Backyard Chickens, part 16: Wintertime Issues

January 10, 2012

Raising Chickens

winter barnyard

January has its icy fingers in us after a couple of rather mild days.  Now the time has come in earnest when we will have to bundle up when we go out and take special care with the animals.

How is wintertime flock management different?

1.  Keeping drinkable water available

While you may have struggled to keep your flock in drinking water during the summer, you must be no less vigilant in the cold months of the year.  The birds may not require quite the volume they did during high heat, but it must be drinkable (liquid, not ice) most hours of the day to meet their needs.

There are some nice devices you can buy that plug in and keep the water from freezing.  We move most of our pens and have quite a few, so that is not a good option for us.

One of our main problems is being able to unscrew the tops on the waterers when they are frozen on.  To accomplish this, we carry buckets and pitchers of hot water.  We slowly pour the water over the cap until we hear a cracking sound.  This usually means the ice between cap and fount has melted.  We open it and pour the rest of the hot water inside.

Providing really warm water at feeding time can prolong the amount of time the water is drinkable before refreezing.  Just be sure that it is not so hot as it comes out into the pan that it could burn the birds’ mouths.  It usually cools pretty quickly in the frosty air, but check before putting it down for them.  If their mouths or throats get blistered, they will stop eating and drinking.

2.  Protecting them from the elements

Chickens do surprisingly well in cold weather.  Many heritage breeds are pretty hearty and actually suffer more in extreme heat.  They can huddle together on their rails, fluff their chest feathers over their feet, and tuck their heads beneath their wings.  Many times I have seen frost on the backs of our various birds in the morning, but they are none the worse for the wear.  That’s a pretty good argument for the insulation of down and feathers!

winter chickensThe main issue chickens have is with wind rather than cold temps.  Wind pulls heat away from their bodies, and worse yet, may spray them with sleet or freezing rain.  Do your best to shelter them from drafts.

Occasionally chickens, especially roosters, will get frostbite on their combs.   We’ve sometimes had a couple that don’t return to the shelter of the henhouse at night for some reason and spend the evening in the elements.  When this happens, the tips usually turn the color of dried blood or appear burned.  I suppose there aren’t a whole lot of nerve endings in the combs or else the nerves are deadened by the damage because the birds don’t seem much affected.  Some people try to apply a coating of Vaseline to the combs before extreme weather, but ours aren’t the hop-in-your-lap types.

Sometimes the damaged tips scale away a bit, but ours have always resolved on their own.  I’ve read that some people have to do minor surgery on them to treat infection that sets in, but we’ve never had that problem fortunately.

3.  Feed adjustments

You may want to consider adjusting the amounts of what you feed at different times of the year.  It probably won’t make a great deal of difference, but some feeds like corn generate heat in digestion.  You can do a little more research on that if you are interested.

4.  The Deep Litter System

Everyone likes to have a clean fresh henhouse, but this is a time when you may want to hold off cleaning it out.  Under the rails where the birds sleep, a lot of manure accumulates.  If you have good ventilation, hopefully the smell is not bad.  If you toss straw, dry leaves, or pine shavings on the pile every once in a while, that will help.

As that pile sits there, it slowly begins to decompose.  That process, like a “hot compost pile” releases heat that can raise the temperature in the henhouse a few degrees.  With the birds suspended over the pile, the heat should rise to them and be a little help.

Come spring, you can muck it all out and jumpstart your compost.

Any other issues that are concerning you regarding caring for your chickens this winter?  Please list them in the comments section and I will address them if I can.

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11 Comments on “Backyard Chickens, part 16: Wintertime Issues”

  1. tax2death Says:

    I would like to see a post on feeding chickens post shtf. My question is what to grow, how much to feed in particular feeding regiment during winter. I plan to pare down the brood just want to know how to care for the 4-6 I keep. Summer is easy to figure out, fenced in garden.

    what to grow
    what to feed
    how much to feed

    assuming the feed store is shut down how to be self sufficient


    • Laura Says:

      That is an excellent question and one I am still working on myself. For example, I know we can grow sunflower seeds, corn, and millet fairly easily. But how much protein would those provide, how much I would need for a given size flock for at least 6 months of the year, etc is still something I need to do more research on.

      Another possibility is worms from vermicompost, but then the worms will need a protected environment to live year round. You have to plan ahead for that too. I believe we alternately cooked and drowned our worms under the rabbit hutches last summer. We need a better system. I’m thinking about the root cellar once it’s finished.

      Thanks for that suggestion. I will try to do more research and report back.


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  1. Can I Keep Chickens in My Backyard? | - February 17, 2012

    […] Backyard Chickens, part 16: Wintertime Issues […]

  2. How Old Are Your Chickens (and Why It Matters)? | - November 19, 2012

    […] Backyard Chickens, part 16: Wintertime Issues […]

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