Now that most of us are starting to feel the chill of winter we’ve made sure we have a cozy warm environment for ourselves. But what about your chickens? How are they holding up?
Ideally, your chickens have gradually gotten used to the cold as temperatures began to cool down throughout the fall. Overall, chickens are pretty hardy and naturally well insulated enough to handle winter. It’s the extreme – or sudden and unexpected temperature drop – that can really cause the problems.
That said, you do want to make sure your coop is draft free but still has some ventilation to get rid of moisture that builds up. If there are drafts or you get hit with a couple of sub-zero days, consider covering the north and east facing sides with temporary insulation, such as the plastic you use for windows, old tarps, blankets, quilts, corrugated cardboard, or bubble wrap (I’ve personally found that bubble wrap works better than the plastic kits sold at the hardware store). You can get inventive here and experiment with different materials you might come across. If you have a chicken run, put up a temporary wind block on the north and east sides as well. Again, this can be as simple as cardboard. Do keep in mind: chickens love to eat Styrofoam (go figure – never been tempted to try it myself) so if you use it, cover it with something. It won’t hurt them but you’ll end up with no insulation very quickly once they discover it!
If you’re desperate and don’t have electricity in your coop, you can fill plastic bottles or jugs about 75% full with very hot water. Don’t fill them completely so they’ll have room to expand if they freeze. Secure the lids and put them in the coop. They’ll provide a little extra heat for a short time.
Make sure your coops are predator proof since there’ll be hungry varmints on the prowl this time of year and make sure your feed is secured from rodents. If I was a rat and I knew there was a big bin of chicken feed I’d go for it so lock it up tight and in something that is chew proof, like a galvanized metal tin of some sort. Usually they are easy to find at the farmer supply stores.
Your chickens may not be able to get their usual dust bath due to frozen or muddy earth, provide them with an area filled with either wood ashes or sand. Throw in some diatomaceous earth to further help prevent parasites. If you’ve got the space, a shallow kid’s swimming pool works well as a container.
Since daylight hours are so short, birds spend more time on their roosts. If you use dropping boards, clean them more frequently.
Open the coop door and give your chickens the option of going out on sunny days, even if it is cold. Be aware that too much time spent standing or walking on the snow can cause frostbitten feet. You’ve probably heard before that applying Vaseline (or Bag Balm) to your birds’ wattles and combs can prevent frostbite. But according to University of Kentucky, it works in mild cold but does nothing when temperatures are sub-zero for a few days. When you do apply it, use just a thin layer. You can even coat their legs if you feel they’re at risk.
One of the most difficult aspects of winter can be dealing with frozen water. You can keep a spare one or two inside and switch them out as each becomes frozen. You can also add a mix of boiling water and cool water every few hours (the end result should be warm – not hot). Another trick is to put a warm brick or rock inside the waterer. It’s also okay to remove the waterer from the coop overnight to keep it from freezing. Your flock will be asleep and they don’t get up in the night for a snack or drink! Add a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to their water to boost their immune systems. Vinegar freezes at 28 degrees so it may also slow the water from freezing.
Happy hens are healthy hens. And food treats and diversions do make them happy. Not that we’d ever spoil our birds (wink!) but if you’re so inclined, cook them up a nice hot mash or some oatmeal. If you’re using the oven, roast them a squash or pumpkin. But you don’t have to cook specifically for them. Just warm up the leftovers you were going to feed them anyway. Plain yogurt (especially if you can get it cheap when it’s near the expiration date) is good. Throw in a bunch of kale, which is extremely nutritious and a winter hardy plant worth growing to boot. Hang up a cabbage for them to peck at. Offer healthy treats like sprigs of millet, sprouts (easily and cheaply grown on your kitchen counter), whole or rolled oats, and sunflower seeds. Scratching for these in the litter provides hours of fun as well. Throw in an armful of hay. You can make a homemade suet block like you’d give the wild birds by using leftover cooked fats mixed with seeds, nuts and/or dried fruits. Give them a little snack before they roost for the night and they’ll have a bit more fuel to keep them warm. Sprinkle some garlic and kelp powder on top of their food for an immune system boost.
For more ideas, check out some of our past articles and tips:
(Ventilation and Insulation Tips): http://www.chickencoopguides.com/exploring-insulation-ventilation-options/
(Fall and Winter Checklist): http://www.chickencoopguides.com/chickencoopguides-fall-winter-checklist/
(How to Winterize Your Waterer): http://www.chickencoopguides.com/winterize-chicken-waterer/
(Raising Chickens in Cold Climates): http://www.chickencoopguides.com/raising-chickens-cold-climates/
Wishing you good luck this winter,