Be careful when letting your chickens roam around the barnyard during the winter, especially if snow is on the ground. In cold weather, chickens are prone to frostbite on their feet and combs. When frostbite happens, the chicken’s leg will be very warm to the touch. It won’t want to put weight on it and will perhaps limp, as well. Unfortunately, the lameness is permanent.
Frostbite is most commonly found on the combs of males because they have a larger surface area. Hens’ combs can also be affected, particularly in a chicken breed with a large comb, such as a commercial Leghorn, as opposed to those with a pea or rose comb.
For the most part, preventing frostbite comes down to choosing the appropriate type of environment for your chickens. Some people choose to keep chickens outside during the winter, but it’s probably a good idea to keep them in a coop. You can still provide your birds access to the outdoors, but most will stay inside or only venture a few feet from the coop.
Depending on the temperature, you might want to provide your chickens some supplemental heat, too—50 to 70 degrees F is best. If you have an insulated coop, just button it up for the winter, but monitor the moisture in the coop—excessive moisture can cause health issues. Put one or two heat lamps somewhat close to the perch so the birds can get radiant heat; however, because heat lamps can also overheat poultry, making them inadaptable to ambient temperature variations, low heat is recommended.
If the heat lamp is not overly bright, you shouldn’t notice a significant change in egg production. You can keep it on until the spring. As the days grow warmer and the natural light comes in, you can turn the heat lamp off without a change in productivity.
Also consider a heat lamp’s potential as a fire hazard, especially if you use shavings or cereal straw for bedding. Keep adequate distance between the heat lamp and bedding, and be sure your heat lamps have lamp guards to prevent feather and comb burns from direct contact with the birds.
People also put hot water bottles in the coop so the birds can nest against them at night.
Many people choose to clean the coop in the fall, but really, you can wait until spring. That extra layer of litter in the coop over winter will help insulate the building. Ammonia needs moisture to develop, so occasionally top dress the bedding with shavings or straw to prevent it from building. Also make sure you have adequate ventilation with vents at the top of the ceiling where air can be pulled in one side and vented out the other, as poorly ventilated coops can cause respiratory-health problems.
—Darrin M. Karcher, PhD, poultry extension specialist for the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.