The cold weather has arrived, and that can be stressful for your chicken flock and for us chicken keepers too. I remember my first winter with chickens, and every cold morning I was running outside with a pan of warm oatmeal for the ladies, certain they were cold and miserable and in need of some comforting. While they certainly enjoyed the pampering, now that I've been keeping chickens for over ten years, I've come to realize how hardy most chicken breeds are, and that it's not necessary to go overboard with the winter pampering. That being said, there are several things you can and should do to keep your flock happy and healthy in the winter.
Your feeding routine doesn't need to change all that much from the summer to the winter. If you have some chickens that are finishing up a late fall molt, they will benefit from the addition of extra protein to their diet. You can do this either by changing their feed to one with higher protein content, or by incorporating high protein treats into their diet. I keep my flock on Scratch & Peck Feeds 'Naturally Free Layer' all year round. When my flock is molting, I incorporate high protein treats including Scratch & Peck's Clucking Good Grubs and black oil sunflower seeds into their diet. On the coldest of days, I will also give them a few handfuls of cracked corn and scratch grains as a late afternoon treat. The extra calories will generate body heat to keep them a bit warmer at night. If your chicken yard is a bit sparse in the grass department in the winter, sprouted grains are a great way to give them a healthy green snack. My girls love sprouted barley. It only takes a few easy steps and a few days to prepare. If you haven't tried sprouting grains yet, there's an easy how-to guide in the learning center tab on the Scratch & Peck website. Remember to keep treats to about 10% of their daily diet, with most of their diet consisting of a nutritionally balanced feed. Continue offering free choice oyster shell and poultry grit throughout the winter.
Access to fresh water is just as important for your chicken flock in the winter as it is at other times of the year. I like to keep a few waterers unfrozen at all times using a heated waterer or a heated waterer base. There are several styles available, each with their pros and cons. The plastic heated waterers with a plug in base are more expensive than a regular waterer, but they will last several years. There are also large metal heated waterer bases that you place underneath a metal waterer. I'm not as fond of the metal waterers, but they do last longer than the plastic ones. Whichever style you choose, you will appreciate how much easier they make life on those freezing mornings when you don't have to defrost the waterers.
There are several things you should do to make sure your chicken coop and run are ready for winter. Chickens are very well equipped to withstand cold weather without supplemental heat - that is provided that your coop is dry and free of drafts at chicken level. This doesn't mean that you don't need to maintain good ventilation higher up, near the roof of the coop. Good ventilation in the coop is extremely important in the winter, because a build-up of moisture in the coop can contribute to frost-bite and other health issues. You'll need to prevent drafts at hen level, but keep air circulating through the vents in the upper portion of the coop. Place extra bedding material on the floor of the coop in the winter. This not only helps absorb moist droppings and keeps the coop a bit less messy between cleanings, but it also gives the hens a warmer place to nestle in if they decide to hunker down in the coop on the coldest of days. Be sure to clean up any areas of moist bedding promptly to minimize moisture in the coop.
If you have an attached run on your coop, you can wrap the sides with clear plastic or install clear plastic panels to reduce wind and minimize the amount of rain and snow that blows in to keep the ground less muddy. I prefer covering the sides of the run with something clear to let the sunlight in, but you can also use tarps or other building materials. Whatever you use, be sure to fasten it securely to keep it from coming loose and flapping around in the wind which will not be appreciated by the ladies and will send them running back inside the coop in a hurry. If you live in a very windy climate, you can also add an extra windbreak around the outside of the coop and run, using hay bales or pallets.
It's important for your flock to be able to get outside for fresh air, exercise and dust bathing when the weather permits. Spending time outdoors and having varied activities will also help keep your hens from getting bored, which is important to minimize pecking and other undesirable behaviors which can result from being cooped up for too long. Provide them with some open air covered areas and several choices of roosting structures so they can get up off the muddy or snowy ground. Their outdoor shelters don't need to be fancy - rustic structures made with pallets and scrap wood will be greatly appreciated by your flock. We've even used old coffee tables and a truck canopy. If your chicken run gets muddy or snowy in the winter, laying down some coarse wood chips or straw will make it a bit less messy and give the ladies some entertainment while they spread it around looking for buried treats. You may need to encourage your flock to leave the coop after the first big snow of the season by shoveling a path through the snow and luring them out with treats, but they will be so appreciative of your efforts, and you'll enjoy seeing them having some snow day fun!
Health checks are also important in the winter. Parasites can quickly get a foothold if access to dust bathing is reduced. Be sure your flock has a dry area to dust bath in, and you should also regularly inspect their vents for the presence of mites or lice and treat promptly if you see them. I will occasionally add powdered vitamins and electrolytes to their water in the winter if we are having an especially miserable stretch of weather to give everyone an added boost. With these few simple tips you can help your flock get through winter happy and healthy. Now how many days until spring?