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!
The 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.