Going into the winter of our first year with the chickens, we were worried that they would freeze. Okay, my wife was, I figured they already had a down coat on, how cold could they get. Besides being on the "Recovering Species" list, Rhode Island Reds were bred in a cold northern climate. Our research pointed us to birds raised in the northern portion of the nation. The rational was that they are use to the climate and can withstand normal to hard
One of the most important keys to winter survival for the hen is housing. They need to be in a draft free house in order to maintain body heat. Of course the more birds you have the better able they all are to keep each other warm. But you can quickly reach a space issue which causes competition, which causes pecking.
The six we had that first winter would crowd very close in order to stay warm. We had what we refer to as the winter setup for the two moveable houses. There is a second floor to the house with the floor being a wire mesh. This allows air circulation and an easy way to clean the leavings from that top part. For colder days there is a tarp that is fit to cover the wire mesh. The tarp is then covered with pine shavings.
Every other day a little more shavings are put in. As the layers of pine shavings build the bottom starts to compost and provides a small amount of heat to the second floor of the pen. We keep a nose out because once you get a slight whiff of ammonia then their environment has become toxic. For the past three years we have been lucky on that account. Their egg production slows a little but it is more a lack of light then it is being too cold for them.
When it snows like it did this past week (we had close to twenty inches) we move into the second phase of the winter setup. This entails covering the bottom floor of the inside and the attached outside pen with pine shavings. We also cover the outside pen with a tarp to break the wind. These areas too will get the sniff test. One of the problems with confined housing is the build up of fecal matter and then the corresponding ammonia.
This type of environment promotes respiratory ailments and other problems that can be fixed with anti-biotic. In an organic setting, having to give a bird any drugs, hormones or synthetic substances takes it out of certified status. So we are very careful about smells and the amount of fecal matter in and around the house in general during the winter. They get fresh litter on the floors at least once a week or more if the house starts to smell anything other than fresh.
Another learning experience for us was the feel of the bottom of a hen’s foot. On a RIR it is a soft, smooth, leathery feel not a hard pad like a dog or cat would have. Because of this soft tissue they are susceptible to injury. If the bottom of the foot gets cut, for any reason, it will usually get infected because they frequently step in fecal matter If not caught in time this infection will eventually kill the bird and could possibly contaminate the rest of the flock.
Keeping an eye on the birds for any type of limp helps catch the problem early. If there is a limp (sometimes referred to as bumble-foot) take a look at the bottom of the foot. Make sure it is clean enough to inspect the skin. The bottom of the foot should be soft and pliable with no cuts, sores or abrasions. If you see an open wound you will need to clean and dress it. The bird should be confined to a hospital pen with fresh, clean pine shavings. Clean the foot and change the dressing every two days.
Frost bite is another problem a hen can face during colder months. I’ve read that bad frost bite is serious and needs a veterinarian to fix. A small amount is not fatal but if nothing is done to change the environment a hen can die from the exposure. The first part of a chicken to get frost bite is going to be their comb and waddle. Depending on the bird if the temperature is below freezing then you want to provide heat twenty-four hours a day. We use heat lamps and an electric outlet that senses temperature. If ambient temperature in the hen house drops below thirty-four degrees the light and water bucket warmer come on. When the inside temperature reaches forty-five degrees the electricity is turned off. This seems to keep them comfortable because they are starting to have a consistent lay rate.
We’ve had the biggest snow fall since getting chickens and this has proven to be quite overwhelming. We knew the storm was coming so we moved all the houses into covered spaces for protection but still be able to get the tractor in and be able to clear some ground for them. When we finally let them out, the first thing they started doing was pecking and eating snow. This is not good for them because like you or I, eating ice has a tendency to cool our body temperature. With a chicken it is a little more drastic but what can you do. I told them at least don’t eat the yellow, brown or greenish brown snow! They looked up for a second and went directly for the colored snow anyway, go figure.
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