Protect Your Chickens from Cold-Weather Conditions
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Prevent and treat cold-related injuries and illnesses such as frostbite in your chickens.
Here in humid subtropical Tampa, FL I do not have to worry about preventing and treating cold related injuries and illnesses most of the time. On average we get one (1) day were it freezes a year. We typically have only eight days when it gets below 40ºF. This is mostly due to the latitude but also thanks to the Gulf which helps buffer our temperature.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, NY it was a different story. My flock of 30 or so birds every winter were mostly cooped in for many days in a row. My father often snowplowed a half-acre pathway from the house to the coop so we could easily access the backyard poultry. If you’ve seen the viral videos of ducks and chickens marching in a 2-foot-wide cleared route of snow – that was my childhood ever year.
To remind me of the good ol’ days I contacted veterinarian and Associate Professor Yuko Sato. Dr. Sato works at the Iowa State University in the College of Veterinary Medicine. And in Iowa it gets cold! She teaches elective classes for veterinarian students looking to study poultry. She has received many honors and awards, but my favorite was her 2018 Mark Cook Pullet-zer Prize, Faculty Member of the Year at the Midwest Poultry Consortium. I’m mad that I didn’t come up with that pun!
Dr. Sato is most interested in consulting for large flock and herd problems and has experience with small backyard flocks too. I called her to learn more about preventing and treating cold related injuries and illnesses.
Into the Thermoneutral Zone
The age of the birds matters when talking about cold related problems, she tells me. “Baby chicks want it to be closer to 100ºF and any draft will cause the chicks to get a chill.”
“Adult chickens – once mature – have a thermoneutral zone between 65-79 degrees anything above that is heat stress and anything below that is too cold.”
A thermoneutral zone is the environmental temperature that an organism can maintain their body temperature easily. Chicken can live and thrive outside of this range; it just means that they will need to adjust their behavior or feed intake to maintain their body temperature.
She says that chickens are generally pretty tolerant to cold and more susceptible to heat stress.
A birds feathering is also a factor. Older birds and molting birds are less protected. “Bantams are not the most vivacious birds in general,” she says. If you live in an area that is cold for long stretches of time, she recommends standard breeds which are generally considered more cold hardy.
“Frost bite always happens when it is below freezing,” she reminds us. If the temperature is above 32ºF they simply can’t get frost bite. “It’s okay to offer them access, but they might not be interested in going outside.”
She wouldn’t let them out if it is below freezing. But on a warm sunny winter day they should do fine.
If you expose them to freezing temperatures and they experience frost bite, part of the tissue will rot off. “At that point, backyard poultry owners don’t have to do anything per se.” She tells me stories of backyard owners trying to use a blow dryer to heat the effected body parts up. This can cause heat stress and will not do anything to the tissue since it is already dead.
Dr. Sato recommends a warm water bath, thoroughly drying off the bird, and then allow the skin to heal over time. She says it will take several weeks to heal. If it is a foot or comb, it will likely fall off and backyard poultry owners can use triple antibiotic ointment like Neosporin advertised for humans.
“If it is their feet and they are exposed to feces and the ground all the time, wash it to prevent rocks, soil, and feces from accumulating and to keep it clean.” Moving them to a smaller pen that you can clean more regularly is a good idea.
In addition to freezing temperatures frost bite usually occurs when there is a lot of moisture and a sudden drop in temperature. Keeping the shavings and bedding clean and dry is important.
Dr. Sato says “If their coops are outside, make sure they have a water heater, which will allow them to always have access to clean water, since birds will get dehydrated.
Keep the Air Flowing
The most common illness associated with the cold is respiratory issues. This problem increases not only because of the cold weather but mostly due to ventilation.
“If you have a window,” Dr. Sato says, “most people will shut up the barn to keep the birds’ body heat up but then air flow decreases and the ammonia increases due to the feces having a lot of nitrogen.”
The combination of litter moisture increasing causes coccidia populations to go up, and then the parasites burden can go up. Due to the cold, the birds’ immune system is “not too happy” Dr. Sato says and they are more likely to get parasites.
“A lot of bacteria and viruses like cooler temperatures and they maintain better in a cooler temperature.”
To keep air flow, Dr. Sato recommends a mixing fan. “I get worried for heaters due to barn fires. As long as it doesn’t start a fire and if they have enough space to get away from the heat source, it is okay to have a heater in the coop.”
If you don’t want to use electricity, Dr. Sato says a tarp over the vents when it is below 32ºF is good. When it is above 32ºF be sure to lift the tarps, especially during the day to allow air flow.
Don’t forget to keep the coop predator proof. “I get worried about racoons, foxes, and owls. It’s a warm environment and there are free chickens inside.”
To keep your animals healthy, remember this mnemonic device: check your FLAWS?
Feed – do they have access to clean feed?
Light – do they have ample light?
Air – is the air flow adequate?
Water – do they have clean water?
Sanitation – is their bedding clean?
Kenny Coogan is a food, farm, and flower columnist. He has a master’s degree in Global Sustainability and is passionate about Florida’s wildlife and plants. His newest book “Florida’s Carnivorous Plants” is now available at kennycoogan.com.