We don't have to tell you winter is coming. Are your chickens ready? Like all chicken-related questions, it seems the answer to that question is, “it depends.”
It depends on what breed of chickens you have, how big your coop is, how many chickens you have, whether you want to keep egg production up all winter and whether you’re willing and able to carry water to them.
We had one of those “it depends” seminars at CLUCK the Chicken Store on Sunday. Heather Lockhart led the conversation with about 40 people in the audience. Heather has years of experience raising all kinds of poultry, but, wisely, she didn’t try to provide just one answer to every question. She offered lots of different ways of approaching some of the most common winter-time problems, covering light, heat, nutrition, ventilation and water.
The following is our summary of Heather’s presentation.
Light: For most breeds, the egg cycle requires 15 hours of light per day – if you want them to keep laying regularly all winter. That means setting the timer to start their day at about 3 a.m. and turning it off before dusk so the hens can find their way to their roosts before dark. Heather says the type of light doesn’t matter so much, but it should be bright enough for you (or your hens) to read a newspaper. It also depends on the breed. Some will lay all winter with very little prompting; some just quit until spring, or until they choose to become productive again.
Heat: Some people do, some don’t. It depends on the breed and your personal preference. Many hens don’t necessarily need heat. After all, birds wear down jackets all the time. When chickens molt in the fall, they grow a new set of warm feathers for the winter. Chickens are kind of like the Farmer’s Almanac, Heather says, because they seem to know if the winter will be warm or cold and grow their feathers accordingly. However, tight-feathered breeds, and especially Frizzles, Silkies and all types of bantams, will almost certainly need heat in the Wisconsin winter. Our big, old-fashioned heritage breeds probably don’t. Other breeds fall in the middle ground.
Whatever the breed, make sure they have wide, flat, wooden perches so they can roost with their toes flat. They don’t like to sit with their toes curling around the roost. They like to sit down and cover their feet with their feathers.
If your birds have large wattles or combs, you should consider coating them with Vaseline about twice a week during the coldest weeks to keep those parts from getting frostbite. Wattles and combs were developed to shed heat in warm climates, so they’re vulnerable to frostbite.
Heather keeps a 250-watt heat lamp on day and night all winter, partly because she keeps her 20 chickens and her rabbits in a drafty, enclosed carport. On the other hand, we rarely heat our little 2x4-foot roosting houses because they’re small enough that four or six birds can keep themselves warm. When it gets sub-zero, we turn on a ceramic reptile heater that emits heat, but no light.
Our friend Lisa Peterson reported on her short experience with the new Sweeter Heater radiant heater, but said she didn’t have enough time to really test it out. We have Sweeter Heaters in stock at CLUCK. They’re kind of pricey, but they look very safe and secure and have a reputation for producing an even, radiant heat with no hot spots. They're even made right here in Wisconsin.
Whatever you do, make sure your heat source is secure. People burn down their coops – and sometimes their houses – every year because of faulty or poorly installed heaters.
Ventilation: Whether you heat or not, make sure your coop is ventilated, but not drafty. If the hens get sweaty or the air in the coop is too damp, they will get sick and maybe even die. Damp drafts can be fatal to chickens. They are better off cold than damp.
Nutrition: Even though your hens may not be laying regularly in the winter, they still need a complete feed to stay healthy. Heather suggested helping the hens create their own heat by feeding them scratch grain in the evening about an hour before they go to bed. It’s not high protein, but it will stay in their crops overnight and digest. Scratch grain shouldn’t make up no more than 25 percent of their diet and you should give them no more than they can finish in one feeding. Otherwise, you may find yourself feeding the rats.
You will need to give them grit so they can digest the grain. Not oyster shell, but sand or ground up stone. You can also give them warm snacks to relieve boredom. Warm oatmeal. Scrambled eggs. Greek yogurt.
Looking for an inexpensive boredom buster? Make your own scratch block. There are lots of recipes on Internet. But remember to keep scratch blocks dry. They mold easily and chickens can die from mold. You might also throw a bale of hay in the coop and let the chickens do what they will with it.
Water: Chickens need a ready source of warm water all year. If you don’t have electricity in the coop, or you don’t want to buy a water heater, you should be absolutely sure that you bring the hens fresh water every morning. Twice a day would be better, but most people who work don’t get home until the hens have gone to bed. That’s too late to water them.
You can use a heated dog bowl if you like. It’s best to raise it on several concrete patio pavers so the heating element never contacts the bedding and so it’s harder for the birds to kick debris into the water (which they still will no matter what you do).
The most convenient and reliable solution is an electric, thermostat-controlled heater base and a metal water fountain. It’s safe and proven, but it’s also a little more expensive. If you’d rather do it yourself, Heather showed how to build your own heater base for a few dollars with lamp parts from the hardware store and a metal cookie tin.
If your extension cord won’t reach your coop, you could have two waterers, or even two bowls, and bring them in the house to thaw, one in the morning and one in the evening. It just depends on how you want to keep your chickens and what works for you.
At the end of the day a lot of information was shared. We only captured a small part of it here, but we hope it’s helpful.
We want to thank Heather for sharing her experience and knowledge with us. And we want to thank our very attentive and engaged audience of chicken keepers (and a few wanna-be chicken keepers) for spending time at CLUCK the Chicken Store on a Sunday afternoon.