A Few Dos And Don’ts When Winter Sets
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Don Schrider, West Virginia
Before I go too far, let’s take a look at how nature has prepared our feathered friends to survive and basic poultry behavior.
Feathers are designed to resist wind, sun, and precipitation. Duck and goose feathers shed water due to natural oils. Ducks and geese kept in dry, dusty pens tend to have feathers less prepared to deal with moist weather. A goose or a duck both like to swim and bathe, and will often take a dip even during very frigid temperatures. Turkeys also have feathers that shed water. Turkeys like to roost outside — in fact, you can hardly train them to roost under a shed. It is not unusual to see turkeys roosting outside during a snowstorm, covered in snow. Chickens have feathers that will resist some moist weather, but not nearly as much as turkeys, ducks and geese.
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The lower part of the body feathers on all poultry is fluffy. This is referred to as the down or fluff; its fluffy nature traps air, which the body warms and causes it to hold in heat. The upper part of the feather, except in breeds like Silkies, whose feather barbules do not lock together to form a solid feather, creates a lightweight solid surface, which is excellent at blocking wind and protecting the fluff. Nature has given birds feathers not only to express beautiful and colorful combinations, but also to protect our birds from wind, sun and the elements.
When birds are cold they shiver. Shivering causes blood circulation, and is not simply an expression of being cold. Shivering is connected to muscle movement and to the circulatory system. Muscle movement causes the bird to burn calories and this will help the bird warm the air trapped by the fluff next to the body, thereby keeping the bird warmer. Blood circulation helps keep the extremities warm by distributing core warmth along with blood flow.
At night birds tend to roost — except waterfowl. When an ideal roost is used, a bird’s toes and legs will be covered by the breast feathers and warmed by the breast. This presents less uncovered surface flesh that could lose body heat. Some birds will even tuck their heads under one wing — presenting very little area to lose body heat.
Poultry are inquisitive and given the opportunity, during the day, will scratch and peck around in search of a tasty morsel. As they scratch they generate a good bit of heat, and the exercise causes their blood to circulate. It is not unusual to find the birds scratching a dust bowl in a sunny spot, and then relaxing in the sun or fluffing the warm dust onto their feathers.
Lastly, let’s remember that birds are lightweight and have hollow bones — especially their skulls. As they breathe they circulate air into and out of their lungs and into and out of these hollows in their bones — called “air sacs”. This design helps cool the bird in summer and makes it lightweight, relatively, so that flying and leaping are possible.
Now that we have considered some aspects of the nature of our birds, let’s look at the “Dos” and “Don’ts” of winter preparation.
When Winter Sets DON’T
Here is a list of common “Don’ts”:
• Shut pens up too tight;
• Provide too much heat;
• Fail to consider the location of the sun and prevailing winter winds;
• Provide pens that are too small, preventing exercise;
• Fail to allow the birds enough access to natural light;
• Forget about access to unfrozen drinking water;
• Neglect to feed according to temperature;
• Provide roosts that allow toes to be exposed to air all night long; and
• Single coop birds so that they cannot huddle and share warmth.
Most people tend to make the mistake of trying to “protect” their birds from the elements. This is not wholly wrong, but most frequently leads us into making poor decisions. For instance, let’s look at a poor shelter choice. I have a friend who wants to keep their chickens warm all winter. My friend keeps the birds in small pens with plastic over the wire. This design prevents air circulation, causing two problems: higher moisture content in the air, which will cause more frostbite, and no way for ammonia from the manure to escape, which stresses the birds and causes lung damage, weakening immune systems and making the birds prone to disease outbreaks.
Another friend heats their chicken house. Not only is this expensive, but it causes issues for the birds too. Ever sleep under an electric blanket? If you use one often, what you will find is that your body responds to the external heat by reducing its own heat output. Before long, you are cold without an electric blanket. When we heat our chicken houses, the birds will experience a similar response in their bodies and will soon feel very cold at the edges of the coop and will huddle as close to the heat as they can manage.
Yet another friend has an old barn. He houses his poultry in a part of this barn nearest the northern wall. This is the side of the barn that receives the most wintry gusts. His barn is dark and a bit damp. His birds often frostbite, almost never lay, and always look pale in their faces, combs and wattles.
Second-to-last friend. This friend likes their eggs. She feeds laying mash all winter long. Because she works in the city, she leaves early each day. So this friend puts fresh food and water out at night, when it is dark. She is surprised that no mater what she does, her hens will not lay any eggs. She has ideal pens, which are clean and smell fresh. The chickens have plenty of room and the pens faces south.
My final “friend,” and yes these are all fictitious people, is pressed for pen space. This friend is clever, and so this friend has built pens for the birds all the way around their building – some birds have pens facing north, while others face south, west and east. The pens have been designed for maximum use of space so that my friend can pen each bird by itself. He uses half-inch conduit for roosts — finding these do not harbor mites. Even though some of his birds do well every winter, he loses a few “weaklings” and others are frostbitten and slow to come back into production each year. He also gets a lot of frostbitten toes.
I have tried to give you a few scenarios for some don’ts to help you understand what the likely problems are, and to see how easy it is to make mistakes.
When Winter Sets DO
Ever remember sledding as a kid? You’d be outside for hours and after a while, you’d forget about the cold and just enjoy the fun. When you came inside, the house felt very hot. Why would that be?
All that exercise playing caused your body to warm up. At the same time, you got used to the temperature. When you came inside, the house was much warmer than what you were used to and therefore it felt hot. When you went back outside the next morning, at first you were cold and then you would warm up and have fun.
This line of thinking allows you to understand that the chickens also adapt to temperature. What we want to do is manage our pens in a way that the pens contribute to keeping the birds happy and healthy and not mistakenly make winter harder for them.
First, let’s look at which direction our pens should face — south. This allows for the most natural daylight and if the north wall is solid, protects them from wintry gusts.
Next, let’s make sure there is plenty of clean bedding. This will help insulate the floor, give them something to scratch around in, and the bedding will trap ammonia from the birds’ droppings.
Air circulation is the next consideration. I took a tip from an old poultry experiment. Back in the 1930s an experiment was conducted to see if keeping a building tight was better than leaving it wide open. This was conducted in Minnesota and wide-open won! Well, they had wire for a south-facing wall. This sort of design let all the ammonia escape and kept the air dry in the pen. The chickens could huddle together for warmth, but very few suffered frostbite on combs and wattles. In the tight pen many birds suffered frostbite.
The birds need good roosts. A flat 2-by-4 makes a better roost than metal pipe. It allows the feathers to cover the toes and it will radiate back some of the heat lost. Keeping two or more chickens per pen will allow the birds to huddle together to share warmth.
In winter, there’s water everywhere, but it’s hard as a rock. When was the last time you drank a frozen cup of water? Well your birds cannot pull off that trick either. You can use an electric heater to keep their water unfrozen. You can also use 1-gallon buckets for water containers. These can be brought to your basement each night to thaw, and then dumped and refilled each morning. This will ensure the chickens have water for at least part of the day, and they will soon adapt.
Feeding for winter is an old management practice. Understand that certain feed will have a certain effect on the poultry and then you adjust your practices to better serve the birds. Corn is a great feed and has the tendency to produce fat, which can be burned by the body as it needs. Wheat will produce body heat as it is being digested — rye will as well, but too much rye will give your birds the runs. Cayenne pepper will cause the circulatory system to work. Oats will help build muscle and encourage egg production. Sunflower seeds and wheat both contain a fair amount of natural oils, which help feathers shed water and prevent them from becoming brittle. Oyster shell is a great source of calcium — a lack of which causes feathers to become brittle and break. Apple cider vinegar added to drinking water (1 to 2 tablespoons per gallon) helps prevent heart issues and helps produce flexible feathers.
My own pens are dog kennels with tarps. My birds seldom get frostbite, although winter here is not as severe as in Minnesota. They face south and the prevailing wind is blocked. They get much sun during the day.
Heat lamps can be used to good effect during very tough winters. If used correctly, they allow the birds to warm their faces. Infrared halogen heat lamps are ideal for providing some winter relief without overheating the pens. Just be careful about using heat lamps around flammable materials, including wood chips and straw bedding, and the coop structure itself.
To protect birds from frostbite, some breeders coat their combs and wattles with Vaseline. This will make a mess of their feathers, but it prevents moist air contact with the skin, and thus prevents the common cause of frostbite.
Some other considerations: Rodents should be eradicated as they spread disease, they eat the feed, and they will sometimes remove feathers from birds to use to line their nest. Heavy snows can crush a pen roof — be sure your pens are well supported now. The birds need areas without snow and wind, areas that capture some sun, to gather in and warm themselves. Feeding scratch grains in the bedding will warm the birds twice — once as they exercise while finding the grains and again as they digest them at night. When you have the ability, feeding scratch grains just a hour or so before dusk will ensure the birds eat that much more before sleeping. Some fresh water at that time is also helpful.
Remember, more than eight hours will be spent in the dark huddling on the roost with nothing else to eat or drink. Feeding a bit extra just before roost ensures the birds have plenty of energy to stay warm all night.
The last thing I wish to share is something my mentor used to drive home often each winter. A bird can stand the full force of the wind better than it can stand a tiny cold draft. Nothing seems to stress a bird more than being exposed to a wintry draft, so be sure to check your pens before cooping your birds into them.
As different parts of the country have different challenges, be sure to seek the advice of experienced poultry people in your area.
Text copyright Don Schrider 2014. All rights reserved. Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press and for publications produced by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. He is the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys.