Winter is a scary time for new chicken owners. We want our flock to be warm, healthy and happy — which can be challenging with freezing temperatures and snow coating the ground.
Fortunately, once you figure it out, raising chickens in the winter isn’t that hard. Most chickens are hardy and able to handle the cool temperatures. Here are some crucial tips that will make the winter experience better for you and the flock.
1. Don’t add a heater; add insulation
If you are considering a heater for your chicken coop, I caution you to back away. My husband is a firefighter and has responded to dozens of chicken coop fires over the years. It is not safe. All of the bedding is begging to start a fire.
Chickens don’ t need a heater. They huddle together for warmth. Insulation is a better choice, but you need to add that when you build your chicken coop. You also don’t want to seal off the coop entirely. Ventilation will prevent moisture from building up. All of the droppings and no ventilation will lead to ammonia in your coop, and that is a recipe for sickness.
There is a huge difference between ventilation and drafts. You don’t want drafts. Ventilation areas should be above where the chickens roost, ensuring they don’t get cold. Typically, it is the space between the roof and walls, covered with hardware cloth. You don’t want a predator entering!
2. Add entertainment
Winter can be boring for humans and chickens. They need something to do with their time as they hang out in the coop more often. A popular option is hanging a head of cabbage as a play toy. They will peck at the cabbage dangling from the ceiling.
You can even provide a dust bathing area. Put a tub of sand or wood ash mixed with food grade diatomaceous earth. Some people just put it on the ground in the coop and let them scratch it up. Either way, chickens love to bathe and dust themselves! Plus, it helps keep lice and mites away.
3. Provide covered outdoor space
Many chickens prefer not to step in snow. I found that out when only two of my chickens would dare venture outside after a snowstorm. Giving them a covered space outside allows them to venture out, whether they are fans of snow or not.
The solution can be as easy as adding a tarp over part of the run. They just need an area without snow, unless you want to go shovel. But, no one likes to shovel, so just save yourself a backache and create a makeshift roof.
Another solution is to scatter hay and straw on the ground outside to cover the snow. When the temperatures start to increase around the low 30s, chickens may venture out even without snow protection. Under those temperatures, it is hard to convince them.
4. Coat their combs and wattles
Unfortunately, I had no idea that breeds with large combs and wattles are more prone to frostbite. One of our roosters years ago, Sven, loved to stand outside, even in the negative temperatures. I noticed black tips on his comb, and the tips eventually fell off.
Chickens can get frostbite just as easily as we do. To protect their combs and wattles, gently smear some petroleum jelly on them each day when you go to check their food and water. Don’t worry; if your chickens get frostbite as mine did, it typically just affects their appearance.
5. Give appropriate roost space
You might have to adjust your coop design if you find that you don’t have enough roosting space for each chicken. Chickens fluff their feathers and roost together at night. It keeps them warm and snug. Warmer air rises, keeping them comfortable.
Venture outside once all the chickens are roosting to see if everyone has a spot. If someone is on the ground, you need to add more space. That poor chicken on the ground is going to be cold and more vulnerable.
6. Give them greens
In the summer, chickens have access to delicious and healthy greens, especially if they can free range. Winter limits those choices. It is hard for them to forage and find anything substantial. Try to make an effort to give them safe kitchen scraps as often as possible.
Another choice is to learn how to grow fodder yourself inside. Fodder is an excellent supplement for your chickens in the winter months. It will boost the quality of your eggs, as well.
If you live in an area that receives extremely low temperatures regularly, you will want to make sure that you pick cold-hardy chickens. Some breeds handle lower temperatures better. However, with these tips, you can guarantee all of your chickens will be healthy and happy come spring time.
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