With the end of the year approaching, now is the time to think about how to look after chickens in winter. This guide will show you how to keep them warm, healthy and correclty fed whilst protecting them from the extreme weather conditions which are undoubtedly going to affect us over the next few months.
Winter Diet for Chickens
One of the first things we need to consider is how to feed hens in winter. Whilst they are hardy animals and are well protected by their feathers, changing their diet can help keep them healthier over the cold months. The main difference in diet will be the amount of layer pellets that the hens consume, over the winter months they may consume around 10% more than usual in order to bulk themselves up and provide a little more inner insulation.
In addition, you may want to provide them with access to greens that will have disappeared during the winter months, but do not do this in excess. I’ve seen quite a few chicken keepers mention feeding a little cracked corn in the evening as it’s supposed to keep their digestion working over night and this can increase their internal temperatures. I don’t know if there is any scientific evidence for this, but it seems to be a common trait.
Prevent Frozen Water
Hens need to drink water daily, but in winter there is the potential that it can freeze if the temperature drops below zero. This can be overcome by using an electric heater for animal drinkers pictured here. Simply put it underneath your waterer and it will ensure that the water is always running. Warmer water will also ensure your chickens keep drinking and maintain healthy hydration levels.
If you choose not to use a water heater, then you will need to check their water regularly and defrost it if it is frozen. Having a spare waterer which you keep indoors is helpful, so that if one freezes up you can replace it quickly whilst it defrosts.
Keeping Chickens Warm in Winter Through Roosting
Chickens’ preferred method of keeping warmth is through roosting. They like to fluff up their feathers and huddle next to each other on their perches. Just like penguins in the Antarctic, huddling together means they can share bodily warmth and insulate each other from the cold.
An important part of looking after hens in winter is to make sure there is adequate perch space in the coop for all the birds share perches and roost together. If you have an odd number of chickens, you will need at least one perch big enough three otherwise one will be left out in the cold – and remember, because they fluff up their feathers they take up more space than in summer.
Winter Coop Ventilation
Don’t be tempted to block up the coop’s air vents during the winter to make it warmer. It’s absolutely an essential element of hen care that fresh air is allowed to circulate around the hen house to prevent the build up of ammonia and other gases in the living space. It will also reduce the chance of your chickens getting respiratory or other airborne infections.
Making the Coop Warmer
There are various ways to make your coop warmer. One of the simplest is to move it to somewhere less exposed. In the UK, the coldest winds tend to come from the north and east, particularly when there is extreme low pressure over northern Europe. Warmer w weather comes from the Atlantic and the west. Placing your coop where it can be protected from the coldest winds means in the most extreme weather scenarios it will be less exposed to the elements.
Another method is to use insulation, so more of the warmth generated by the chickens’ own body heat is not lost. This can be achieved cheaply and efficiently with the use of cardboard and straw. Cardboard can be used as a lining to the walls and roof of the coop and if you have a wooden coop, can easily be fixed with staples or small tacks. Straw is excellent insulation for the coop floor, as it not only protects from the cold but can easily cleaned out and replaced once it get soiled.
The final way to keep a coop warm, and perhaps only needed in very cold conditions is an infrared heat lamp. I would suggest that if you use a heat lamp that it be placed high in the coop so that it cannot be touched by the hens. A thermometer might also be useful, because you do not want the chickens to overheat.
Lighting for Egg Production
Unfortunately, chickens lay less when the days get shorter. This is partly due to the effect of lack of light. A way around this is to provide a light source in the coop, so that there is approximately 16 hours of light available to them a day. This will help the hens keep laying regularly during the darkest months. Use a small wattage bulb and make sure that it does not shine directly on to the chickens in case it is too bright – preferably have it bounce the light off the roof. If you are clever, you can use those garden lights that are charged by solar power during the day so you do not need to run an electric cable to the mains.
Do not, under any circumstances use a light source that is flammable – such as a candle or kerosene lamp – the consequences could be devastating.
Keeping Chickens Warm Outside in Winter
Chickens are not big fans of the snow, but most will still go out and forage if they get the chance. Do let them, as they will know what is best for them and keeping them cooped up all day is not good for them.
There are several ways to protect them from the winter elements. The first way is to use petroleum jelly to protect their extremities from frost bite. In particular you should put some on the comb and wattles which are the main areas that get affected.
Another thing you can do is to put a roof over the chicken run. If you own an Eglu coop you can buy a ready made heavy duty cover. If you don’t, then a large sheet of polythene or other waterproof cover will help keep snow from settling on the hen’s outdoor space. Finally, make sure you sweep away any snow and throw down some straw to help protect the chickens’ feet.
Do you have any other hints and tips for looking after chickens in the winter? If so, let us know by leaving a comment.