As the forecast takes a bit of a turn a smart flock-keeper considers what can be done now for freezing temperatures that are sure to come next. Remember the cold? Let's start with easy tasks.
1. Don't panic
Colder temperatures don't mean your birds are uncomfortable. Don't go out and get an oil-filled radiator for your flock just yet. Chickens in colder climates need to put on a thicker down than those birds in areas that don't get as cold- and this is the number one reason against adding heat to your coop. If heat is added as soon as temperatures drop, the feather buildup won't be as significant as required, and your birds will be in trouble if your added heat ever fails. Additional heat is fine, but it should be used only when temperatures persist below freezing for some time.
To-Do: Tack up transparent 4-6mil plastic over your windows at night so the breezes aren't as bad, and open them back up in the daytime for fresh air.
2. Boost protein at molt
When your birds have started to look as though they've been hanging out in the car wash and your run looks like there was an army-sized pillow fight, it's molting season. The abundance of feather debris only tells part of the story- in truth, the birds are more than apparent! They will look lovely once their new duds grow in, but you'll want to provide a better fare for them while they put on their new feathers. Farmers' Helper UltraKibble is a high-protein supplement that can be added to your normal feed. UltraKibble also supplies added spices, probiotics, and micronutrients that appear helpful in odor-prevention.
To-Do: Add cooked meat scraps, canned tuna, mealworms and other high-protein faves to feed for boosting the protein intake. Quinoa, eggs, yogurt and fish are excellent treats.
3. Worm while eggs are scarce
During a molt, chickens conserve energy for creating new feathers. Eggs tend to be few and far-between. For this reason, many poultiers like to use this break as a worming interval, so that eggs needn't be tossed during the required withdrawal period. Worming during the fall molt also puts you in a proactive stance for annual parasite prevention. Be sure to follow the label carefully and only use approved products.
To-Do: Use appropriate wormer or feed whole, fresh pumpkin seeds for anti-parasitic treatment. Dust the birds and the coop with food-grade only Diatomaceous Earth to help keep external parasites down. Don't breath DE!
4. Deep clean the coop
When it's really, bitterly cold out, birds will congregate inside. The long nights are another reason many more hours are spent inside. Deep cleaning the coop prior to the long months ahead will put the birds in a better position for the cramped indoor time. Remember: if you can smell ammonia, your birds are already suffering from damage to their sensitive breathing apparatus, so never let the cleanings go too long. Likewise, if you can see evidence of parasites, they're much more infested than you know. Best to have a proactive approach.
- Remember to wear a mask whenever you clean your coop, to prevent gradual onset to allergens and dusts created by poultry. Nothing is worse than becoming allergic to your pets!
- Clean out all of the old bedding and vacuum the wood (some mites live in the wood during the day).
- Seal the roosts with mineral oil with a few drops of added cinnamon oil, tea tree oil or clove oil for an anti-mite treatment. Roosts should be a 2" x 4", wide side up, so the birds can put their bodies on their feet to keep them warm.
- Sprinkle a generous layer of diatomaceous earth on all surfaces before fresh bedding is put down. Some henthusiasts add Sevin dust to the diatomaceous earth to aid in parasite prevention.
Always be certain to have abundant ventilation in your coops, without allowing drafts. Ventilation is the thing that can make or break your chickens' health over the course of winter. Ventilation allows proper fresh air in and allows moisture out. Moisture is the cause of most frostbite in chickens, as condensation from their breath settles on combs and exposed areas. Vents should never be on facing walls at the same height from one another, as that can cause a draft. Likewise, vents should never be at the same height as the birds' roosts. Better to have cold exposure rather than moisture, every time.
To-Do: Make certain there is no airtight seal on the coop, and that sleeping areas all have adequate air-exchange without draftiness at the birds’ sleeping level.
6. Provide a snow-free run space
While birds have no problem playing in the snow, they really do enjoy being outside without having to be in it all of the time. Simply leaning a wide board against your coop or draping a tarp down from the side of the coop with tent stakes to give them a bit of covered space is a great gesture when it comes to outside frolicking. Six mil transparent plastic from the construction section of your home improvement or hardware store is great for creating a tunnel for scratching in the brown grass. Bonus effect: it heats up like a greenhouse during the day. A board lay down flat on the ground for a few days will allow a bit of green growth and even better, bugs! When pulled up, all of the birdies will come running.
When a big snow is coming, a tarp placed down flat can be dragged away (with the snow) for a clear area. This is heavy, but well worth it for the joy the chooks have playing on the ground. It's far easier to have a small area covered with poles and plastic, though.
To-Do: Provide a small area protected from snow with plastic or roofing.
This is just the short list of things to focus on for right now while enjoying the milder temperatures. As we near the real season shift we'll focus on more functional things like passive solar heaters for keeping the waterers thawed.