When Old Man Winter moves into town, your chickens are counting on you to help guide them through the season. Luckily, chickens are bred to gradually acclimate to the coming cool weather. In fact, most heavy chicken breeds prefer it to the searing heat of summer. Even so, they’ll need a little help in certain areas to get through without a hitch. Here are six tips for successfully overwintering your flock.
1. Fight Frozen Water
Perhaps the most frustrating (and foreseeable) part of overwintering any livestock is the endless battle against frozen water. Unless you have electricity in your coop or barn, I’m sorry to say that all solutions include a bit of heavy lifting.
One option is to use a heated dog bowl or heated waterer base. It’s easy to install and inexpensive, but there is one catch: You must use a double-walled, galvanized-steel water fount in place of the standard plastic.
If running electricity to your coop is not an option, you may be carrying your weight in water to the flock several times a day. In this case, have two or more waterers ready to alternate by thawing indoors.
“One idea is to fill the waterer with hot water and then drop a chunk of ice (or a good amount of ice cubes) into the water to slowly cool it down over the course of several hours,” recommends Ashley English, chicken keeper and author of the Homemade Living book series.
Whatever method works for you, the important thing is that your chickens have access to fresh water at all times.
2. Protect Combs and Wattles
In a cold spell with below-freezing temperatures, your chickens’ combs and wattles may be susceptible to frostbite. Use petroleum jelly (or olive oil, as a natural alternative) to fight frostbite by applying it to the affected areas. Apply the lubricant when your chickens have gone to roost at night. They may not find it pleasant, but it beats the alternative.
Keep in mind that chicken breeds with large combs and wattles, such as Leghorns and many roosters, are more prone to frostbite. You’ll find that cold-hardy breeds with small combs, such as rose or pea combs, will fare better come winter.
3. Provide a Path in the Snow
If the snow is piling up to a few inches or more, shovel out a path for your chickens. Frostbitten toes or feet can be very painful but are easily avoided by protecting chickens from the snow.
“You don’t want an intrepid flock mate deciding to brave a wall of snow,” English says. “The snow will win, every time.”
4. Heat the Coop—or Not
Some chicken keepers swear by heating the coop during the harshest of winters. While there is a benefit to using a heater or lamp (supplemental light means more winter eggs), consider the safety risk. Heaters plus dry pine shavings or other bedding can quickly become a fire hazard unless properly or professionally installed. Also consider the possibility of power outages and a subsequent drop in temperature. Chickens cannot adapt to a sudden plunge in mercury, and it could spell disaster for your entire flock in one night.
As an alternative, you can allow your chickens to gradually acclimate to the cooler weather during autumn without heat. In the fall, check your coop’s roof to ensure it won’t leak during heavy snows. Protect your chickens from heavy drafts, but be certain there is adequate ventilation in their enclosure. Accumulated moisture during the cold months can lead to frostbite.
Finally, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of insulation in your coop. Your birds will roost together and create a good amount of heat on their own (the equivalent of 10 watts of heat per chicken). All you have to do is help the heat stay there.
5. Give Feed a Boost
Consider supplementing your flock’s diet with cracked corn or scratch.
“The fattiness of the scratch will allow the birds to pack on an extra layer of body fat, which aids them in better combating colder weather,” English says.
That said, scratch and corn are treats and do not contain the complete nutrition your flock needs.
“Continue them on their regular feed, tossing a few handfuls of scratch during evening rounds,” she says.
6. Collect Eggs Often
If you’re one of those poor souls, like me, who makes multiple trips to the chicken coop to change out water, remember to collect eggs each time you go. Because chicken eggs are nearly 75-percent water, they’ll freeze and crack quickly once exposed to the cold air.
Use your judgment when it comes to your flock and your particular setup—what will work for some may not work for others. As always, check your flock daily and look for signs of illness. And once everyone is tucked in, curl up with a hot cup o’ something and enjoy the season.