Winterizing your flock
by: Victoria Yancey
Sterling Meadow Hatchery
For many people winter has already arrived. But if you’re one of the few that hasn’t seen the colder temperatures yet, then there’s still time to “batten down the hatches”, so to speak.
Poultry come with their own down coats, but the thickness of the coat depends upon the ambient temperatures that the birds are used to. Because of this you may or may not choose to offer additional heat for your birds. Things to think about before making that decision are:
a) the number of birds you have;
b) the size of the birds you have (standard breeds will do better than the smaller bantams);
c) the size of your coop, and whether or not it is insulated;
d) what are the coldest temperatures you can expect to see, and for how long.
Birds can put out a lot of heat, and they are more than willing to share that heat with each other at night. But you might need to help out 4 birds in an 8x8’ coop more than you would 25 birds. Most standard breed chickens will do quite well in sub-freezing temperatures. Keeping them supplied with fresh running water will be your biggest challenge.
So, some things you can do to help your birds survive the winter with as little extra heat possible…
Insulate the coop:
If you’re building a new coop, insulation is a good idea. You will never regret insulating your coop, as it will keep a coop warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. For un-insulated coops, you can tack up plastic sheeting or canvas around the outside to block drafts and add a layer of protection. Hay or straw bales run around the outside walls can add layers of insulation too. Just keep in mind that small critters like to live in hay and straw. The straw or hay can be composted in the spring. If you can supply your birds with a draft free dry coop, you’ve already won the first battle of keeping your birds safe and warm.
The deep-litter method will generate heat and insulate the base of your coop from drafts. When designing a coop for winter extremes, be sure to have adequate floor space to allow exercise and enough height to service the birds and allow them to avoid respiratory distress. Put extra bedding in your nesting boxes for the hens and to keep the eggs from freezing. Spot-cleaning of obvious droppings can substantially reduce ammonia. If not possible, cover old litter frequently with new. Consider mixing odor-control substances to the litter. Some great products include food-grade diatomaceous earth, Stall-Dri, hydrated lime and Stable Boy. A dropping board covered with vinyl positioned directly beneath the roosts can be scraped off easily every morning to help reduce moisture and odors, too.
I get a lot of questions about frostbite, especially for the toes. I’ve tried several different types of roosts, and though the tendency is to give them the round doweling (closet railing), I’ve found that a 2x4, laid flat with the 4” flat side up, is not only strong enough to hold many birds, but it allows them enough space to snuggle their feathers down over their feet to keep them warm. The roosts should be higher up, as well, so that the birds can take advantage of the warmer air near the ceiling. Vaseline rubbed on the combs will help prevent frostbite too.
Drop the ceiling:
If you have a few birds and a tall coop, try dropping the ceiling down for the winter. We built a frame for an awning over the roosts, and covered it with the reflective silver bubble insulation (looks like bubble-wrap encased in aluminum foil). That trapped enough heat to keep the birds warmer by at least 10 degrees, and created a warmer micro-climate within the coop.
Keeping the water from freezing is the hard part. Some people just use the black rubber water bowls, and bang out the ice a few times a day, replacing with fresh water. If your coop is wired for electricity, there are submersible heaters for the galvanized waterers, or heated bases that you set the waterers upon that have internal thermostats. Heated water bowls designed for dogs work great for the chickens. Some people keep a heat lamp trained on the waterer, and that works too. Heat tape run along pipes will also keep water running. There are many different ways to do it. Just choose something that is convenient for you that works, and one that does not pose a fire hazard. The only alternative is to supply heat to keep the whole coop above freezing, and with the energy prices these days, that’s not always an option.
Chickens will need a little more feed or higher protein ration during the winter to help keep up their energy to stay warm. Add a couple of handfuls of cracked corn or scratch to their daily treats, and make sure they have plenty of food during the day. I tend to offer them 20-24% protein crumbles/pellets, and at least once a week feed them boiled eggs to give them an energy boost. You can also feed them cooked salmon to increase their protein and omega-3s. Also, if you live in an area that tends to get a lot of snow, a larger feeder or waterer might be in order if there is a chance they will get snow-bound for a while.
The winter days are short and cold, and it causes the girls to slow their laying down. This is a much needed break for them, as laying eggs can take its toll on them. If you want to keep them producing more than they normally would during the winter, you can add a small lamp, 40-60w, on a timer to increase the “daylight” for them. Here in the winter we only have 5.5 hours of daylight in December, so I added a light on a timer that goes on at 6am and turns off when the sun comes up. They start settling in for the evening around 3pm, so that increases their daylight to about 9 hours.
If you get it right, the coop will be a few degrees warmer than the outside, the air will be calm and fresh and the birds will be fine. In a prolonged cold spell there is the option of using a brooder lamp in the coop, as usual paying attention to fire safety.
Other than the health and safety of your birds, there is one more reason to design and operate your coop with attention to winter challenges, and that is the motivation it will give you to get to the coop to care for the birds and to remain there long enough to perform well. So think of yourself when preparing for winter- if you're comfortable in their little world, the joy of success is yours.