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Backyard chickens: Preparing your flock for the cooler temperatures ahead

It’s that time of year. Tonight is our first freeze in the Bangor area, and last week, our chicky girls laid fewer eggs than they ever have. There’s some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook site (yes, we have those) that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about out girl as little freeloaders. I mean, they are certainly spoiled and very demanding. I can’t even walk out the front door without them running up and whining for a treat. But they do give us a delicious breakfast every morning, and with all the research about how beneficial eggs are to our diets, I think it’s okay if we have to support our girls a little as they molt and adjust to light changes. They can be little freeloaders if they need to be.

But fall and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the cooler weather, and after making it through our first fall and winter with our girls last year, I think I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

chickens in snow

Our Rhode Island Reds were a little worried about their very first snow. They had a lot of hesitation, but, pretty soon, they were having a great time playing.

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1. Handling molting

If your girls are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop down suddenly right now. While they molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt.

2. Thinking about light

You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, I read that you have to be careful with light supplements with young birds. It can lead to laying problems apparently.

Most of our girls are in their second year now, so my husband just started supplementing with a light that is on a timer in the coop. He has it set to give the girls an extra hour and a half of light each day. The egg production right now is still not nearly what it was this summer with those long, lovely days, but we at least have enough for breakfast every day and a little sharing.

3. Keeping clean, fresh water

When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you really, really have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. That is a great idea. We have an insulated coop, plus the girls put out a lot of heat, so we haven’t had to use a water heater. However, a water heater would work best if you don’t have enough warmth in your coop. And you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.

4. Preventing chicken boredom

Be aware of chicken boredom in the winter months because it’s a real thing and will cause your girls to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our girls go from free ranging everywhere to only have their coop, a run, and some paths my husband shovels. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.

One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold. My husband was great about shoveling our girls’ run, and we read this year about saving the leaves from your trees this fall in bags and spreading them in the snow for your chickens to walk on and peck around in. This is actually the best tip I can share. It’s genius. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chicky girls.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. Just make sure they are healthy treats, and, of course, always keep a balanced diet in mind. But, last winter, we would share fruit and vegetable scraps, and the variety was good. Working on the fruits and veggies also kept the girls busy.

5. Protecting their combs

And, when you let your girls outside to play in the winter, you should keep an eye on their combs. If you have chickens with large combs, it’s a good idea to put some petroleum jelly on them to help keep them safe in the winter cold.

6. Preparing for the deep freeze

Finally, As we head into fall, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. Just as we work on winterizing our homes here in Maine, it’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out some heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have.

You may not need to insulate your coop, but, if you do, make sure your flock has proper ventilation. This is really key. You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. Chickens can get serious respiratory illnesses, and no one wants that.

According to my research, chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so I recommend just keeping a thermometer in your coop to allow you to keep an eye on things.

Our coop is insulated, so we only had to heat our coop a couple of times last winter, though some people will argue you don’t have to heat at all. In fact, unless you are really careful, it may be best not to heat. My husband built a cage to go around a small oil heater, so it didn’t put out much heat and was safe for our girls. It just keep things above 0 degrees during the worst nights of February.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. If you have other tips or advice, please share below. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!

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