Troubleshooting Winter Troubles for Backyard Chickens

Raising chickens in the winter has its special challenges, such as frostbite on combs, frozen waterers, and broken eggs. One farmer offers her solutions.

Reader Contribution by Sylvia Dennison
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by Andy M. on Pixabay

I’ve been raising chickens now for about 15 years. I still don’t consider myself an expert. However, I think I’ve made most of the mistakes that can be made in raising layers. And maybe passing on this information can spare others from making the same ones. This is what happens with my chickens in winter.

Issues with Eggs in Winter

In summer, I supplied friends and family with plenty of eggs. But as the cold gets colder, the hens lay far fewer and we keep them ourselves.

Artificial light does keep production higher. We’ve tried both with and without additional lighting to lengthen the day. Our chickens consistently give us more eggs when they had the light. It isn’t like the summer, but it’s better.

This is the most frustrating thing I know of with raising chickens. We’ve always had it start in winter, but it can take place in warm weather too. It works like this: My hens (like most hens) lay in the morning when I’m at work. The weather’s really cold. They lay next to an outside wall and the eggs freeze. When they freeze, they break, exposing the fascinating yellow yolk. Chickens, being curious, pick at the shell and its contents, like what they find, and… when one hen gets a taste for eggs, everybody else catches on — fast.

I can’t guess how many times I’ve come home to find a nest box full of broken shells. And hens with smiles on their beaks and egg yolk dripping from their wattles. Grrr…..

Prevent Broken Eggs

There are a couple of things that may help prevent this, though not foolproof.

Insulate

Insulate the outside of the next box to keep it warmer. If you do, you have to be sure to not have the insulating material anywhere near where the hen can peck at it. You can insulate with straw, which works well as an insulator in general. For us, though, it just makes it take longer for the eggs to freeze. It doesn’t stop it entirely.

Hide the Eggs

One suggestion is to put the nest boxes at an angle so the egg rolls down into a covered area. I tried this, but it didn’t help. First, the hens were fascinated. They spent an enormous amount of time looking for the eggs. They’d peck at where they saw them last and ended up still able to reach far enough to break some of the shells.

Plus, the eggs didn’t roll easily. If I had the next box at a steep enough incline that they did roll, the hen didn’t use that box because of the jaunty angle. I probably wouldn’t want to sit at a 45-degree angle, either.

On the rare occasions that the hens laid there and the eggs rolled down an incline into a covered area, they fell on top of each other. And I spent a lot of time cleaning up frozen egg yolk. I still recommend trying it. Some people swear by it. And maybe someone else can come up with a way that works for them.

Remove Eggs

The best thing, of course, is to gather the eggs at the time they’re laid. Or at least before they have time to freeze and break. I use a combination of approaches: deep straw bedding, insulation around the outside, grab the eggs as soon as I can, and add bits of treats in deep bedding outside the nest boxes. This is so they’ll lay the eggs in the nest boxes and go play someplace else.

Something I need to add: Always, not just when it’s cold, remove cracked or broken eggs as soon as you find them. Once a chicken gets a taste for eggs she will start breaking the shells herself to get to the inside.

Frostbit on Combs

When it’s really cold, sometimes chickens get frostbite on their combs. This is a blackened area on the tips. I don’t like for this to happen, but it often does. I’ve read this is painful for the bird, but it doesn’t keep mine from acting normal.

I’ve seen suggestions about how to prevent frostbite. One is to put a heat lamp in the coop. I tried it, but this can cause a real problem. When we did this, the coop stayed moist. When the air and bedding stay moist, ammonia from droppings builds up quickly. And this is very bad for the chicken’s lungs. And mine. Plus, the extra heat also doesn’t prevent frostbite. If she goes outside and it’s cold enough, it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take long at twenty below.

Another thing I’ve read is to coat the combs with Vaseline or something similar. Considering how traumatic this could be for both the hens and me, I haven’t tried it. I figure that chasing them down, catching them, and smearing something on their combs would bother them more than a little bit of frostbite seems to.

Anyway, one or two of my hens will have frostbite each winter. But it doesn’t stop them from laying.

Troubleshoot Waterers Freezing

This is a constant fight. I use electric de-icers, but if the power goes out, we’re out of luck. We have a solar-powered light on one of our out buildings that works well. We’re going to try to adapt this for the waterers.

I’ve tried heated buckets and some people love them. But I haven’t had very good luck. So far, not one has had a full second season. And some didn’t make it for one. It may be that I’m doing something wrong. Don’t know what it is though. We take a large bucket, put a smaller bucket inside. We fill the space between the two and underneath the inside bucket with straw, then put a submersible de-icer in the bucket. This works pretty well.

Chickens In, Predators Out

This isn’t unique to winter. For several years our chickens had the run of our place. They knew where the food was and didn’t go far. I liked having truly “free range” chickens and enjoyed watching them inspect everything. Then the coyotes hit. Twice.

I found the half dozen terrified survivors a few days later, huddled twelve feet up in a fir tree. Now they have the run of a huge field surrounded by a high fence. I describe it as “semi” free range. But fencing comes with it’s own challenges.

I wasn’t raised in the Northwoods or maybe I’d have expected it. But fence posts heave and reposition themselves in the frozen ground, so gates don’t close easily. Gates can get frozen into the ground. Snow and ice can accumulate so gates don’t open all the way. Or at all. There are other things that can go wrong, but I won’t go into them. More importantly, we’ve found a work around.

First, we keep ice and packed snow from accumulating as long as we can. When, inevitably, we miss a day and the ice builds up, we raise the gate and use chains to hold it shut. Since our fenceposts are wooden, this is easy to do. Don’t know what I would do if we had metal. We have pre-drilled holes that we use to hold the gates in place. When the thaw comes, we lower the gates back down.

Fortunately the problems of winter are almost behind us. March is looming, so harvesting willow and welcoming spring kids is just around the corner.

Jean Silver writes how-to articles on handcrafts, animal husbandry, and putting up food from Capering Pines Farm in Wisconsin. In her other life as a psychiatrist, Jean also blogs about mental health issues at sjdpsych.com.

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