Poultry Care, Getting Hens Through Winter – Jason’s Seventh Chicken Health Article In Home Farmer Magazine

It was early one very cold January morning, many years ago when I learned something about keeping poultry that I have passed on (not so much as advice, but) as a warning to many other keepers.

Frozen drinker - no drink here!
Frozen drinker – no drink here!

We woke up to a thick layer of snow that morning, and as ever when it comes, what a sight to wake up to, I always want to rush out with my camera, there are always so many great ‘snowy’ shots to take around the farm, though to be honest, I probably took them last time we had snow! A little slower than normal I made my way down to do what we refer to here as the morning ‘open up’, referring to all the animals (we don’t just do chickens!) as ‘everyone’, the open up is the regular morning routine of making sure everyone is let out of their overnight enclosures, fed, watered, a visual health check and a brief chat with some of our old favourites! Most importantly making sure everyone is ‘still with us’!, always hoping not to find that there has been any sort of overnight disaster, this can take many forms, and over the years I’ve definitely had a few of them!

'White-out' on the farm
‘White-out’ on the farm

This particular January morning, although probably no different to any other snowy start, I noticed something that hadn’t come to my attention before, probably because for once I wasn’t rushing around with a hundred or more things on my mind needing doing, definitely not a normal morning! So, this thing that I noticed, has ‘kept me on my toes’ ever since……I noticed that there were fox footprints – tracks, around all the (potential prey) pens, bantams, chickens, ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs etc, and I really do mean ALL the pens! As I walked around from pen to pen I literally couldn’t believe my eyes, absolutely all those relevant pens had been inspected over night by Mr Fox – just in case! Though, quite amusingly you could see where he had ‘side stepped’ the pigs and goats, and although there were some tracks venturing over towards the goose house, he hadn’t passed around it, no doubt our gaggle had told him a thing or two with rather a lot of intimidating hissing!

Don't let your birds become just footprints in the snow!
Don’t let your birds become just footprints in the snow!

Every snowy start since has brought us the same view here, in fact, fairly safe to say, here and every other keepers property. The conclusion swiftly drawn here is that those tracks in the snow are in fact present 365 days of the year, ‘snow not required!’ Our foe Mr Fox continually visits – just in case! This is the message that I have passed on to as many as I’ve thought to tell!

A very common sad story I here time and time again is; “I just can’t believe it, the first time I’ve ever forgot to shut up the chickens and it’s the same night a fox comes to visit, and he took the lot!” – No coincidence I’m afraid, he’s constantly checking – just in case!

In the last issue I gave some advice on improving your poultry (and other animal) set ups to make them more fox safe, again, I cannot stress how important these measures are!

In the poultry keepers year all weather conditions bring ‘pro’s & cons’. These episodes of snow and ice do give us a brief respite from the often miserable autumn to winter mud – froze solid and possibly covered with snow. A good blast of icy weather will go a long way in reducing numbers of the various forms of mites – particularly the dreaded red spider mite – any help there is always appreciated!

On the down side, general pen maintenance, even feeding and drinking can become a lot harder – and I don’t just mean because that fireside armchair and hot drink has a strange kind of magnetism! Drinkers in particular are a major problem if not managed properly. I would always recommend bringing in the drinker overnight in winter, even more so when sub-zero temperatures are likely. It saves a lot of time in the morning, as opposed to finding a drinker frozen solid! The only safe way to thaw it out being in a bowl of warm water, pouring hot / boiling water over a frozen plastic drinker, won’t do it any good at all, this can crack it, and will certainly aid in the breakdown of the plastic over time. This also applies to the glass top bowl type drinkers, although not such a problem with the all galvanised steel drinkers. Whatever type of drinker you have, another idea is to purchase a second ‘spare’ drinker, then its ‘one in and one out’ during freezing weather. This works well on the extremely cold days, as a fresh drinker put out first thing in the morning can be frozen solid in just a few hours – or less! I often put the drinkers out with warm (not hot) water in just to slow down this process a bit. I have mentioned in a previous article about the advantages of hanging feeders and drinkers. An additional advantage comes to mind here as a past memory (before I was hanging them), which is the first time I tried to move a plastic drinker that was frozen to the ground, which started with a bit of cursing, and ended with me narrowly avoiding a flying back flip as the top broke off in my hand, the bottom still welded to the ground – end of drinker! During the worst of the weather it can also be a good idea to bring in the feeder at night, not just because of the increased interest from rats as they struggle to find food in the frozen conditions, but also because the feed can freeze. The feed, although generally thought of as dried food, does have a moisture content, and can end up as a solid lump in extreme cold weather.

Running warm water over frozen drinker
Running warm water over frozen drinker

When the thaw does come, everything turns to mush, particularly the pen floor, what was just muddy, is now mud soup! The snow and ice having broken down and altered the composition of the soil causing it to slurrify! (That’s a made up word, but you get the picture!). Provided it’s not too deep (if it is you’ll need to shovel some out – or maybe pump it!), you can then tip in some wood chippings, this is great for soaking up the mud and restabilising the ground. The first layer to go in is often sacrificial, the mud soaker, then the following layer(s) will provide a great substrate and new poultry run floor. Woodchip can be raked and forked over as necessary to prevent clogging, it forms a free draining layer and is a long lasting, natural floor (chickens ancestors and current wild counterparts were and are woodland birds). Woodchip attracts many bugs and crawlies providing interest and instinctive forage for our birds. Woodchip often proves harder to purchase than bark chip or mulch which is readily available from most DIY’s and garden centres. Some bark is ok, though will always rot down faster than wood chip. If you go for the bark, please make sure you check the source / content, as much has origins from foreign places and may contain bark from trees that once the rotting process begins may cause harm to our birds. Remember, it is mostly sold for mulching weeds and pathways, not animal flooring. I would always recommend pure (native) hardwood chips (no mixed in greenery – this causes the chip to rot faster – the compost effect), we have used this very successfully for years, and sell the same from our shop, our customers swear by it – no more mud! By the way, once again, ‘snow not required’, woodchip works all year!


So what about protecting our birds from the cold? We rush for the heating controls as soon as the temperatures hit the mid to low teens, grabbing extra blankets and duvets when they drop to single figures, and slow to a crawl in the minuses! With most poultry, it’s only the minuses, and even then only when those temperatures persist for a week or more, do they start to feel the effect, they are quite hardy. It always seems a nice idea to provide some sort of heat during the toughest times, and even to insulate their house, sadly any of these measures can promote winter breeding of mites. I’m not saying this is a definitely not, but if employed must be managed properly (removed a soon as the weather improves), paying particular attention to red mite prevention and eradication (ref: HF article Sept17). Cold winds and sometimes snow blowing through vents in their house can definitely be a problem, though it’s not a good idea to completely block them up. Good ventilation is essential to prevent ammonia build up from the droppings / possible respiratory problems. During these times it is better to shield these vents from the outside to stop direct blow, whilst maintaining ventilation. The birds will always huddle up on the perches at night to keep warm, it is always good advice not to have any sort of draught blowing on the birds at perch height, vents should be above, or above and below even better (particularly in warmer times).

Wood chip flooring with greens in 'tidy' tray
Wood chip flooring with greens in ‘tidy’ tray

Just a quick note to quail keepers (particularly first timers), quail are regarded generally as not being ‘frost hardy’. I would recommend bringing them into a shed or garage for the winter. Ensure there is enough light and ventilation. To attempt to maintain egg production around 14 hours light would be necessary, this can be achieved with timers, though avoid plunging them into darkness at the end of each day, use dimmers to mimic dusk.

Side vent - max ventilation
Side vent – max ventilation

There’s always plenty more to tell, but space is running out again! To finish, spare a thought for birds seeing snow for the first time – to wake up one morning, to look out and the ground has gone!, it’s now some sort of weird stuff, not grass, mud or woodchip, but a strange cold stuff that your thin little legs disappear into! Some will just refuse to walk on it, in fact for some it can cause quite a panic, leading to stress. You can help by at least clearing the way to the feeder and drinker, if not clearing part or all of the run for them. Feed a little extra mixed corn, split, kibbled or cut maize around mid to later afternoon to provide them with more energy to keep them warm at night.

Lastly remember, don’t panic – the birds are tougher than you might think, they are kept successfully in many of the worlds’ cold places!

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