PUBLISHED: 16:09 20 January 2011
Helping your chickens through the winter months
A suitable house or shelter is essential. It needs to keep out the cold, wind, rain and snow, but must provide enough ventilation to prevent diseases, such as pulmonary infections. Placing your house with its door and window facing away from the prevailing wind will keep out draughts while still allowing air to get in. A pop-hole can, if necessary, have a porch added for extra protection. If you are in an area where high winds are prevalent, it may be a good idea to pass a couple of ropes over the roof and peg them down on either side. This may safeguard the house, but not necessarily the birds, of course. The benefit of good insulation is obvious, particularly in the roof, but also in the walls. It is possible to add internal insulation boards quite easily, bearing in mind the need to keep ventilation points clear. The body heat of the birds will be retained in an insulated house, rather than being dissipated to the outside. It is important not to have too few birds in a large house - they may not be able to generate enough warmth for the space provided. A perch width of 15cm to 20cm per bird (depending on their size) will provide sufficient room, while keeping them adequately clustered. Icy rain and high winds are of no benefit to chickens and they are better kept inside while these conditions prevail. An airy garden shed can be easily adapted as winter quarters while their summer house and run are given a clean. A thick layer of wood shavings, sawdust or chopped straw provides a warm floor, while a 5cm wide perch with rounded edges can be placed above it. Some bantam breeds, particularly Booteds and others with feathered legs, will sleep in cosy corners on the ground, rather than perching. Wood shavings or sawdust provides a better floor litter for them, because straw or other materials may adhere to the leg feathers. It may also be a good time to carry out any repairs. Keeping out the rain is an obvious requirement, so check that the roof and walls are fully waterproof.
Runs can become mud baths in winter. The ideal is to have a separate winter run. With a small flock, one that is integral with a movable house and which has a roof, but no walls, is suitable, although it may be necessary to erect a windbreak on the side of the prevailing wind. This type of run allows the birds to have outside exercise without being subject to the weather. There are houses available which stand well clear of the ground and have a built-in, covered run which is also off the ground. Having a house well clear of the ground also protects it from predator incursions. If it is not possible to provide separate winter accommodation, it is a good idea to add a thick layer of wood chips to the run. If it is really thick, rain can drain through and muddy conditions are avoided. Chipped wood is not the same as chipped bark which absorbs water, swells up and may actually impede water drainage. Wood chips can be difficult to find, although foresters and tree surgeons may be able to help with local supplies.
Cold weather makes extra demands on the metabolism of poultry. Chickens operate best at a temperature of 21ºC and the body needs to be well-equipped to keep itself warm, as well as to meet extra demands such as laying eggs. Extra feeding is required to provide increased calories. Giving a little more compound feed will meet the demand, but it is cheaper to provide extra grain. This is usually more popular with the birds, anyway. Mixed grain or wheat can be given.
As the daylight hours dwindle, egg production also declines, although modern hybrids that have been hatched later in the year will usually lay through the winter. Others, particularly show strains rather than utility strains of the pure breeds, may not lay until the spring. Once birds have re-feathered after the annual moult, they will come back into lay if a little artificial light is made available in their house. A time switch in the circuit will allow the light to be switched on and off as necessary. If the light is added at the end of the day, it is important to have a dimming facility so that the birds are not suddenly plunged into darkness so that they cannot find their way to the perch. The extra light merely extends the period of natural day. The total amount of light, artificial and natural, should not extend to more than 15 hours on humanitarian grounds. The artificial light should be increased on a gradual basis, with a little extra each day.
Fresh water is essential all year round, but supplying this in winter can be difficult. Even filling the drinker with warm water is only a temporary measure on really cold days, for the whole thing freezes rapidly. Please don’t add salt to the water in order to stop it freezing for this can be toxic, let alone increasing thirst. The drinker should be placed under cover, ideally inside the house where the temperature will be higher than outside, thanks to the warmth given off by the birds. If the birds are free-ranging during the day, a drinker can also be made available outside, filled and placed in the sunniest spot where it is less likely to freeze solid.
COMBS AND WATTLES
Breeds of chickens with large combs and wattles have a greater risk of frostbite than those with smaller appendages. If severe frost is likely, it is a good idea to apply some protective petroleum jelly to the vulnerable parts before the birds are allowed out. Feathered legs Breeds with feathered legs are at a disadvantage in snow or mud. The feathers can quickly become bedraggled and dirty. It is far better to keep them housed or in protected runs until the weather improves. Other tips Keep hens away from over-long grass so that their bottom feathers do not become muddy and make your eggs dirty Put a verandah, boarding or shingle area outside your hen house so that the birds’ feet are clean when they enter.
Breeds with feathered legs are at a disadvantage in snow or mud. The feathers can quickly become bedraggled and dirty. It is far better to keep them housed or in protected runs until the weather improves. Other tips Keep hens away from over-long grass so that their bottom feathers do not become muddy and make your eggs dirty Put a verandah, boarding or shingle area outside your hen house so that the birds’ feet are clean when they enter.
Keep hens away from over-long grass so that their bottom feathers do not become muddy and make your eggs dirty Put a verandah, boarding or shingle area outside your hen house so that the birds’ feet are clean when they enter.