Tips for wintering your chicken flock
The mornings are becoming chilly, snow has hit the ground, and the days are getting shorter. All of these signs point to winter, the season in which chickens egg production is greatly reduced.
However, there are some measures that chicken owners can take to ensure a consistent supply of eggs throughout the winter. Hours of daylight is the key factor to egg production, because hens need 14-16 hours of daylight to stimulate egg production.
Lights can be installed in chicken coops to stimulate longer days, and will help encourage hens to continue laying. These lights can be put on a timer so that extra “light” is added in the morning and the evening to reach the desired time of 14-16 hours.
Another side affect of decreased light is molting, which many new chicken owners perceive as the chickens being sick. This is a normal part of life that chickens go through, and cannot be prevented.
For chicken owners who aren’t as worried about decreased egg production, there are still some precautions that need to be followed to keep chickens safe and healthy throughout the cold winter months.
Frostbite is a big concern in chickens, because if they are outside for too long in freezing temperatures their combs, wattles and feet can freeze. This is painful for the birds, and can decrease reproduction, especially in roosters.
Coops should be soundly constructed and free of drafts. It is best to use nesting boxes and rails that are made of wood, because they do not get as cold when the temperatures drop, as compared to metal because it will stay cold.
Coops can be insulated with basic insulation or even cardboard, but it is important to make sure chickens still have proper ventilation. A “stuffy” coop can harm their health just as much if not more than being a little cold.
Bedding should be cleaned often, because the chickens will be spending more time in the house and will accumulate more feces and urine on the floor. This can freeze, and be much harder to clean out over time.
Chickens in cold climates may need an outside heat source. “If the chickens aren’t warm, they aren’t going to produce eggs. They will spend all their energy trying to stay warm instead of egg production. If they are warm, they will produce a lot more eggs,” said Danielle Nater from Northern Colorado Feeder’s Supply.
If heat is added, it is very important to keep all electrical cords and heaters out of the chickens reach, so they do not shock themselves or start a fire.
The heat source does not need to be on all the time. “Put a timer on the lights so they are only on for a certain amount of time throughout the night. Also, they need to be infrared lights. If they are bright white lights and if it is on all the time, it will irritate the chickens,” said Nater.
Predators can also be an issue as other animals run short of feed, so it is best to lock chickens up at night in a coop that can’t be dug under. It doesn’t take predators long to destroy a flock.
Water is also very important, because it will freeze at night and owners may not notice their chickens do not have water. If possible, it is best to use a heated bowl to keep water from freezing. If this is not available, water will need to be brought to the chickens daily to keep them hydrated.
If a heavy snow falls, an area should be cleared for chickens to have room to eat. It is best to feed both a regular ration and scratch. Scratch that is laid on snow can be lost by the chickens, and results in wasted dollars for the owners. “They should get some extra scratch because corn is a fat source, and that will help them keep warm,” said Nater.
It is best to feed chickens later in the afternoon or early evening, before it gets dark, because they will tend to eat more. This will also allow the chickens to fill up their crops before they nest, and give them plenty of feed to digest through the night.
Scraps can continue to be fed to chickens, as well as egg shells. The egg shells give the chickens more calcium, which in turn will cause their eggs to become harder with thicker shells. Oyster shell can also be supplemented to the chickens as a calcium supplement.
It is important to pick up the eggs every day, for several reasons. The first is that the eggs can freeze and crack, which can make them unusable. The second is so the chickens don’t eat the eggs. “If they aren’t getting enough calcium, they will eat their own eggs,” said Nater.
There are some breeds of chickens that are considered hardier than others, and these include Rhode Island Reds, Buf Orphingtons and Barred Plymouth Rocks.
Chickens are much more adaptable to the cold than many people think, and with a little extra care, should continue laying throughout the winter, even if the production is slightly decreased.