Backyard chickens need safe, healthy environments to survive cold weather. There are several ways you can make winter a little easier on your flock. You can start by preparing them to transition during the fall, and follow by implementing proper management techniques before the first snowfall.
Before the weather changes, you want to thoroughly clean your chicken coop. Not only do you get a chance to clean off all the droppings inside the coop and on accessories — dishes, removable nest boxes, perches, etc — but by removing all of the bedding, you can inspect your coop for damage.
It’s important to close off any cracks that will expose your birds to the elements, while maintaining the perfect balance of airflow during the winter. Your chickens will be cold if there’s too much of a draft. However, if they don’t have enough airflow or if there are entry points for water, humidity inside the coop can rise to create a breeding ground for parasites and disease.
Moisture can be a problem if ventilation is insufficient. At the very least you need to provide an open area to allow fresh air in and stale moist air out. You may accomplish this by leaving a window cracked or installing a vent at the top of the coop. Ideally, you want to have an inlet and an outlet for air to circulate through the coop without being drafty. The overhang of your coop, where the walls meet the roof, is a good place to install vented windows. The coop will be vented during the day with the windows open and warmer at night with the windows closed.
More reasons proper ventilation is a must:
- Ammonia buildup in wet litter can be irritating to you and your chickens without adequate airflow.
- Damp conditions increase respiratory diseases.
- Limited air circulation causes humidity buildup, which can lead to frostbite.
When you clean and repair your coop, it’s also a good idea to make sure the floor and roof are waterproofed. Dry animals are warm animals. If you see signs of leaking water, you should replace that section of the floor or roof before winter.
You also want to check the entire coop for cracks and holes that could let cold air inside. While you want your coop to have good ventilation, you don’t want it to be drafty.
Aside from making repairs to protect your chickens from the weather and improve airflow in your coop, you also want to make sure there are no easy entrances for predators.
Here are some things you want to look for during your fall inspection:
- Check the entry points. Make sure doors, hatches and other openings can close tightly and stay closed.
- Cover vented areas. Air inlets and outlets should be covered with sturdy wire or screen to deter predators and pests.
- Look for signs of predators. Once you’ve reinforced any weak areas of your coop, you want to look for tracks and feces around your coop that may suggest a predator is hanging around. As food becomes scarce, it may become more and more tempted to snack on your flock. Being aware beforehand gives you the opportunity to prevent a loss.
Once you’ve cleaned and repaired your coop, you’ll want to evaluate the bedding. Providing deep, clean bedding will help your flock stay warm and dry and it will give you a chance to make sure there are no mice, other rodents or their feces in the bedding.
Providing a deep layer of bedding will help insulate the floor and may help keep the coop warmer throughout the winter. Wet areas of litter should be removed to prevent ammonia and moisture buildup, but dry bedding can be left during the winter and cleaned up in the spring.
Lighting is important for egg production. Hens normally lay eggs when days are long in the spring and summer. They will molt and stop laying eggs when there are fewer daylight hours in the fall. To keep your hens laying during the fall and winter, you’ll need to provide at least 14 hours of light per day, supplementing daylight with artificial light.
The University of Wisconsin Extension recommends implementing artificial lights around September 1 and continuing their use until spring when the natural day length reaches 14 hours. The lights don’t need to be extremely bright. Excessively bright lights can increase pecking.
If the light bulbs you are using are working as a heat source, you may need to leave them on all day. It could shock your chickens to have 14 hours of heat and light and 10 hours of cold and dark.
Michigan State University Extension suggests using a 40-watt bulb with a reflector, elevated seven feet above the floor, to provide adequate light for 200 square feet of space.
Once you’ve ensured you’ve optimized your flock’s shelter for the winter you want to make sure you’re providing enough fresh water and feed throughout the winter.
Chickens will generally drink about a quart of water for every pound of feed they eat, according to the University of Wisconsin Extension. Water is important for healthy digestion, temperature regulation and egg production. You need to make sure your flock has fresh water daily. You can make sure the water source doesn’t freeze over by using a heated base for your waterer or by placing a heat lamp over your waterer. If you don’t want to use a heat source to keep water thawed, you need to change your flock’s water twice a day.
In addition to adjusting your watering routine to ensuring your flock has a continuously fresh water source, you’ll need to consider your feed management routine. Your chickens will need a considerable amount of feed to keep warm in cooler conditions. Consider supplementing their diet with high energy feeds, such as grains and oilseeds — corn, scratch grains, sunflower seed, etc — to provide extra energy. However, be sure to keep an eye out for excess energy, which can cause feather-pecking. If this occurs, stop supplementing and rely on a balanced complete feed. You may also consider giving your chickens plant matter — leafy hay, root vegetables, squash, pumpkins, etc — to help keep them active throughout the day.
Adjusting your management practices to accommodate your flock during the winter is a good place to start; however, in the long run, you may want to think about selecting a breed better suited to cold conditions.
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