It’s that time of year again. Each morning I drink my coffee and look out on our pond to see that the ice has once again reclaimed the surface of the water. As the sun comes around the side of the house, its rays reflect brilliantly across the surface, and warms the crystals into liquid again. It’s a beautiful site to be sure, but acts as a reminder that the chicken’s water is forming morning ice crusts as well.
Winter has a strange effect on chickens. Not only are they susceptible to all the usual blunders that unforgiving icy temperatures provide (such as colds, frost bite and malnutrition), there is a more tangible effect, as the lack of sunshine slows egg production to a halt. And once in a while I will come down to the coop to find a single frozen egg.
In spite of Old Man Winter, it amazes me how resilient chickens can be. When I was younger, I did very little in the practice of changing them over for winter. Other than switching to a base-heated waterer and a couple of extension cords, the chickens got the same treatment as in summertime and they did fine. But as I’ve gotten older, my sense of nurturing has kicked in and I want to mother everything, including our chickens.
Last year, out of sympathy, I kept a heat lamp on them during the freezing months. I won’t be doing that again. I think it confused their systems and six of them went into a molt at the coldest time of the year, sort of counterproductive. This year, I will be letting their combined generation of body heat keep them warm naturally. I rub a little petroleum jelly on their wattles and comb tips to guard against frost bite, and while our chickens are not raised for meat production, they’ve been on grower/finisher for some time, to fatten them up for winter.
I’ve always given my chickens electrolytes, but this year I am switching brands to one that contains a probiotic as well to help support immune system. It’s by Agri-Labs and it helps to reduce stress. We add it to their water twice a month. The conversion can be tricky, because it’s based on 128 gallons, but I broke it down and we give about 2 teaspoons per gallon. We’ve also discovered a supplement called Red Cell that provides vitamin A and D. These two vitamins are especially important during Michigan’s short winter days when sunshine is far and few between. If we get heavy snows, the chickens can sometimes be locked in for days. Our coop has a large window to let in as much sunshine as possible, but Michigan winters can be so gray that it doesn’t seem to be enough. I’ve been putting the Red Cell in a spray bottle and I mist their food each morning. They seem to really like it as they aim for the dark crumbles first.
It’s also important to provide fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, as free range in the winter provides pathetic forage. Winter squashes are a great choice as they provide nutrients like vitamins A, C, K and E, antioxidants and minerals that we Northerners lack due to less sun exposure. My chickens LOVE pumpkin and this time of year, in Michigan, you can find deer pumpkins really inexpensive. I saw a sign the other day at a local dairy for $5 a truck bed. Visit your pumpkin patch from Halloween and ask if you can purchase the pumpkins that didn’t sell. They’ll probably be thrilled to get rid of them. Wash your pumpkins with a diluted bleach-water solution, then rinse and store in a cool place such as the garage or basement. The bleach kills the mildew that activates rotting, and you should have a fresh supply of pumpkin all winter long for you and your birds. Slice into wedges and put through the food processor on “shred” (goats like it, too).
You can also give your chickens a warm winter treat by making them a hot breakfast. Scramble a few eggs and pop them in the microwave and just wait for the clucks of appreciation. The protein helps keep them warm and makes up for the animal protein they’re not eating through bugs, worms, etc., in the frozen winter. Chickens are omnivores and need animal protein to keep their diets balanced. You can also give them a can of fish-based cat food.
Even with these measures, we will never get the eggs that came during the spring and summer, but we can be assured that we’re giving our birds the closest thing to sunshine that we can provide.
Visit Jennifer Sartell’s website at Iron Oak Farm.