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Tips on Preparing for Winter with Backyard Chickens

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure~ Benjamin Franklin

I know that none of us like to think about Winter, especially for our chickens.  It is not a happy time for most chickens when they have to deal with cold wet weather, snow on the ground and not as much interaction with their human family, not to mention decreased daylight.   It can be a very stressful time in the lives of your birds and can lead to naughty behavior, including feather picking, egg eating and just plain mischief.  However, with a few tips and ideas, you can start to think about preparing for the colder weather.  A little preparation over the course of the next few months is sure to increase the happiness and health of your flock.

Give your coop and run a good cleaning.  Now is the time before you need to winterize your hoses and the weather is still warm.  On a bright sunny day, disinfect your coop with a mixture of 1 gallon of warm water and 1/4 cup of white distilled vinegar.  Wipe down the walls, roosts and floors with this solution and allow it to air dry.  If you have any roosts or nesting boxes that are removable, put them out in the sun to dry.  Once the coop is dry, dust its nooks and crannies with organic food grade diatomaceous earth to keep your flock free from bugs.  At this time, you might want to research the best way to keep your coop clean.  You can replace the shavings of your coop the entire winter or you can try using the deep litter method.  Finally, freshen up the run by removing excess waste and filling in any large craters.


Fresh produce in the treat ball
Chickens love to play.  Nobody likes to be cooped up in the house, including chickens.  Try distracting them.  It is important for them to receive treats all Winter long.  Try hanging a head of cabbage in their coop, creating a chicken pinata.  You can also fill a treat ball with entire tomatoes, small heads of broccoli, whole apples and cucumber halves.   Similar to the treat ball, the chicken toy can be filled with sunflower seeds, scratch and the like.  Chicken also enjoy pulling apart bales of hay.  Instead of spreading hay in the run, have the chickens do it for you.

Frozen Waterers are the pits.  Yes, it does happen on very cold days.  They can sometimes freeze into solid ice blocks.  Your chickens will need to have clean fresh water on a daily basis and often this means thawing the water a few times daily.  There are many options of heated waterers available.  Some work with the galvanized waterers and others are self contained plastic ones.  Sometimes, even heated dog dishes are used.  Anyone who uses a heated waterer needs to be aware that they are a fire risk.  Pine shavings, electricity and water do not mix.  Curious chickens will peck at any and all wires.  Personally, I do not use heaters or heated waterers in the coop.  The stories and risks are too great for my family.  However, I did come up with this handy solution last year and amazingly it did the trick.  The choice is entirely yours.

Chilly Chickens.  Remember that chickens are not mammals like us humans.  They are birds.  Therefore, they experience cold differently than us.  By the time winter arrives, most flock have completed their molts and are decked out in new feathers that help to keep them warm.  If you purchase breeds that are appropriate for your climate and you house them in an appropriately sized coop, you will not need to heat the coop.  Sure the girls appreciate your kindness and thoughtfulness, but your heated flock will suffer if they are used to a warm and snuggly coop and the power goes out.  Your warmed chickens will suddenly become vulnerable to illness and stress.  Chickens do adapt to gradually changing temperatures.  They will even snuggle on cold days and night.

Boost their immunity.   All year long I add apple cider vinegar to the chickens water and also add food grade diatomaceous earth to their feed.  In addition, during the winter months, I add vitamins and electrolytes to all of their water sources.  This helps to ensure that they are getting the necessary nutrients to help ward off illness.  It also helps your flock to cope with environmental stressors.  Hands down, my favorite is Merrick's Blue Ribbon Electrolyte Poultry Pack.  I mix one teaspoon of powder to one gallon of water. This is something so easy and beneficial and takes no time at all out of your day.

The Right tools make the job easier.  Try keeping everything you need to get out to the coop in one place, in case of nasty weather.  This includes a shovel, muck boots, gloves and an extra bale of hay.  All of these will help you get to your flock in or after a rain/snowstorm.  Interestingly, chickens are snow blind.  They will not step into freshly fallen snow.  Some of them are even afraid of  stepping on snow.  Shovel out a bit of the run and the coop ramp.  Then scatter hay on the ground.  This provides a contrast between the snow and the ground.  In no time, your chickens will decide it is safe to come out and explore.

Outside with 2 feet of snow, safe in the covered run
Take Cover.  Consider covering a portion or your entire run with thick contractor plastic.  This should cut down on the amount of snow shoveling you need to do in the coop.  It will keep the run dry and also protect them from strong gusty winds.  Each Fall, we create a new removable plastic tarp that we can easily remove on sunny winter days.  Our chickens love to be outside everyday and this allows them to be without much effort from us at all.

Stagnant water breeds diseases.  Keep all holes and slopes in and near the run from filling with water.  Before the ground freezes, correct known drainage issues now.  Also keep a bale of dry hay nearby to fill in an surprise puddles and standing water so that the chickens do not drink or eat from these tempting water sources.

Looking for frostbite
Vaseline.  Keep a jar handy just for the chickens.  When applied to the chickens' combs and wattles, it prevents frostbite.  Keep an eye on the weather and be sure to do this prior to a cold snap.  Don't forget to reapply as well.  Chickens not accustomed to being handled cooperate best when this is done after they have retired to the coop for the night.

Get out the hammer and nails.  Make any and all necessary repairs to the coop and the run.  Also, take the time to reinspect your predator proofing and replace any ill fitting or broken locks.
Windows with removable plexiglass
Artificial Light.  Hens lay eggs based upon the amount of natural light that they receive in a 24 hour period.  Typically, they need 12 hours of daylight, less than that and you will see a decrease in their egg production.  It is also not uncommon for hens to stop laying all together because of decreased light.  Some people will place lights on a timer inside the coop.  The timers are set to give the hens a few extra hours of light before sunrise and immediately after sunset. (Most, however, add the light in the morning in order to avoid injuries due to darkness in the evening.)   Be sure that any lighting you add is not within roosting range of your flock and  be sure to keep wires away.  The addition of a window to your coop, may also be enough to keep your flock laying.  Often this introduces enough light to continue egg production.

Air Supply.  This final topic is a tricky one.  To prevent respiratory illness, chickens need good ventilation in their living space at all times.  Summer and Spring breezes are wonderful, yet winter ones are considered down right drafty.  Drafts will kill your chickens.  Be sure there is non-drafty ventilation in your coop.  These can be provided by cupolas, gable vents and ridge vents.  Finally, chicken manure in the coop can lead to a build of of ammonia.  This gas is very harmful for your chickens.  Proper ventilation will address this issue too as well as your diligence in keeping the coop clean.

We hope that these tips have been helpful and get you thinking about keeping your flock healthy and safe in the months to come.


Photo Credits:  Tilly's Nest

15 comments:

  1. What is the ratio of apple cider vinegar to water and how often do you do it.

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  2. Sorry, I just saw the ratio in an earlier post.

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  3. Glad you found it Carmi. 1 tablespoon to 1 gallon.

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  4. Reading up on all your chicken-care pages. I think my girls need some vaseline. Their poor little combs are all dry and dull. Puttin' it on my grocery list. Thanks!

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  5. Hi Lauren! You are very welcome. Glad you are enjoying the page :)

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  6. At what temperature do you need to apply the vaseline?

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    1. Hi Melissa! The key is really keeping the coop dry without moisture or humidity. I begin applying the vasoline in my flock when the temperatures are in the 20s. I do it at night, when they go in to roost for the evening. Great question. Thank you for asking.

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  7. omg. Best. Chicken. Blog. Ever. Just learned more from reading two of your (very readable and thorough) articles than I did in the past year....

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    1. Thank you Adrienne! I am so glad that you are finding my blog helpful. It means so very much! I hope you will sign up to follow along through email, rss or other options on the right :) Glad you are here!

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  8. W recently lost all our chickens to dogs....we live in alaska and it happened this winter we were pretty devistated as these ladies were more of our friends then just some chickens. That being said we are waiting to rebuild our run so that it is more dog proof....any suggestions? It gets pretty cold I thought it was the cold that caused them to quit laying so if I just add lights to the coop they will continue to lay. ..I use two heat lamps is that consisted light or do the y need real light? One more thingi usually put straw in the coop in the winter lots of it to keep warm is that Ok or should I try something else. .. Thanks for your site I love it.

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    1. Hi Jennifer. I am SO sorry to hear about the loss of your flock. I can only imagine how you felt. Yes, there are things to do to make things more dog proof such as using 1/2" hardware cloth on the run and covering the coop windows. You can also deter digging by burying the hardware cloth 12-18" into the ground around the perimeter of the coop and run.
      It is most likely lack of daylight that caused your hens to stop laying. Even a florescent light on a timer can stimulate them to lay. They require approximately 14 hours of light. I cannot speak to the heat lamps in the coop and the outdoor conditions or climate of Alaska. I have never been but I would love to go! I hope this information is helpful to you. Good Luck with your new flock and please keep me posted! ~Melissa

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  9. Can you give a description of how you attached the clear plastic so it is strong enough to withstand the winds but able to be removed?

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    1. Sure! You may think that I am crazy, but as my run is an A-frame I usually place larger pieces of lumber against the plastic. This keeps it down, avoids using staples and allows me to roll it up on nice days.

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  10. Wow! That is simple! Love it! Unfortunately since I don't have an A frame I'm guessing it won't work for me. Darn!

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  11. Hi Tilly, what a lovely site you have made and you have calmed me down about the loss of feathers. I came home to find what I thought was a chicken massacre from foxes, but to see both my ladies clucking around happily. I have sinced noticed that Lady Grey has gone bald on her chest. After reading your blog, I think she is not broody but is just doing the autumn(sorry, fall) moult. I am assuming this as she is always out and about. With love from The English Ladies in UK.

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Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I look forward to reading them with each and every post that I write and I also love hearing from you.