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How To Prepare Your Chickens For Winter

Chicken standing outside in winter

With a few easy steps, keeping your chickens healthy during the winter can be accomplished and may even reward you with egg-production year-round. When preparing your chickens for cold weather, some areas to consider include lighting, heating, proper air flow in their coop, water and feedings.

Obviously, the best time to prepare for winter is during the late summer or fall, as winter can be a very miserable time for your birds. Of course, some breeds are hardier than others, but, typically, all birds will need some extra protection as those chilly months draw in.

If you experience freezing temperatures in the winter, it is best to start with a hardy breed. Most cold-hardy chickens are of medium to larger weight (six pounds or up) and typically have smaller combs such as peacombs although with sufficient protection from the elements, other comb types will do well.

Some of the best cold hardy birds include: Ameraucanas, Ancona, Black Australorps, Black Giant, Blue Andalusian, Brahma, Buff Orpingtons, Cochins, Delaware, Dominique, Langshan, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Red, Russian Orloff, Speckled Sussex and Wyandottes.

Egg production will halt as hens go through their annual molt in the early fall. Once they have completed the molt, the shortened daylight hours of fall and winter tend to slow egg-laying. Once the birds are finished molting, to stimulate eggs laying you can extend the daylight hours artificially with a lightbulb turned on in the coop. The hens require no more than 10 hours of light per day to do so and a timer on the light will ensure that the birds are not overstimulated by the added light in the coop.

Light intensity should also be considered. As a general guideline, a 40-watt bulb with a reflector located seven feet above the floor will provide adequate light for an area of 200 square feet. Multiple lights should be used to assure even distribution throughout the building. Incandescent lights are generally best. Also, assure that light fixtures are properly installed and maintained to avoid a fire hazard.

When temperatures plummet in the dead of winter, people commonly make the mistake of insulating the coop to a point that limits air circulation. This causes humidity to build up, which can lead to frostbite. It can also cause a buildup of ammonia gas from their droppings, subsequently damaging the chickens' lungs.

Even though you will want to avoid drafts from passing through the coops in the winter, you will need to allow for enough air flow to provide your chickens with enough fresh air. Ventilation is very important for your chicken's health. The over hang of your chicken coop where the walls meet the roof is a great place to place a screened window to increase ventilation and light as well. Windows can all be screened so that the coop can be vented during the day but during the night the windows can be closed to keep the heat in.

Any time you are altering your coop, it is wise to ensure that the roof and floor are still waterproof, because one of the keys to staying warm is to stay dry. Keep in mind that bedding needs to be deep and changed often. Wet living conditions for chickens can bring upon disease and death within a few days.

Another idea is to have a closed in pen attached to the hen house, which will allow the birds to have a dry area to scratch about during the day.

Chickens do pretty well huddling together to keep warm, but if your birds are particularly susceptible to the cold or if you have extremely chilly winters, you may like to spoil your flock with the addition of heater or a heat-producing bulb in the chicken coop. You may feel that this is an extravagance, but it is a technique used by many chicken owners. Coop temperature only needs to be slightly above freezing to keep chickens comfortable and to prevent frostbite. Overly warm coops interfere with the birds ability to tolerate cold temperatures in the winter so this should be avoided at all costs.

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). This is a time to consider offering your chickens a high-density vitamin filled feed, or enhancing your current feed with vitamins and food supplements. Adding vitamins will help provide the additional nutrients they need during the molt as well as dealing with colder temperatures.

You also want to make sure they have plenty of non-frozen water. Change water often, and break through the ice layer, if you notice one forming. Or for added convenience, purchase a heated bucket, available in the horse or livestock department of your local TSC store. Not only are they much easier to refill and clean, they are effective to a colder temperature.

Finally, wattles on roosters may need special care, such as covering with Vaseline to prevent frostbite. Follow these steps below:

  • Apply petroleum jelly liberally to the wattle and comb of the bird. Massage the jelly into all red skin showing on the poultry's head. Finish up by leaving a thick coat of jelly on the comb and wattle.
  • Observe the comb and wattle when applying the jelly. If any area on the wattle and comb are black, the bird may already have frostbite. Be very careful when applying petroleum jelly to this area and the skin surrounding it.
  • Reapply petroleum jelly as needed. Pick up a chicken and touch the comb. If the red skin feels dry, it is time to reapply. If the skin still feels slightly oily or greasy the previous application is still doing its job.
  • When applying the petroleum jelly, be careful not to get any jelly in the bird's eyes.

Most importantly, monitor your chicken's behavior. If they are moving about and acting normally, they are fine! They will naturally fluff out their feathers or stand on one foot to keep warm.

Even though your chickens may be out in harsh winter conditions, with a bit of preparation, they are quite hardy if cared for properly. Fulfilling their basic needs of food, shelter and water will ensure a happy and healthy flock come spring.