How To Keep Poultry Through The Winter

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Are there certain steps that should be taken to keep poultry through the winter? Making sure that your poultry flocks are happy and healthy through the winter will ensure that they reach the spring and prime egg laying time in top conditions. What types of things should you be looking for, and how warm do they need to be?

Winterizing The Coop

Ideally, winterizing the coop should have been done in the fall. Making sure the structure and roof were solid and that any holes were repaired is best accomplished in the fall, during nicer weather. But if you have sprung a leaky roof or rodents have chewed their way into the coop, repair the damage as soon as possible. Keeping your coops free from odors means keeping the bedding inside the coop dry. Moisture, along with inadequate ventilation leads to high ammonia odor and unhealthy air. Take care of these problems as they rear their heads. If you see that you tracked in some snow on your boots, sweep it out of the coop before it melts. Dry, well ventilated coops are healthier coops for your flocks.

keep-poultry-through-the-winter

What About Heating The Coop?

Ducks are very cold weather tolerant, but many people are surprised to learn that chickens are also very cold tolerant. The new feathers that chickens grow in after their fall molt provide plenty of insulation for a healthy chicken. Feeding a good quality layer ration (or a good quality meat bird or waterfowl ration for the ducks) provides the energy they need to stay warm. Many people will treat the chickens to a scoop (or handful) of scratch grain before locking the coop door at night. I mix scratch into the bucket of layer feed in the evening. Scratch grains are high in carbohydrate energy and help the chickens stay warm.

Heating the coop is rarely necessary. Most chickens will fluff up their feathers and roost covering their feet, staying that way until you let them out in the morning. The only caution is that when the coop lacks good ventilation, moisture can accumulate in the air from the chickens’ respiration. This moist air will lead to frostbite on combs and wattles. More on preventing and treating frostbite on your chickens is discussed later.

Adding Insulation To The Coop

If you are in a particularly cold region, adding insulation to the coop walls may be enough additional precaution against the cold temperatures. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that I do not live in a particularly cold region. The reason I don’t recommend heat in the coop is because chickens will adapt to the cold temperatures if the above mentioned conditions are met. Now, in the case of an early extreme sudden cold snap, I have made other choices. The things to consider include:

  • Is the flock accustomed to the cold already?
  • Is the flock healthy?
  • Is the coop in good repair?

If you decide you must add heat to the coop, please be extremely cautious and aware of the danger that heat lamps pose in the coop. You are choosing to hang an extremely hot light bulb in a wooden structure with live animals and dry hay and pine shavings. There are some newer (but more costly) alternatives to the heat lamp for the coop. These include heat producing thermal warmers that hang on the wall, and heat lamps that have a better protective grill over the heat bulb.

Alternative Insulation

An alternative to heating the coop with a heat lamp is to use hay or straw bales, lined up inside the coop a few inches out from the wall. This requires the chickens to gather closer together and share body heat. It also provides another layer of insulation in the coop.

Ducks And Winter Weather

Ducks that are happy and healthy do not require heat for the winter weather. Most ducks will still chose to swim and bathe in frigid water when available. I do supply dry straw for them to sleep on in the duck house. In addition I put up some covering over the windows during the coldest part of the winter to block the wind and to keep snow from blowing into the house.

Can Ducks Swim During the Winter?

Your ducks will appreciate a swim when you can provide it for them. The water may freeze quickly though, so monitor the swim time and remove the water after all the ducks have had a bath. Remember to always keep fresh, non-frozen water available for the ducks. They need to be able to duck their heads into the water in order to preen and keep themselves clean.

Feed Requirements When You Keep Poultry Through the Winter

Make sure that the birds always have plenty of feed in the coop or run. When temperatures dip low in the winter, animals and poultry will need more calories to keep warm. Supplement with treats only when it doesn’t keep them from eating their regular layer or maintenance rations. Scratch grains are a good addition to their feed during winter. An occasional dish of scrambled eggs or oatmeal would be good too.

Illness In Your Winter Flock

It’s important year round, but even more important to keep your flock healthy during the cold months. Chickens and ducks are able to withstand some really cold temperatures as long as they are in good health and eating well. If you notice a bird not eating and beginning to get sick, isolate the chicken or duck. Assess the symptoms, and if you are not comfortable diagnosing your chicken’s ailments, please call a vet in the area for a consultation.

Frostbite On Your Chickens

Three things combine to cause frostbite. Cold temperatures, air movement, and moisture. You will notice this on the combs and wattles of chickens because those areas are not covered when they are roosting. When the birds go to roost, they cover their feet. Their bodies are covered by the warm down and feathers. Only the wattles and comb are exposed. During cold weather, when the coop or enclosure is damp and the chickens respiration adds to the moisture in the air, frostbite can occur. There are different degrees of frostbite, much like there are with skin burns. The first stage looks almost like normal except the area may be warm to the touch and appear irritated. The next step in the process hardens the skin and there may be blisters appearing. The skin may be painful to touch. Loss of skin color occurs.

With severe frostbite, the comb and wattles will turn black. The skin will feel waxy and hard. The black skin is from necrosis and the dying of the skin cells. Often this stage of frostbite damage is not reversible.

Prevention is fairly easy. Keep the ventilation open at the roof line of the coop and reduce drafts and air currents where the chickens roost. Apply either petroleum jelly or an alternative product called Waxlene (made from beeswax) to the comb and wattles before frostbite conditions occur. Frostbite is easily prevented.

If severe frostbite occurs, seek the advice of a veterinarian. Do not try to cut off the necrotic tissues yourself without getting some guidance.

keep-poultry-through-the-winter

How Can You Keep The Water From Freezing?

When the temperature outside reaches below the twenties, it is hard to keep the temperature in the coop above freezing. The water will freeze eventually. There are a few tricks that you can use to slow the freezing and give the chickens more time to get a drink.

I don’t use water founts during cold weather. Once the water freezes inside the fount, it is a giant ice cube that takes forever to thaw out. Instead, invest in some rubber feed tubs like the ones made by Fortex. I have found these bowls in many sizes, and most farm supply stores carry them. They are a flexible black rubber. This flexible material makes it easy to twist and allow the ice in the bowl to pop right out. Then the bowl can be refilled with fresh water.

I have used a few ping pong balls floating in the water to keep it from freezing longer. The ping pong balls are light and move around with the air currents in the coop. This movement in the water keeps the water from freezing as quickly.

Piling up some straw around the water bowl and letting the bowl sit on a small pile of straw will insulate the water bowl even more, prolonging the time that the water remains unfrozen.

These tips are useful in areas that get moderate below freezing temperature. For areas that have extremely cold winters, I suggest investing in a heated water bowl or heated water fount.

Water And Ducks

The ducks will keep the ice skim on the water broken by using their bills to break into it. They do a pretty good job until the temperatures get really low. The important thing to remember is that ducks need at least enough water to duck their heads into. Without this, ducks have trouble preening and keeping their feathers waterproof. The ducks can do without a full swim during the extreme cold, as long as they have access to a deep water bowl.

Frozen Eggs In The Coop

The eggs your hens lay during cold weather may freeze and crack from the cold. Pick up eggs frequently during the day if this is happening. If you can’t be there to collect eggs frequently, add plenty of straw to the nesting boxes to try to insulate the eggs. If the eggs are frozen but not cracked, they are still fine to use. They will slowly and safely defrost while stored in the refrigerator.

Winter is a trial for a lot of reasons. Keeping chickens in the winter is harder on the caretaker than on the chickens. Keeping them fed, watered and sheltered takes more effort during storms and frigid temperatures. The chickens, however, are very cold hardy when healthy, and are probably doing just fine!

What steps should you take to keep poultry happy and healthy through the long winter?
  • Mike the Gardener says:

    Excellent article Janet. My chickens stay in the coop when it snows. They seem to hate it.

  • Tom Yarbrough says:

    I live in Minnesota and it really does get cold here, into the minus 20s. While I haven’t had chickens for several years since we travel quite a bit, when I was keeping layers, I did use a heat lamp in a wire cage suspended above the water dish. That served to keep the water from freezing and kept just a bit of the chill from the air. They had a couple hundred square feet of fenced yard for the winter and a small opening in their door so they could come and go. During nice weather they roamed free. Had up to 170 hens at peak and never had a problem

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