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Winter care for chickens

Jan 29th, 2013 | Category: Animals, Features

Tips to keep your flock healthy and happy

by Dalia Monterroso

At my farm store, I enjoy seeing folks take home their first batch of baby chicks. It’s especially exciting when they come in a few months later with that “first egg glow” on their faces. I often hear how they weren’t expecting the peace they feel while observing their chickens’ antics. What could be better than sitting in the warm sun while your flock pecks and scratches around you in their Zen-like way? This is the true joy of chicken-keeping.

The deep litter method involves cleaning out bedding material only once or twice a year (spring and fall). Once fresh bedding is soiled over, simply layer more bedding rather than cleaning it out. This essentially creates a composting system within your chicken area, thus generating extra heat from the material.

But alas, we live in the Pacific Northwest. Come October that warm sun starts to feel like a distant memory, and it’s not even winter yet. As winter approaches, many new chicken-keepers begin to feel anxious, wondering how to keep their chickens comfortable or how to combat respiratory illness in their flock. It’s important to know that there are ways to keep your chickens happy and healthy, and lessen your workload.

Keeping warm

One of the main things I am asked about is how to keep chickens warm enough when the temperature drops. Something to remember is that chickens are happily kept all over the world, even above the arctic circle. Of course, there are precautions that need to be taken in extreme temperatures, but luckily we don’t have to consider those issues in our relatively mild Northwest winters. We do get those few weeks in the year when temperatures drop below freezing, but if you know what to do your chickens will be just fine. You might even catch them playing in the snow!

Chickens roost next to each other at night and use their natural body heat to keep the flock warm. Granted their area is draft-free and shielded from moisture, they’ll generate all the warmth they need to get through the night and regenerate for the coming day. Many chicken-keepers feed their flock cracked corn before bedtime as a way to give them added warmth. Last year, my flock would get a nice bowl of warm oatmeal and corn, with a little plain yogurt and raw garlic mixed in. Plain old cracked corn or other type of high-energy scratch works just fine.

You may be surprised that I don’t recommend using a heat lamp or any type of artificial heat for your flock, assuming that you have relatively cold-hardy breeds. Chickens actually do better in the cold than the heat, and if they are allowed to naturally adjust to the changing seasons their bodies can prepare for upcoming temperatures. Add that fact onto the fire hazard that heat lamps can pose, and you can understand why I don’t recommend them. Hot bulbs and dry bedding just don’t mix.

All that being said, perhaps you want to supplement with light during shorter days to keep egg production going. Or maybe you have certain types of Mediterranean or bantam breeds that are beautiful to look at but aren’t as cold hearty. My best advice is to make absolutely sure your light is secured into a proper fixture and out of your flock’s reach, with a back-up system in case the fixture fails and a shield over the bulb.

Another thing I recommend to keep chickens comfortable during colder weather is to use the “Deep Litter Method” in your coop and run. This popular method involves cleaning out bedding material only once a year, preferably in the Spring (some prefer twice a year). You then put down a fresh layer of bedding. Once that bedding is soiled over, simply layer more bedding on top of it rather than cleaning it out (trust me, it won’t smell). This essentially creates a composting system within your chicken area, thus generating extra heat from the composting material. When it comes time to clean it out, throw it all into your compost bin. Chicken manure makes a wonderful fertilizer for your garden. Less work, a prolific garden and warm chickens. Everybody wins!

At the moment, I don’t have water heaters, but after last winter you can bet I will be making that purchase soon. During the cold snap last year, I would take warm water out to the flock about twice a day. It was my way to not only keep them warmer but also to combat frozen waterers. This year, I may remedy this by buying a good quality water heater. There are many kinds available and also some DIY projects online.

Respiratory illness

Just like humans have a cold and flu season, the winter months are the time to watch out for respiratory illness in your flock. I wouldn’t worry too much about the occasional sneeze, but there is a point at which veterinary treatment might become necessary. Dr. John Berry, veterinarian and owner of Lynden Veterinary Clinic, advises that chickens should be seen by a vet “if any nasal discharge is seen and/or if they are lethargic at all. Chickens should always be spry and active. If they are huddled or let you come up to them easy (even if tame) there is something wrong.”

As with most chicken-related problems, prevention is key. A splash or two of Apple Cider Vinegar in their water will give them added vitamins, minerals and probiotics to support their immune systems (make sure it is a good quality brand that says “with the mother” on the bottle). It is also vitally important to keep a clean coop, as ammonia fumes can cause respiratory issues especially during times when your chickens will be spending more time confined. If using the Deep Litter Method, make sure to add bedding often, and if you’re not using this method, make sure to replace bedding when it gets soiled over. Don’t forget to scrape the roosts!

When I do hear sneezing, I immediately supplement my flock with my warm oatmeal, corn, plain yogurt and raw garlic treat. I may also bring a sniffling chicken inside the house (or you can place a chicken in a separate area) to prevent transmission and so she doesn’t have to work on keeping warm in addition to getting well. I will give her plenty of nutritious treats and might supplement her water with vitamins and electrolytes. Most importantly, I’ll keep telling myself (and my sneezing chicken) that before we know it, the winter will be over, the flock will be well and we’ll all be out pecking and scratching in the sun again.

Dalia Monterroso is a self-proclaimed “Crazy Chicken Lady” and part owner of Hannegan Farm & Home in Lynden. She teaches a beginner chicken-keeping class at Whatcom Community College and also operates the Facebook page Welcome to Chickenlandia, where she writes daily of her flock’s trials and antics.

Published in the December 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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