Fewer daylight hours, colder weather and more time in the coop all combine to alter your chickens’ daily routines as fall turns toward winter. This causes changes in their nutritional needs, particularly in colder weather regions, such as the Upper Midwest and New England states. As chicken keepers, it’s important for us to understand how these changes affect our chickens’ dietary needs and to feed the flock accordingly. That way, with proper nutrition, our birds will stay healthy even through chilly winter weather.
Increase Feed Rations
Daylight hours are fewer and temperatures get colder as winter approaches, and hens naturally cut back on egg production and begin replacing feathers lost during molting. They use the protein they consume in their layer ration to produce new feathers instead of eggs, and when daylight decreases to less than 14 hours per day, hens generally cease egg production.
In terms of nutrition during this time, chickens still need the protein and balanced nutrition provided by a poultry ration formulated for them, but they can be expected to consume 25 percent more per day. Even flocks that receive artificial light to maintain day length and egg production will consume additional feed to keep warm. Also, during winter confinement, free-ranging flocks need extra feed to replace the food they normally forage, such as bugs, insects and greens.
Chickens love to eat scratch grains, but it’s generally recommended that they eat these in limited amounts. That’s because scratch dilutes the nutritional value of a balanced layer ration and is high in fat. In winter, however, the increased fat content of scratch can be beneficial for nutrition.
The increased carbohydrates in scratch grains—especially cracked corn—help chickens generate heat. Feeding a small portion of scratch just before dark each evening will allow the flock to get its nutritional needs from the layer ration by day and provide extra carbohydrates to keep it warm at night.
Encourage Exercise With Food
Winter weather often restricts a flock’s access to the outdoors, but it’s essential that they continue to exercise to help them generate heat and alleviate boredom. Bored chickens can develop bad habits, such as fighting, feather-picking and cannibalism, so you’ll need to provide alternative activities. In terms of nutrition, it’s also a good idea to supplement their winter diet with leftover, store-bought vegetables because their access to forage is often limited during this time of year.
There are many ways to encourage exercise and provide entertainment for your flock. See “Cooped-Up Calisthenics” on page 60 for some great boredom-busting activity ideas.
Grit, Calcium & Water
Chickens still need free-choice grit, calcium and water in winter, and it’s critical that sources
for them aren’t frozen. If the poultry fonts become frozen, chickens can’t drink, and they won’t eat if they don’t have water. Also, hard, frozen ground can limit a chicken’s ability to forage for grit. If a chicken doesn’t have grit, it can’t grind its food into digestible sizes and may develop an impacted crop.
Winter Words of Wisdom
Here are some helpful hints for feeding your flock overwinter.
- A handful of scratch feed—a mix of cracked corn, oats and wheat—per 10 birds can be broadcast on the litter in the late afternoon. The scratch feed will keep the birds busy, and [the birds] will help turn over the litter.
—Richard J. Brzozowski, poultry specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, “Winter Care of Your Laying Hens”
- It is common for birds to experience their annual molt, the time when the shedding and growth of new feathers occurs, at the end of the fall. Adding vitamins will help provide the additional nutrients that birds need during molting and falling temperatures.
—Michigan State University Extension, “Preparing Your Chickens for Winter”
- Many people also like to provide some plant material to their chickens overwinter. This may help keep the chickens active throughout the day. Leafy hay, root vegetables, squash, pumpkins, etc. can be used for this.
—Ron Kean, poultry specialist, University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, “Preparing for Winter”
- Eating may be one of their few sources of entertainment during those cooped-up winter days, so feeding crumbles or mash instead of pellets, or snacking on leafy greens, may keep chickens occupied a little longer and prevent them from spending their free time picking on their coop-mates. … Interestingly, increased feed intake can prompt your birds to drink more as well, so a constant supply of fresh, clean water is essential.
—Andrew Larson, extension educator, University of Illinois Extension, “Winterizing Backyard Chickens”
Because foraging opportunities are limited, temperatures are colder and daylight hours are fewer, chickens dietary requirements change in winter. But by being aware of their needs and making a few adjustments, you can easily help your birds thrive through the cold winter months to come.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.