Cold weather can be a problem for our birds: we’ve had some very hard frosts over the past few weeks – it even snowed!
Its worth bearing in mind that if daytime temperatures stay below freezing then large combed birds or birds with large wattles can get a touch of frostbite and this is most uncomfortable. The most noticeable symptom of this is darkened /black areas on the comb or wattle. One of the preventative measures, other than keeping them inside (something that you may already be doing due to the Avian Influenza), is to apply a small amount of petroleum jelly to the comb or wattle. If temperatures are dropping below freezing overnight it is worth applying some just before they go to roost. I have found that they’re generally okay if they’re perching up off the floor of the house where it is likely to be warmer and if they roost close together to share body heat. It is quite amazing how warm they get when snuggled up, despite being well-insulated. If we do get snow on the ground, there is a real risk that your hens could, if outside, get frostbite in their toes and feet too.
The other issue that comes with very cold weather is that drinkers can freeze over. This is especially pertinent to those who may have flocks on allotments where people may just allow their hens to come out in the morning of their own volition or have automatic door openers so they don’t have to get to the site at the crack of dawn every day. The sensible thing to do is look ahead to the forecast and see whether or not temperatures are likely to drop below freezing and make sure you move your drinkers to a sheltered location or simply bring them inside so they don’t freeze. Simply emptying them doesn’t always work as the lugs can freeze and then you have to gently thaw these out with warm water. If you do decide to leave your drinkers outside during the freezing conditions, you may find it has frozen over. Usually, depending on how hard the frost is, it is only the water in the trough part of the drinker that has frozen. This can be remedied by pouring warm water into it and just allowing it to thaw gently. Using boiling water is not recommended for two reasons: firstly the extreme temperature differential will cause rapid expansion of both the ice and plastic causing it to shatter; secondly, if your birds are already out at the time of doing this and they come over and drink the water as you’re pouring boiling water onto the ice, they will most likely scald themselves and you may end up with a broken feeder.
Despite laying fewer eggs (or none at all in my case), the cooler months of the year your birds will actually consume around 1.5 times more food than during the summer months. It seems almost crazy that this would be the case, but it is quite logical: during the autumn when the shortening days trigger your hens to moult, they will most likely go off lay if they’re pure breeds or hybrids over a year old. Feathers are high in protein therefore they will take a natural break from egg production to give their bodies enough protein to grow new feathers. When they lose feathers they’re also not so well insulated and are, therefore, are more affected by the cold weather so will metabolise quite a bit of their food intake for body warmth.
Something which is nice to do for your birds is to supplement their laying feed with kibbled maze, corn or super corn around half an hour before you birds go to roost. It’s a lovely treat for them and it also provides the necessary carbohydrates they require to keep warm overnight during cold weather. It is important to mention that corn or kibbled maze should NOT replace their laying feed as they still require the vitamins and nutrients this provides.
Observing your flock:
Not only is it lovely to see your hens all tuck into their corn, but offering additional treats provides an opportune moment to watch flock behaviour to gauge whether any of your birds are looking poorly or are being bullied. It may seem crazy, but I would always recommend spending 10 minutes each day or two to just observe how your hens interact. Listen out for any coughs or sneezes. Pick one or two up and check to see whether their toes aren’t too long and that they haven’t got scaly leg. Look between their feathers to see whether there are any lice or mites scurrying away. I also feel the weight of my birds to make sure that they’re not malnourished. The colour of their comb is always a good indication of general health as a red comb means good circulation and a normal amount of haemoglobin and oxygenated blood cells.
During cold weather, one of the supplements that I give my flock that I believe to offer a number of benefits is Poultry Spice. This powder is quite good value for money as a little goes a long way. I simply dust my layers pellets in a bucket or large jug before pouring the ration into their feeder. If you find that most of the powder falls to the bottom of your feeder creating a large amount of white dust, then I suggest adding a small amount of olive oil, sun flower oil or, better still, cod liver oil. Cod liver oil contains both soluble vitamin A and vitamin D. These two constituents are healthful for chickens during the winter months.