Plus Boredom Busters for Days they Don’t Want To Venture Outside the Chicken Coop
I’m always asked what I do with my backyard chickens in the winter. The truth is, they like to get outside and explore in pretty much any weather and it’s always good for them to get some fresh air.
First, it’s important to understand that chickens are equipped to handle cold weather. In fact, it can be easier to withstand than hot weather. As you know, backyard chickens have thousands of feathers and they’re there for a reason. Underneath their outer feathers, chickens have a downy layer of soft feathers. When it’s cold, they fluff those feathers to trap warm air underneath and they’re able to stay cozy.
Really the biggest danger chickens have to worry about is their extremities. We’ll talk about combs and wattles later, but let’s address their exposed legs and feet. Chickens do have an adaptation called rete mirable or "wonderful net" that helps regulate the temperature in the legs and feet by exchanging hot blood from the heart with the veins carrying cold blood to the feet and legs. This keeps them pretty safe unless they are allowed prolonged exposure to extreme cold and wet conditions.
Protect Those Combs and WattlesWhile they may be pretty, the combs and wattles on roosters become a liability in winter. And many breeds, like leghorns, also have huge combs and wattles that are susceptible to frostbite. So I like to cover them with a layer of petroleum jelly for extra protection and I check often to reapply and look for signs of damage.
I also like to raise my waterers a bit during cold weather to help my roosters keep their wattles from dangling in their water. It’s unavoidable, but I try to minimize it because roosters can often suffer great damage as their wet wattles hang down and freeze.
Limit the Cold Air Entering the CoopI know lots of chicken owners that do exactly what I do; they open their big coop door during the day and let their chickens free range. But on cold days, this may not be a wise choice. So on those days, I open the small chicken door that leads to my run. The run has a big door where the chickens can exit to the wide outdoors and the keeps the main coop warmer.
Cover The RunWe have a brand new run this year with a proper roof. This will keep out snow this winter and allow my backyard chickens to have a place free of snow to roam. In years past when it didn't have a roof, I’ve put a tarp over the run and I’ve even used old political yard signs. Whatever it takes to make a dry enclosed area!
Keep Snow Off the LawnWhile a dry run is great, my backyard chickens are used to roaming. So, I give them wide patches of lawn that are free of snow. Here’s how I accomplish this task. I take anything I can find like an old baby pool and pieces of plywood and lay them down before the snow starts. Once it's done snowing and time for my chickens to go outside, I reach under the snow and lift up the boards. Voila! Fresh grass and a dry place to scratch!
Shovel Pathways in the YardIf the snow gets too deep, it can be impossible to lift all the boards and baby pools I’ve placed on the lawn. And that’s when I get out the shovel, for my chickens and for me. I try to make paths for me to move around easily and make paths to sheltered spots like our deck. That way my chickens don’t have to wander aimlessly. They can go to a safe spot that’s free of snow. I've found chickens are smart and they diligently follow those paths.
Boredom BustersIf your flock is voluntarily staying inside more during the inclement weather, it's easy to keep them occupied; an essential to preventing bad behavior.
The major chicken food companies all have their version of a flock block. It looks a little like a salt or mineral block you'd put out on the farm, only this block is stuffed with all kinds of goodies that chickens love. I buy a block at the feed store and put it
in the coop. To keep it clean and out of the bedding, I sit it on a big flower
pot saucer and then let the chickens peck away. They love it!
Give Them a Flock Block
Hang A CabbageI like to buy an extra cabbage or two at the grocery. I drill a hole through the center and then string it from the ceiling of my coop. The trick is to put the cabbage high, but not too high. The chickens love the fresh greens and spend tons of time hopping up and down to grab pieces of the cabbage. It's hilarious to watch and a great activity for the chickens.
Straw is a great insulator because it has hollow shafts
that trap warm air. Spreading a thick layer on the floor of the coop can do
wonders for keeping chickens warm. But why spread it yourself. Simply throw the
bale into the coop and break it up into large blocks around the coop. Your
chickens will do the spreading and have a ball doing it. Plus they may find
some leftover seeds as a bonus.
Spread The Straw
No matter what methods you choose, it's possible to let your chickens roam during the winter. They'll be happier for it and so will you.
Published in 2014