It is the first of February, only 7 more weeks until Spring, or so the calendar says. If you are like me, you may be in the midst of a cold front or a winter storm. Our forecast for today is 8-10 inches of snow with wind chills reaching -15F. It sure doesn’t feel like Spring is on the horizon. What are some practical everyday things that a chicken keeper can do to help minimize their time outside in the cold, but also make sure that their flock is well cared for?
Over the years, I have tried many things, continued to use them or ruled them out as ways to battle the cold. Here are 5 of my tried and true methods of practical chicken keeping in the winter.
1. Fresh Water. Unfrozen, clean water is a must for your chickens. They need to stay hydrated to stay healthy. When temperatures are plummeting and ice is a problem there are a couple ways to battle back. I remove water from the coop at night. Your chickens are not going to be bumbling around in the dark hoping to find water. They will be snuggled up on their roost waiting for day to break. I then use a water bucket relay method. A fresh one goes out and the frozen one comes in. To the laundry tub that is, so that I can break out the ice and clean it from the comfort of my warm laundry room. By mid-day, I make another trip with warm clean water to the coop. Again, replacing the frozen one. This Michigan winter, I have only had to make 3 trips out a day. The short day light hours can have an added bonus here when you are replacing water until the chickens roost. With the bucket brigade relay, my ladies have access to unfrozen water, and I am not outside beating on ice in the cold.
2. Food. Your chickens need to be fed. I keep a 5 gallon bucket with lid near the back door so that I can grab food for them as I am making a trip down with unfrozen water. Your birds are burning extra calories keeping warm. Be sure to use a good layer feed to help offset those calories. I also supplement with homemade suet cakes.
3. Predators. Food is scarce in our snow covered landscape. There are reports of coyotes attacking livestock in the neighboring county. Your chickens will look like an appetizing meal to a hungry predator. It is important to clean up any food that you are leaving out for chickens by nightfall. Most predators that I have encountered are nocturnal and are looking for an opportunity when you, the chicken keeper, are tucked in to your own house. Food attracts predators. Scraps can be contained in large rubber bowls to be easily cleaned up. Your chickens are not eating at night while they are roosting. It is a good measure to remove the food from the coop until morning.
4. Frostbite. Frostbite is a real concern for your chickens when temperatures have dropped. Moisture, humidity and cold can cause all types of problems. Be vigilant in keeping your coop dry. Added bedding helps with heat loss from the the coop floors as well as drying up any moisture from droppings and water spills. Vaseline or Bag Balm are also helpful in protecting your chickens’ combs from frostbite. My tip on applying vaseline or bag balm, is to do it after your chickens have roosted. They are more docile in the dark. Also, if you are applying in the daylight, hold your chicken like a baby but tip them slightly so that their head is lower than their feet. This seems to put them in a trance/calmer state to be handled.
5. Keep it together. The first 4 tips for winter chicken keeping all come together on tip 5. Keep your chicken keeping things ie… food, clean waterers and other supplies together. Generally we keep our things in the detached garage, however, the path to that garage is now very snow covered and open to the biting winds that blow across an open field. The trip out there, even when dressed warm, can be miserable. For the coldest months of winter, I keep a “Chicken Keeping Kit” if you will by my back door. It has food, extra bedding, extra waterers and supplies like bag balm and vetericyn wound spray. Keeping these things together and handy has saved me extra trips outside when mother nature at her most fierce.
Winter chicken keeping in frozen climates is not the most fun part to keeping chickens, but it can be made bearable. There are some not so pretty parts to chicken keeping. Wind, snow, ice, frostbite, however, I have not lost a bird to the cold yet. These are the 5 things that I do to make chicken keeping a little easier during the winter. Soon enough, we will have green grass and our fat little hens scratching about the yard, but until then make chicken keeping in winter a little easier on yourself. Your chickens will be well cared for and you can hurry back inside to seed and hatchery catalogs and maybe a hot up of coffee or cocoa.