raccoons, fox, coyote, and hawks have been on the increase unfortunately causing our chickens to be on the decrease. Providing them with a secure daytime shelter has become a necessity. Free ranging chickens are a walking buffet for any hungry predator looking for an easy meal. I have had fox raid my chicken coop right in the middle of the afternoon with me working just a short distance away outside. Consider a daytime shelter attached to your chicken coop to protect them from predators approaching on the ground and from the sky. Installing a fenced roof over the top of the outdoor run is the only way to prevent attacks from hawks and raccoons. Weasels, minks and rodents can fit through amazingly small openings! If you prefer to free range your chickens, another alternative is to house your birds in a “Chicken Tractor” (a moveable chicken coop). In this way they can still have access to tasty grass and bugs while keeping them protected from predators.
Rats and mice may become one of your biggest challenges. Not only do they carry disease, but they will leave droppings that eventually end up in your bird’s feed. The easiest way to reduce this problem is to store your feed in metal containers, such as galvanized trash cans which will keep mice and other critters out. Feed left in bags will attract small rodents not to mention allow for moisture to get into the feed resulting in mildew. Pickering Valley Feed carries a wide range of products to keep your rodent population under control.
Blocking the cold winter winds and maintaining a leak proof roof is important but at the same time ventilation is still necessary to allow for moisture to escape and keep the bedding dry. The main entrance door to any poultry shed can be the perfect place to leave open if you install an inside wire mesh door. This will keep the birds confined but also give all the fresh air needed.
It is not necessary to insulate the coop or even provide any kind of heat. Chickens can withstand temperatures far below the freezing point if sheltered from the winds and are able to stay dry.
Freezing temperatures brings a whole new problem to the chicken owner…Frozen water. If you are not home during the day and unable to resupply them with water several times a day, you will be looking for a way to keep the water from freezing. Providing that there is electricity in or near your coop, a poultry water font heater is the way to go. This device works on a thermostat keeping the water just above freezing. Simply set your filled poultry waterer on the device and forget about it. Chickens prefer warmer drinking water which has added benefits such as they will be warmer, healthier and more productive in laying eggs. Those of you who have smaller flocks, heated dog bowls are a good alternative.
Frostbite is a common issue in the winter. Occasionally in our section of the country, the temperatures do drop well below the freezing mark and may cause frostbite on the birds’ combs and wattles. This will become evident when the tips of their combs become black. The damaged area will heal promptly when the temperatures again return to above freezing. You can help prevent frostbite by coating their combs and wattles in Vaseline prior to a freeze warning. Simply apply a thick layer directly on the combs and wattles.
Keeping the bedding area dry will help prevent frostbite on their feet. A thick layer of straw works well for winter bedding and your chickens will help you keep it dry by scratching through it, fluffing it up allowing the bedding to dry out.
Late autumn is a common time for chickens to go through their annual molt (time when the shedding and growth of new feathers takes place). Egg production during this time will cease since all the nutrients consumed are redirected to the growth of new feathers.
This is a time to consider enhancing your feed with vitamins and food supplements. Even commercially prepared feeds cannot replace the green forage available during the warmer months. Adding vitamins and electrolytes to their drinking water will help provide the additional nutrients they need during the molt as well as dealing with colder temperatures. Poultry Conditioner added to the layer feed will result in improved feather quality, egg production and over all health and fitness.
Another tip that we often give our customers is to feed Scratch Grains to your birds. Scratch grains are a blend of grains including cracked corn and soybean oil. Corn in the digestion process produces more energy than other grains and help to keep the birds warm. It also converts sugars into fats which help insulate the bird against the cold. Feed Scratch Grains sparingly so you don’t end up with fat birds while remembering that this does not replace your layer feed.
Chickens lay eggs for reproductive purposes and not for your benefit of eating their eggs. They will naturally slow down their egg production in the late fall and winter unless you can fool them into continuing to lay. The rate of lay has more to do with the number of hours of daylight than temperature.
To make sure your hens are getting enough light, set up a timer in your chicken coop hooked up to a 60 watt bulb. Beginning in July, have the light come on around 5:30 am and turn off at 9 pm. This step needs to be done in July before fall, since fall's daylight hours have already started to reduce.
You can find timers with two sets of on and off so you don’t have to be running the light when it is truly daylight. Using the new energy savings screw in fluorescent bulbs will have minimal impact on your electric bill. If you don’t follow this routine, your hens most likely will stop producing eggs later this fall and not resume laying until late winter or early spring.
Even though your backyard flock is out in harsh winter conditions, they are quite hardy if cared for properly. Fulfilling their basic needs of Food, Shelter and Water will make taking care of poultry in the winter much easier for you and healthier for them.