Winterizing Your Flock; Preparing Poultry for Winter
With winter approaching we need to prepare for the extra cold and damp weather, the early dark nights and all the other dark sides to winter weather.
Here in the U.K. we do not have the varied winters that seem to be quite common in the U.S. I realize that with the size of the U.S. the difference from one end of the country to the other can vary from minus 30° to warm, sunny weather. I cannot imagine minus 30° as we tend only to suffer light frosts and rain with damp, foggy days. Even when it freezes here it does not last for long periods.
Predator Protection Is #1 Concern
Whether the temperatures are mild or extreme we all need to put extra poultry management into practice during the winter. The prime consideration is in keeping the birds in a good, solid and well-protected poultry unit. The need for this is quite obvious and as well as weather protection there needs to be good protection from predators. I personally prefer poultry housing to be built on legs, with clear views under the house. The length of leg does not matter as long as there is a good clearance underneath to stop the rats, etc. from taking up residence. Rats and other vermin love dark places to hide so by raising the unit you are addressing a problem before it starts.
Roofing on the units is also important. We prefer Onduline—a rubber-based, corrugated sheet that screws over the roof and is both easy to fit and remove. (A similar product used in the U.S. is known as an ondura roofing panel.—Ed.) This can be power washed and is a good deterrent against insects such as Red Mite. Other types of sheeting are available which will give similar results. What you need to avoid is felt, this just creates a good hiding and breeding area for all types of bugs. Sheeting is easier to clean, helps with lower maintenance and offers better protection for the birds.
Having raised the housing you also need to make sure that the other entries on the poultry house are secure and safe. Making access difficult for predators like foxes, badgers, skunks and mink, etc. is of major importance. This is where the strength of a poultry shed is required. I have known a badger here in the U.K. to burrow under a shed and rip a hole in the floor to get access to the chickens, then proceed to kill all the Sussex inside the shed, and taking only one to eat. Again, the raised floor would have helped to prevent this type of attack from happening. The types of threats you have in the U.S. are very similar to ours although the culprits have different names and look very different. The other major problem is the domestic dog. Good protective fencing which is high enough to keep the dogs out must be used wherever possible.
Housing that is safe and secure from predators should be your number one concern.
Ventilation for the Cold Months
Next must be a very serious consideration as to how these houses are ventilated. Having fresh, clean air all the year round is of great importance, but this is even more apparent when the birds are confined during the winter months. Fitted air vents are good and sliding windows to keep out excessive wet are useful. These sliding windows are good if made from Perspex, which although closed, still gives light. (Known as plexiglas, lucite, acrylite, and rhoplex in the U.S—Ed.) Strong mesh fitted to these windows is also very important as this is also an access entry for predators. We use weld mesh, which is a lot stronger than chicken wire.
If you have used a roof sheet system such as Onduline it has its own built-in ventilation system created by the profile of the sheets. The down side to this is that it can give access to smaller rodents unless you fill in the gaps using some sort of wire infill to prevent entry.
The main entrance door to any poultry shed can be a perfect place to leave open and fitted with an inside wire mesh door. This will keep the birds confined but also give all the fresh air needed.
One other thing to take into consideration is the present day threats from disease. If the birds are kept under cover and clear of the wild bird population we are more secure for the future.
Hens stop laying eggs in winter because of the shortened daylight hours, not because of the cold. When the number of lighted hours falls below 14, hens stop laying until spring.
As I personally do not breed solely for egg production lighting is not a main problem for us. The amount of eggs my birds lay off-season is unimportant. I only need the eggs for hatching at certain times of the year for my show birds and this is really quite early in the year. But if you are wanting egg production—the most popular reason for keeping chickens—then lighting may very well be an important part of your winter planning. The easiest way to keep the birds in lay is to supply extra lighting during the wintertime. This is easy to do by using a domestic-type timer that can be set for early morning and later in the evening. By using false lighting you are creating a longer day for the chicken and should guarantee continued egg production even throughout the winter months.
During the winter the birds will go through their annual molt. This will stop egg production as they need all the vitamins, etc. to recreate the feathers they lose during this time. It does not matter how much light you supply they will still all go through this natural process, and as soon as the molt is completed then back to the egg production.
This is a subject that varies from person to person but I personally do not heat the shed no matter how cold it gets (commercial units do have a controlled environment with heating and lighting control) but for most standard poultry keepers a dry, well ventilated shed is quite sufficient.
Freezing weather obviously brings the frozen waterer problems. This means that you have to be constantly on hand to ensure a good frequent supply of water. In most cases just breaking the surface ice is enough for the birds to be allowed to drink. We use a plastic twist fit drinker which is strong enough to knock on a post or similar object to break the ice but not the drinker. This type of drinker is easy to empty and fill even when frozen.
We have automatic water systems which are amazing for most of the year but when it really freezes, stand by for major leaks and problems. When these systems freeze there is very little problem, but as they defrost the damage done to the system becomes apparent and is sometimes quite drastic.
This is basic common sense and apart from the obvious water problems involves simply making sure the birds are kept dry and draft free. It is also important to make sure the feed is kept in good condition and fresh. Bedding in the nest boxes and sheds will need more attention this time of the year. Looking after the flock will ensure they are kept in top health and disease free.
Vitamins & Extra Rations
Again speaking from my own experience over the years, I always find that during the winter and the molt seasons the birds do get stressed out, and this applies to the breeding season as well. It is these times when the birds are at their lowest ebb and a little extra help is always the best way. (Many people also suffer from stress during the winter so it should be easy to understand). Giving extra vitamins can do no harm and if given correctly will help the bird through one of the worst stages of the year. Additives can have different effects on the birds; some will help stamina; others will improve feather quality. In fact they can also help to keep the body temperature higher with the same effect as sweet corn, which also produces body heat for the birds.
The market today is full of a large variety of vitamins and minerals and you need to research what you actually need the additives for. A very good quality multi-vitamin is all that is really required. You can distribute this by adding to feed or water. My preference is to add a liquid-based vitamin to the water. I find that the birds will always drink water and this ensures a fair distribution of vitamins throughout the flock. Powder-based vitamins in feed are good but if you mix them into the feed without dampening the feed, when the birds have finished eating, all the dust from the vitamins are still in your bucket and not in the chickens. This is not only a waste of time but also a waste of money. If I ever have to use powder-based vitamins I always add a little cod liver oil to the feed and mix it well. This enables the powder to stick to the feed and be more evenly distributed.
During the very cold spells when the temperature reaches freezing and well below, the birds’ combs and wattles can be very badly affected. This can also happen if there is an early morning frost. There is a very simple form of protection that can be used to prevent the birds from suffering: you can coat the wattles and comb in Vaseline. Rub it in well and quite thick. This does no harm to the bird and helps prevent the frostbite from happening.
If the birds are affected by frostbite, it is quite obvious as the red on the wattles and comb turn black as the cold kills the cells. This is rarely fatal but must be very painful and uncomfortable for the birds.
As I said before keeping the birds in good health is so very important, and I must stress the need for keeping them as dry as possible during these months. I have actually seen a bird frozen to death because the owner washed and shampooed the bird for showing and then left it wet overnight. Not only is this very stupid but also very cruel.
Mite & Cleanliness
When the winter preparations begin there is the inevitable problem of mites and lice. There tends to be a decline during the winter months of this type of insect, but inside a nice warm dry shed they will thrive, no matter what time of the year it is. I can assure you they are still there.
This is the time where the use of lice and mite powder is a must. This helps kill and keep the insects at bay. If you have a bad infestation then you need a clear day to move the birds outside and spray the shed, giving the unit time for it to basically dry out before replacing the birds later in the day.
If possible spraying and treating the poultry unit before the winter actually sets in is a great idea, making sure you penetrate all the cracks and crevises you can—a case of prevention is always better than cure.
Use the powders in the sheds, nest boxes and on the birds themselves. We have some excellent treatments here in the U.K., some that are organic and some chemical. Your product choice is down to personal preference. I would imagine that in the U.S. the range will be enormous. Before using any product please ensure that they are safe to use when the birds are confined. Again common sense but still needs to be considered.
If in any doubt about any product try to find an experienced poultry breeder who will give you advice on which product they have used and recommend. In the U.K. we also have several products which are not licensed for poultry but are used all the same. This is down to the cost of licensing by the companies which is why I suggest you just ask—the voice of experience is always the best way to learn.
As a final note of interest there is a breed of chicken that is reared in Sweden as a breed that would withstand temperatures below freezing. These are the Hedemora. They were specially bred for these conditions and are ideal for the Swedish winters, but the bird adapts very easily to normal weather conditions and will run outside even in freezing, snowy conditions. They lay a slightly smaller egg than normal but the fact that the breed is so hardy outweighs the loss in size of the eggs. There is no standard color for this breed but it sometimes comes with a slightly frizzled feather, which combined with the color makes the bird very attractive.
The town of Hedemora is the town where the breed originated.
(To view a photo of the Hedemora, visit www.feathersite.com and search by breed. Besides the Hedemora, there are hundreds of other wonderful photos, links, etc. at this site to keep you viewing for hours.—Ed.)
I hope this article will help with the on coming winter preparation and that it may help to prevent some losses or mishaps that can occur. Good luck for the winter and I would like to wish all readers a very merry holiday season.
Originally published in the Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007 issue of Backyard Poultry.