Tips on Keeping Your Chickens Comfortable through the winter
When my Welsummer chick, Clara, was a week old, she lost her left wing to an out of control baby stroller (technically, she lost her wing to Dr. Guzman at the UW Veterinary School, but the net effect was the same). Clara’s full grown now and doing great, but since she’s missing a wing’s worth of insulation, I’m taking extra care to keep her warm and healthy this winter. The techniques I’m using will benefit my two-winged chickens as well, so I thought I’d share them here in case anyone else was looking for ideas. I’ve expanded the Co-op’s backyard chicken set to include some of the supplies mentioned below, so you won’t have to go far to outfit your coop for the winter.
This is probably the most difficult decision you’ll make when prepping your coop for the cold. My opinion is that artificial heat isn’t needed except under extreme circumstances. Chickens are actually more tolerant of cold than heat, and a heat lamp can keep them from properly feathering out for the winter. If there’s a power failure or the bulb burns out, your chickens won’t be acclimated to the cold and could die of hypothermia.
That said, I keep a heat-lamp on standby for those ridiculously cold, winter-advisory days, and watch my chickens for signs that they need it. If they move slowly, or spend all day huddled tightly in the corner, it’s time to unravel the extension cord.
Believe it or not, roosts play a big part in keeping chickens comfortable during the winter. Unlike songbirds, which perch with their toes wrapped around the circumference of a branch, chickens prefer to roost with their feet laid out flat in front of them. When it’s cold out, this allows them to completely cover their legs and feet with warm breast feathers. A roost with at least three to four inches of surface area is ideal. I use a two-by-four positioned flat side up for my chickens, but a two-by-two would also work well. If you’re currently using a broom handle or dowel as a roost, consider switching it out before the mercury drops.
During winter, high humidity is the main cause of frost-bitten combs, wattles, and feet. Several factors combine to create humid conditions in the henhouse, including water dish evaporation (especially if the water is electrically heated to keep it from freezing), chickens’ high rate of respiration, and moisture from droppings. Design elements such as ventilation can mitigate the potential for high henhouse humidity, but one easy step you can take is to add a poop-board under the roost. Just place an 18-inch board on the floor of the henhouse, centered directly under the roost. It will hopefully catch most of your chicken’s droppings throughout the day, and can then be removed and cleaned whenever you perform your daily chicken duties. Chicken poop is mostly liquid, so removing as much as you can, as often as you can, will go a long way towards managing humidity levels in the henhouse.
Essential year-round, bedding takes on even greater importance during the cold months. It provides insulation and offers chickens a medium to burrow into when it’s too cold to roost. But because bedding is where most poop ends up, it needs to be stirred often and changed at least once a week. Turning and stirring the bedding helps it dry faster, which in turn keeps humidity down (see “poop-boards”). Your chickens’ incessant scratching will handle most of the stirring work, but you might need to add a few handfuls of fresh bedding every couple days, in between complete cleanings.
As for the bedding medium, there are usually two camps—one swears by pine shavings, while the other insists that straw is better. Both mediums have their pros and cons; pine shavings are more absorbent than straw, but contain natural resins that can irritate a chicken’s respiratory system, and straw is easier to clean than pine shavings, but the hollow shafts can grow mold and harbor bugs.
I like to use both. I cover the floor of the henhouse with four to five inches of pine shavings and use straw for the nest-boxes. I also scatter a bit of straw just outside the nest boxes so that my chickens can customize their nests.
Whichever medium you choose, Willy Street Co-op has you covered. We carry Marth reclaimed pine shavings, milled locally in Marathon, Wisconsin, and organic straw from West Star Farm in Pleasant Spring. The pine shavings are milled from post-manufacturing process reclaimed wood, which means no trees are cut down to produce it. It comes compressed in a three cubic-foot bail and should last about a month for four chickens. The straw bales are somewhat larger than this, roughly 18”x18”x3’, but will need to be changed more often because straw’s not as absorbent. However, unlike most you’ll find, West Star straw is organic, so you don’t have to worry about your chickens scratching around in pesticides.
I wrote about grit and its function in the July Reader, but grit is most important in winter, when chickens don’t have access to the ground. Basically, grit is small jagged stones that chickens store in their gizzard to aid in the digestion of “roughage” (sounds like my grandpa wrote this). By roughage, I mean anything other than bagged, formulated chicken feed (which dissolves easily in their stomach without the aid of grit), including table scraps and any grass or other vegetation they consume while free-ranging. If your chickens free-range during the warm season, they probably find enough grit on their own. But come the first snowfall, you’ll need to supply it for them if they’ll be eating table scraps or scratch (more on scratch coming up). If your run is free of snow, grit can be sprinkled on the ground to give your chickens something to peck at; otherwise you can offer it in a small dish next to their feeder.
We originally planned to sell five-pound bags of Manna Pro Grit for $6.49, but our distributor wasn’t able to acquire it for us. The silver lining is that we switched to 50-pound bags of New Ulm grit for $4.99! This grit is made of cherry-stone, a kind of quartzite quarried in New Ulm, Minnesota (not exactly local, but pretty close). It comes in two sizes: #2 medium grit is suitable for pullets age 4-7 weeks and bantams, and #3 coarse grit is best for standard breeds older than eight weeks.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Probably for scratch—chickens love scratch. Scratch is a mixture of grains-usually equal parts cracked corn, wheat, and oats—that is fed to chickens as a supplement to their normal diet. Scratch is high in fat and carbs, so I wouldn’t offer it in the summer except as a training incentive. But in the winter, scratch is a great end-of-the-day treat to rev up your chickens’ metabolism, giving them extra energy to stay warm over night. A good feeding method is to scatter a handful over the henhouse floor just before sunset, so their scratching will stir up the bedding, allowing it to dry better.
Organic oats, wheat, and corn for the scratch mixture are available in our bulk aisle, but the organic corn needs to be cracked in a coffee mill or food processor before it is added.
Even if your chickens have all their wings (they think they’re so great), they’ll benefit from any of the above suggestions. Good luck keeping them warm, comfortable, and healthy this winter, and I hope you get a few eggs.
New Ulm’s #2 (medium) cherry-stone grit isn’t just for chickens. Used as traction grit, it serves as an eco-friendly and cheaper alternative to caustic salt for icy sidewalks and driveways. Salt is toxic to plants and the soil (think of “salting the earth”), and hastens the deterioration of pavement. Also, the colder it is, the less effective salt is at melting ice, whereas cherry-stone grit remains effective at any temperature. At $4.99 for 50lbs. (compare to Earth Friendly Ice Melt, $11.09 for 6.5lbs.), you can keep a bag in the garage for sidewalks and driveways, and another in the trunk of your car in case you get stuck in the snow.