Since there have been several posts about chickens for sale or people looking for chickens on the digest this year, I thought some of you might benefit from some tips for taking care of your flock this winter. Chickens can tolerate low temperatures, but once it gets below freezing, they are susceptible to all sorts of problems just like any other animal. I hope the tips are helpful to those of you wondering how you’re going to care for your chickens this winter. 🙂
– First off, “winterize” your coop. Add extra covering (boards, blankets, metal sheeting, etc.) to block the wind. If necessary, fill in cracks with caulk or a similar material to reduce drafts. (We use blankets on the coops that are not in areas where they’re going to get soaked if it rains.)
– Chickens need clean, fresh water at all times. If your water is freezing due to the cold weather, you’ll need to change water about 3 times a day to ensure that the water isn’t frozen. For the past few days, we’ve changed our water several times per day and each time, the water has already started freezing again. Chickens drink a LOT of water and if they get dehydrated, they can die quickly so keep that water liquid and don’t let it freeze. (BTW, if your chickens ever do start to get dehydrated, you can add a little mixture of electrolytes to the drinking water and they’ll usually perk up within 12 hours unless they are too far gone. This is available at farm and garden stores in liquid or powder form. We use the powder.) Chickens should never go more than a couple of hours without water. (If you can afford it, some people use submersible water heaters so that you don’t have to change the water several times a day to unfreeze it. We can’t afford one so we just go out several times and as it starts to freeze, we give them fresh water.)
– Keep chickens together. Their body heat will help them stay a little warmer. If possible, keep larger flocks and let them stay together in the winter.
– Make sure they have plenty of food and, if possible, supplement with grass and even food scraps (NOT meat!). During the winter, we try to pull or clip a little bit of long grass that is left and give it to the chickens, which they love, and also scraps from our food such as the little pieces you pull off oranges, apple peel, etc. In other words, we try to supplement with vitamin rich foods since they aren’t getting as many vitamins with the limited daylight hours.
– For younger chickens (less than four months), you’ll need to use a heat lamp. If you have to, run an extension cord outside to their coop. They NEED this extra heat or they are likely to die either from the cold or diseases and problems related to being too cold.
– Research your breeds. Some breeds tolerate freezing weather a little better than other breeds. If you have a breed that doesn’t tolerate winter weather well, you’ll need to be extra sure that your chickens are protected for the winter months.
– Add extra bedding that could help with warmth. Chickens still perch at night if you have perches for them, but extra bedding such as wood shavings, straw or hay. (Do not use these with very young chickens. They’ll eat them and the shavings are bad for their digestion at young ages. For our babies, we don’t use bedding at all. We have them on plain, flat wood that we clean off regularly and we add a couple of cheap towels for them to sleep on. Once they are older, we add perches, but we prefer that our babies stay in a coop as close to the house as possible and this coop doesn’t have perches in it.)
– Remember to keep their living quarters extra clean in the winter months. Since chickens are less able to roam during the winter months, this increases the risk of parasites and diseases so it’s important to keep the cage extra clean. (I realize this is difficult since it’s so bloomin’ cold outside, but we just go out every few days and clean up the droppings and turn the bedding in the cages with bedding. So far we haven’t had any difficulty with parasites and it takes only about ten minutes to clean all our cages. We just go out and do this on the “less cold” days!)
– Check bedding daily to make sure it’s not wet or frozen, which can cause frostbite. (This is particularly an issue if your water gets knocked over so check this.) You should change the bedding about twice a week, but check it daily for problems.
– Check on your birds often during the winter days. If they are huddled too closely together, not moving much, or chirping loudly, then there is most likely a problem. They are probably too cold. There can be other issues as well. The other day when the wind was blowing at almost 40 miles per hour at our house, we went out to check on our pullets (they’re about 4 months old) and they were literally plastered up against the side of the cage because the wind was blowing so hard that they could not move! I felt so bad for them! The board that normally protects them from this had blown away. We quickly added more boards and put up barriers to ensure that the boards wouldn’t blow away. This gave the chickens added protection from the wind and they were then able to climb up in their little perch area.
– Predators are more common in the winter due to the shortage of other natural foods so make sure your cage is safe against predators. Consider caging free range chickens during the winter months.
Finally, just remember that your chickens are much more susceptible to the problems associated with cold weather than your other animals (dogs, cats, etc.) because you typically bring in your other animals during the winter, but not your “farm” animals. Please check on your flock regularly and make it part of your homeschool routine during the winter months. Share Proverbs 12:10 with your children: “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” Train them to take care of the needs of their animals. During the winter, this will involve more work than other seasons of the year, but if you want to have eggs again in the spring, then caring for your chickens in the winter is essential. 🙂
Enjoy your flock!