Well my least favorite time of the year is in full swing. Yes the holidays are relaxing and it is nice to have a reprieve from all the summer chores but all I have to occupy my free time is planning for the spring and keeping the chickens healthy and happy during the winter.
I receive a lot of questions about how chickens do in cold weather and how to take care of them. Chickens actually do better in cold weather than hot weather depending on the breeds you choose. Some breeds will not do well in this climate but the common breeds such as leghorns, australorps, wyndottes, marans, wellsummers, cochins, sex links, americanas, barred rocks and orpingtons all do well in the winter. The chickens that have some problems in winter are the breeds with big combs that sometimes get frostbite. Frostbite looks like little black dots on the combs which could also be scabs from chicken pecks. Maintaining a draft free environment is important in the coldest of the winter months. I find the hardest part of taking care of chickens is going out in the cold. They seem to do fine with the following suggestions:
The chickens need a house with a roost that is free of drafts but also has ventilation. Chickens huddle together and puff up their insulation of feathers to stay warm. Ventilation is necessary as condensation can build up on the roof of the house and drip down on the chickens. Wet feathers can mean dead birds. I also have a covered run so my chickens do not have to get their feet in the snow unless they choose to leave the run. Chickens need at least three square feet of floor space per chicken in the pen and open space in a run. Crowding chickens in winter is not a good idea as I will explain problem behaviors later.
Winter is actually the easiest time to deal with cleanliness issues in the coop because it is actually a good idea to let the poop build up and just stir it up after topping with fresh bedding such as straw or wood shavings. The mixed material starts to decompose which gives off some heat in the process. This method is called the “deep litter method” and just keep it piling up until spring comes. The cold weather keeps the bacteria in check and I have never lost a bird to disease in the winter as I have in the summer.
Chickens do not need a heat source in the winter, even in the coldest temperatures, as long as they have a draft free shelter. I add a 60 watt build which I leave on 24 hours a day which adds a little warmth but is essential to keep the chickens laying eggs which I will explain in the next section.
Egg laying depends on the amount of light a chicken receives through their retinas. When there is less daylight it tells the chickens to slow down laying, or stop altogether, to conserve resources through the winter. This natural instinct can be tricked by adding artificial light. Most people recommend putting a timer on the light to take care of the 0800 to 2000 hours needed to keep laying. I just leave the light on all the time. If the chickens get tired of sleeping in light I have a roost in the pen they can, and do use when they want some dark shuteye. All of my chickens are still laying regularly, almost daily.
Winter is a stressful time for birds and they need adequate nutrition. Every day I give them a supplemental feeding of scratch grain for energy (thrown in the pen) which also keeps them occupied during the boring winter months when they don’t leave the pen. I also feed them oyster shell to add calcium for harder shells and grit for digestion. When I have green scraps from the kitchen I give it to them as well as any old (but not moldy) bread. I feed my laying hens an 18% lay crumble and I find that they go through food much faster in the winter when they have little other forage. I use a hanging feeder for the lay crumbles.
Water is the most important thing for chickens during all times of the year. They drink a lot of water in the winter as they eat more dry food. Keeping them in water is essential as one day without water can seriously impact the health of your chickens as well as their ability to keep you in eggs. I also find watering chickens to be the most pain in the a%# thing to do if you do not have a heated water base. I utilize the heated base with my double walled waterer. I would not have chickens if I did not have a heated water base. You have no personal freedom if you have to be home at least twice a day to provide fresh unfrozen water to them.
Chickens get bored being cooped up all the time and they tend to break and eat eggs, peck each other and pull out feathers. If you have a mean chicken in the flock it can be a very stressful time for the others. I find it best to always give them scratch grain to hunt for and I let them out as much as I can to give them some freedom. I am currently seeing a few missing feathers so I know they need to get out more. Overall though they are doing well but all of my chickens are wimps who do not like to get their feet wet. They too are hoping for an early spring.
Keeping chickens is not a daunting task. I too get stir crazy in winter and having to care for them seems like a pain but it is pleasurable to get outside and get something accomplished which also keeps my mind active with new ideas to try when the weather improves.