Backyard Flock: Part Two

chicken1BY Rob Zimmer

NOTE: This is part two of a series on keeping backyard chickens. Part one appeared in last month’s issue.

With winter fast approaching, there are several considerations to keep in mind when it comes to keeping your backyard flock safe, secure and warm during the cold months of the year.

Keeping your backyard chickens during winter is not much different than the rest of the year, though there are additional requirements and modifications that may be needed.

Keeping the birds safe from predators, warm, properly nourished and watered are the most important factors to consider.

It’s not difficult or challenging to keep a flock throughout the winter months as chickens are perfectly capable of fending for themselves during the cold season.

Water challenges
Water is probably the most important consideration when it comes to wintering your flock. Because of the low humidity, chickens need fresh water throughout the winter months.

Chickens will consume approximately 2 pounds of water, or about 1 quart, for every pound of feed. Keeping the water ice-free and available throughout the season may present a challenge, depending upon weather and other factors.

Water is especially important for egg production.

The University of Wisconsin Extension recommends several options for keeping fresh water available. Heated bases for chicken waterers are available, as are insulated watering containers that help to keep open water available for longer periods during extreme cold.

Heat lamps suspended over the watering station are also effective.

At the very least, provide your flock with fresh water at least twice daily.

Rubber pans, which are flexible for easy ice removal, are an option. Another technique flock owners use is to alternate watering stations, keeping one ice-free at all times.

High energy supplements
Providing proper food and care is important for the winter flock as much of the prey they seek out during the warm season is gone.

chicken2Many free roaming flocks feast upon slugs, insects, worms, grubs and other food sources during the warm season. In winter, it is important to provide proper food options for your birds.

There are many balanced commercial mixes and feeds available in a variety of blends.

To provide extra energy and warmth, it is important to provide some high oil grains such as corn and sunflower seeds. These should be treated only a supplement to a balanced feed, however, to keep the birds properly fed. Do not rely solely on grains.

Many flock owners also supplement with fresh plant material and kitchen scraps throughout the winter.

Unexpected treasure
Keeping the area clean and sanitary throughout winter is also important.

Kylea Dowland, Forest Junction, is heading into her first winter with her backyard flock.

As she discovered during her agriculture classes at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, keeping the chicken coop clean does not need to be a difficult or unpleasant chore.

“One of the coolest things with my flock is how I clean up after them. I use a deep-litter method in my coop,” Kylea said. “Every week I add some carbon materials like straw, grass clippings, leaves, sticks and wood chips. You could even use paper products or many of the same products you would add to your compost pile.”

Just like in home composting, carbon materials are added to the area when odors begin to present themselves.

“Basically, composting is actually what is going on inside the coop. The manure and carbon materials form a compost. The chickens will aerate the materials and mix it up,” Kylea said. “The best part? There is no odor when properly maintained. If it starts to smell, I just add more carbon materials.”

Daily or weekly cleanup is not even required with this form of coop maintenance.

“I only need to clean the coop once each year,”Kylea said “and I’ll do that in spring. It will likely be a foot deep with compost in some areas but it will be rich, organic matter for my garden at some point. Chicken manure is pretty potent. It needs to be fully composted first to prevent it from burning your plants, like any raw manure.”

Keeping predators out
“A big challenge for me was the predator problem,” Kylea said of her beginner experience keeping chickens at home. “A cat ate a few chicks, then an owl took some, a stray dog destroyed much of the flock and a hawk killed one right before my eyes. With each death, we have learned to do something different and fix the situation. We have added fencing to the ceiling of the coop in the barn, as well as added fencing to the doorway. We also secured the coop completely, and we will be adding more shrubs to the area to create more safe hiding spots. They have 4 large evergreen trees to rest under during the day.”

Providing safe and secure places for your chickens to seek shelter from predators and called will help to ensure a successful and healthy flock throughout the season.

One comment

  1. This is a great series! Excited to see more!

    We’ve been keeping chickens for a couple of years now, and I remember the first winter being the most stressful. Minnesota gets really cold and dry during the winter, so I remember being constantly worried. Thankfully, we got through it without problems. We’ve tried several methods of keeping water clean, thawed, and plentiful here. We keep not only chickens, but we also have ducks which are really hard on water during the winter if you let them be. We’ve found that a basic heated three gallon livestock bucket rinsed and refilled twice a day is sufficient for a small flock, even with ducks.

    One super, duper important thing for keeping chickens healthy though the winter is also making sure that your hens have access to an area to dust bathe in, or in the very least, be ready to have a medication like ivermectin on hand to treat your hens if (more like when) they get poultry mites and lice over the winter. A small kiddie pool filled with peat moss, sand, soil, sawdust, or a mix of all these things works really great. I also mix in a can of poultry dust and I check birds once a week for mites and lice. This is essential for those of us who become socked in with snow and cold.

    Also, not everyone recommends adding light to the coop, but I do. During the super short days of winter, adding light in the coop, maybe even on a timer, will boost morale. 8 hours a day is enough. If you want your birds to lay through the winter, you can leave lights on for 12-14 hours a day. We don’t push our hens here to lay in the winter, but many do without problems. Imagine being stuck in a dark shed all winter. No thanks!

    Keep your coop well ventilated, clean, and dry with drafts and snow out, and you won’t need a heat lamp. We never need one, and we get really cold here for weeks in Minnesota. A warm bowl of crock pot oatmeal and raisins each morning I think helps too. 😉

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