We recently had a record-setting series of cold days settle upon us. The previous four winters had been mild and we were lulled into complacency about winter preparations for our flock of outdoor chickens. But when this recent cold snap hit, we were not completely prepared for it and had to scramble to make our chickens more comfortable. What follows is a list of some of the lessons we learned and what preparations to make for next year so our flock will fair better when the cold weathers wallops us again.
First, let me set the scene: during the winter our chickens live in a stationary coop with a small door that gives them access to a sheltered run. The outdoor run is framed with 2 by 4 walls and is wrapped in hardware cloth. It is also has a roof framed with 2 by 6 boards and is covered with plywood and asphalt shingles. Now, to make that a comfortable place for the chickens on frigid day:
As in other years, we had cut and hung a section of plastic tarp to block the prevailing winds from the west and north that blew through the run. But when the cold snap hit, this proved to be insufficient wind protection and, in addition to blocking only some of the wind, was also blocking sunlight - not something you want to do if you wish to encourage your hens to continue laying through the winter. We knew our setup needed improving when our birds started to show signs of frostbite on their combs.
Fortunately, we had some old greenhouse poly stored away that we rummaged up. We took down the tarp and wrapped the walls of the entire run with poly, effectively making it a greenhouse-like chicken run with minimal drafts and lots of natural light. When entering the run afterwards, it was noticeably warmer than the air temperature outside. The chickens seemed to like this set-up better too, as the snow no longer drifted into the run and reduced the space the chickens felt comfortable using.
Keeping warm requires extra calories, and if the calories come from quality sources, all the better for the chickens. On especially cold days we treated our birds to a porridge made from their feed with a handful of sunflower seeds stirred in. They were also given mealworms or cans of wet cat food, which we mixed into their regular bowl of kitchen scraps, and emptied into feed bowls in the run. When we had enough spare eggs, we even prepared some scrambled eggs with parsley, thyme and oregano. They also enjoyed some homemade suet comprised of bacon fat, flax seeds, millet, and sunflower seeds. We also purchased a suet block and placed that in the run, too.
We had an outbreak of ringworms during the cold snap. With all the chickens being confined to the run, we had the ideal conditions for ringworm to spread. We quickly realized that we needed to employ a deep bedding approach in the outdoor run to bury the droppings and make the worms’ eggs less accessible to the chickens as they scratched and pecked about. To combat the worms already within the chickens, we added diatomaceous earth to their feed, gave them freeze-dried and fresh chopped garlic, and periodically tossed them pumpkin seeds. All of these offerings were meant to make the chickens’ digestive tracts uninhabitable for the ringworms.
Our chickens were used to being outside free-ranging and no doubt felt a little bit of cabin fever when the deep snow and blistering wind chills prevented them from getting out on their own. Confined to the coop and run, they needed some extra activities and stimulation. Typically, that excitement came in the form of new straw, which the chickens quickly got busy at scratching through and spreading throughout the run. We also threw scratch onto the straw to encourage even more scratching. When we had a half head of cabbage leftover, we punched a hole through it and strung it from the rafters.
When the weather warmed up enough to melt the snow, we opened the door to the run and let the chickens out once more. I think they were just about as happy as chickens can be with all the space to roam about in and fresh ground for scratching.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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