There isn’t a worse feeling on the farm than donning your winter work clothes and heading out into the elements, then realizing as you first set foot into the barnyard that something has gone terribly wrong. Weather extremes present a formidable challenge to the responsible animal husband, but with a little forethought, your chickens won’t be susceptible come mornings when the mercury drops to extraordinary lows.
Your feathered friends don’t require anything particularly expensive in order to safely survive the cold, but they do require a bit of attention when the wintry weather threatens to move in.
As a general rule, birds with large combs and wattles are more susceptible to frostbite and may be better suited to a warmer climate, depending on your chicken facilities. Those with smaller combs and wattles tend to be better suited to cold climates. A few particularly cold-hardy breeds include the Buckeye, Ameracauna, Brahma, Australorp, Chantecler, Cornish, Leghorn, Dominique, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, and most sex-link varieties.
In the event that your birds require extra protection from freezing temperatures, a layer of petroleum jelly applied to the bare skin of the combs and wattles will help thwart frostbite. Signs of frostbite can include black spots on the combs and wattles, and, contrary to popular belief, frostbite in and of itself doesn’t cause temporary sterility in roosters — it’s caused by more severe, long-term chilling. Overexposure to cold temperatures can also cause the loss of toes.
Basic chicken houses
Chickens need roughly 3 to 4 square feet of floor space each in order to have enough room to do what they do indoors. If your climate is prone to long stretches of intensely cold weather, you will want to provide a little more floor space on average so your birds will be able to handle confinement for longer stretches of time with no ill effect. Be sure to offer 8 to 10 inches of roost length for each chicken as well — choose wooden roosting material such as 2-by-4 stock set on edge. This material will be easy on their feet and won’t transfer cold to the chickens’ feet like a metal rod would.
Good ventilation also is key in chicken houses, as this helps keep chickens from acquiring respiratory illnesses and aids in keeping humidity levels down in the coop. Birds require fresh air in the coop, without it being too drafty and cold. This is a delicate balance to achieve and may require some trial and error. Being observant is one key to giving all of your barnyard animals a high quality of life. However, realize that even in cold areas such as South Dakota, chickens can thrive in sheltered, non-heated chicken coops with the windows left open all winter.
Additionally, a thick layer of good bedding material — such as wood shavings — will help insulate the floor from drafts, provide something for your birds to scratch in, and help handle the manure load in a sanitary fashion. For those who raise breeds that like to bed down on the floor rather than up on a roost, such as Silkies, the bedding materials should be at least 4 to 6 inches thick. Be sure to keep the bedding dry and relatively clean to avoid producing harmful ammonia.
For folks raising chickens where sub-zero windy days and nights are prevalent, it makes sense to insulate the chicken coop. It is important that the insulation be sealed against the inquisitive pecking of chickens. They will peck and eat any type of foam, paper, thin plastic, shiny aluminum or fiberglass insulation. Some flock owners add supplemental heating to the coop, as well. Though it may appear to yield happier fowl in the interim, it is rarely needed for a well acclimated flock of chickens.
Whether your coop is heated or not, always supply warm drinking water at least twice each day or employ a heated fount to keep the drinking water thawed at all times.
Fuel the furnace
In addition to natural insulation and body fat, chickens keep warm through the process of metabolism. Be sure to feed them well in winter — you might even want to supplement their normal feed with suet or another high-energy, high-heat food. Our birds prefer a winter scratch mix of corn, wheat and barley. Thrown out as a treat, it provides a boost of energy that helps them better withstand the cold.
Raised in a rural village in New York state, Carolyn Evans-Dean, who recently completed her first novel, is a city-dwelling microbusiness consultant and freelance writer yearning to get back to her country roots. Visit her website, Bystander Books.