Keeping Poultry Warm during Colder Months

Friday, December 6, 2013

After months of silence I was awakened this morning by the sound of water dripping off the eves. Not just water, but – RAIN!!!

Finally, our long dry spell is broken. I stayed in bed longer than usual, nestled under layers of quilts and down comforters just listening to the soft – Ping…Ping…Plop…Kerplunk – of a steady rain as it hit whatever was below. It was a joyous sound. I laid there thinking about crockpots simmering hot with pot roasts or stews, the smell of home baked bread fresh from the oven, crackling fires casting a warm glow over our little farmhouse and days filled with much needed indoor chores.

As the sun rose, beaming just over the horizon through gray clouds, Blue (our Cochin rooster) began to sound off the coming dawn. I could hear him as he strutted around the coop. Soon the other boys chimed in and eventually the hens began cackling to be let out in the barn now devoid of lambs. (Did I mention the lambs went to the processor on Monday? No matter, we’ll have them back by weeks end nicely wrapped in freezer paper ready for whatever recipe strikes my fancy.) The farm is awake.

I’m up now, enjoying a steaming hot pot of tea and a piece of warm pumpkin bread smothered in butter. Yummy! It’s still raining – slow and steady – the kind that soaks in rather than runs off. It’s cold outside. The beginning of a cooler fall – I hope. But, the cold sends a message. It’s time to recheck the bedding in our nesting boxes and the level of litter on the coop floor. It’s time to make sure the coop is ready for what is predicted to be a colder than normal winter.

Chickens can handle remarkably cold temperatures. Some say the temperature doesn’t bother them until it gets down to -20 degrees, while others say as long as the coop is not damp or drafty they can handle even lower temps. But, I figure if I’m warm and snug why not them. So, we’ve cleaned out the nesting boxes and refilled them with a thick layer of shavings, then topped  it with a layer of fresh straw. It’s really not necessary to have both kinds of bedding; we use the leftover shavings from the trailer so the hens can scratch in it all winter before it’s used for mulch or compost in the spring. The coop floor will get a nice thick layer of straw after any low spots have been filled in.

Damp or wet conditions in the coop can bring on illness. We’ll check the coop for drafty areas and shore them up; and we’ll minimize the ventilation to 1) lessen the amount of cold air entering the coop, and 2) reduce the openings that might appeal to predators fixed on an easy winter meal. Fox, weasel, raccoon and rodents can be surprisingly cunning if a free meal is to be had. A warming mat is set under the water trough so it won’t freeze over should the temps drop that low. And a few heat lamps will be hung just in case.

I rarely have to be concerned with frostbite, but many who live in really cold areas will. Combs, wattles and feet are susceptible to frostbite in extreme weather. A rooster whose comb freezes is not only in a lot of pain but may also be less fertile. An old-timers trick is to put petroleum jelly or Vaseline on the comb and waddles for protection. And, keeping outside poultry areas free from snow will also help. But, the number one way to keep a coop warm enough to weather most winters is a thick layer of straw because it helps hold the heat in.

On Saturday I’ll swing by the feed store and pick up a bag of corn based scratch. It won’t replace our regular chicken feed; it’s a treat the girls love, plus the added energy used to digest the corn helps keep them warm.

The seasons are a changing, folks! Fall is here. And, there’ll be pot roast and warm homemade bread for dinner tonight, a crackling fire in the fireplace and pumpkin spice candles flickering from every corner. I am one contented farmgirl.

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