Keep your chickens healthy and laying all through the winter
(BPT) — When winter approaches, you probably take steps to prepare your home — insulating water pipes, sealing windows and doors, or covering and storing outdoor furniture. If you’ve also been following the backyard chicken trend and enjoying fresh eggs all summer long, you’ll want to take steps to care for your flock when the weather cools. And if you’ve been considering getting some chickens, but think you have to put it off until spring, think again. You can still start a flock, or keep an existing one thriving, and laying, throughout winter.
Keeping a flock of chickens has grown rapidly in popularity over the last several years. Nearly one in five people would be more likely to raise chickens if they knew more about it, according to a 2015 national survey conducted by Tractor Supply Company. Interest with parents is even higher, as 27 percent would consider raising chickens with their families if they had more information on the hobby.
Raising chickens has many advantages, including a steady supply of fresh, nutritious eggs, greater control over what your family eats, companionship from the birds themselves, and an opportunity to teach children how to care for animals and the earth.
To help distribute this information, chicken experts at Tractor Supply Co. offer some advice for keeping a flock healthy and producing through winter months. Anyone raising chickens this winter should focus on four areas of care:
Keep coops warm and dry
Chickens are fairly resilient and can tolerate some very low temperatures, especially when they huddle together for warmth. Helping them stay warm and dry through winter means they’ll be safer and happier, which means they’ll be more inclined to keep laying eggs. The best way to keep chickens warm in winter is to keep their coop dry and comfortable. Wet living conditions can lead to disease and death within days. You can use tarps to help keep water and dampness out of your coop.
The general rule is that coops need to be slightly above freezing to keep chickens happy. Keeping your coop above 35 degrees will protect your chickens from cold weather and keep their drinking water from freezing. Only if the temperature falls below 35 degrees should you consider purchasing a heater or heat producing light to provide extra warmth.
Airflow is key
Ensuring adequate ventilation is a critical component of cold weather chicken care. Overly warm coops can not only interfere with chickens’ tolerance for cold weather, but can also lead to a buildup of humidity, which creates an environment for harmful mold to grow. Cleaning the coop regularly helps combat mold, while encouraging airflow with screens placed on coop windows can facilitate airflow during the day. But remember to close those windows at night when temperatures fall.
Provide lots of light
Some chicken breeds, such as the Brahma or Chantecler, are natural winter egg layers. However, once fall molt is over, many birds won’t start naturally laying until January or February, unless light is added to the coop. As a result, supplemental lighting is vital to keeping your hens laying. Use multiple lights to achieve an even distribution of light throughout the year. Incandescent lights are generally best. To encourage chickens to lay, set your light to a timer that goes on one hour before sunrise and turns off one hour after sunset. Generally, a 40-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector positioned seven feet above the ground will light about 200 square feet.
Diet is key
Providing your flock with an adequate diet will benefit egg fertility once breeding season begins in the spring. That being said, your chickens’ dietary needs will change during fall and winter. In autumn, begin feeding them a high-density, vitamin-rich feed. The additional vitamins will help provide the nutrients birds need in order to cope with colder temperatures. Blends made with whole grain and flaxseed are designed to provide enhanced nutrients in your flock’s eggs.
Water is the single most important feeding aspect for a flock. If enough fresh water is not available, your chickens won’t eat, which will result in loss of egg production. You can also add a water-soluble multivitamin to their water to boost egg fertility. Of course, water can freeze during winter, so change your chickens’ water often and break through any ice that forms. If you’re having trouble keeping water liquid in the cold, consider purchasing a heated bucket or water feeder.
As always, when working in the coop and handling birds, be sure to remember safe handling practices to prevent the spread of disease, such as washing your hands with soap and water and cleaning the tools used to care for your birds.