Norton Creek Poultry and Chicken Lore
Books from Robert Plamondon's Publishing Company, Norton Creek Press.

Success With
Baby Chicks

Robert Plamondon
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Gardening Without Work
Ruth Stout
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Poultry Production
Leslie E. Card
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Genetics of the Fowl
F. B. Hutt
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Feeding Poultry
G.F. Heuser
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Winter Care

1. It's getting cold. What should I do about my hens?

Chicken picture, hens in snow

As far as the hens are concerned, it's not cold until it's below freezing. When the hens are exposed to daytime highs below freezing, egg production usually plummets. However, it has to get a lot colder than that before the hens' health begins to suffer.

During freezing weather, egg production and hen comfort will be increased if they have plenty of (non-frozen) water to drink. If you don't have piped water to the henhouse, I recommend using 10 qt. galvanized buckets as waterers. Fill them with warm water and take them out to the hens. Take the frozen buckets from last time back indoors with you. Galvanized buckets are good because plastic buckets split when they freeze and poultry founts are hard to open when they're partly frozen. Rubber buckets and pans are also good.

The hens will be warmer during the day if they exercise. They'll be warmer at night if they go to bed with a crop full of grain. The two can be combined by putting a thick layer of loose hay or straw in their pen and scattering a light feeding of grain in the morning and a heavy feeding of grain in the afternoon. Around the turn of the century it was common to have a "scratching shed" attached to the henhouse, which was a substitute for range during the winter. The scratching shed was usually open-fronted (that is, walled on three sides only, with chicken wire on the fourth side), with a thick layer of loose straw on the floor. Grain is fed in the scratching shed, which is where the birds get their fresh air, exercise, and sunshine.

More winter care tips:

Don't try to keep the house warm

In particular, don't restrict ventilation in an attempt to conserve warmth. Attempts to warm henhouses with the hens' body heat usually fail. The hens produce so much moisture in their breath and droppings that restricted ventilation is at least as likely to lead to condensation and frostbite as warmth and comfort. Restricted ventilation also causes ammonia build-up in the air, which is very bad for chickens, which have weak lungs. Not to mention that shut-up houses are darker than they should be. Open-front houses work better.

I live in a very mild climate where it's very rare for daytime highs to be below freezing for more than a few days running. My housing is very open and is highly ventilated. Cold snaps as low as 10F-20F reduce egg production but the birds remain healthy and active. My reading indiates that open-front housing is suitable for winter quarters even in New England.

In "Poultry Breeding and Management," Professor Dryden gives these rules of thumb (page 178):

The wide-open front is impracticable in sections where the temperature gets much below zero... In a section where the minimum temperature is zero, one side of the house may be practically all open. In such a climate sufficient ventilation for fifty fowls will be obtained by an opening 3x8 feet or 24 square feet of opening, equal to about one-half square foot per fowl. In colder climates, with a temperature of 20 below zero, the opening may be decreased to a fourth or a fifth the size. A small opening in a cold climate will give better ventilation than a larger opening in a warm climate. In summer the opening should be larger than in the winter.

These recommendations result in vastly more ventilation than people usually give their chickens, but give better results.

2. Do you have other winter chicken-care tips?

Why, yes, I do.

  • Higher egg production can be obtained with heated quarters, but it rarely pays. Don't bother.
  • Egg production can be maintained if the hens can be convinced to eat enough to cover both their need for warmth and egg production. Feeding wet mash (pouring warm water over the feed trough at the rate of about 1 quart per 100 birds) will increase feed consumption for 1-2 weeks before the birds get jaded. If you normally feed mash, a light feeding of pellets on top of the mash once a day tends to increase the birds' interest in feed.
  • Never let the hens run out of feed in cold weather.
  • Use of lights to extend the day helps the hens to eat more feed in cold weather, since they rarely leave the roosts to eat in the dark. (See also my writeup on lights in an issue of my newsletter.)
  • The use of lots of glass in a henhouse causes the temperature to go through enormous swings in the course of the day, and is probably a bad idea.
  • If you let your chickens out during the rest of the year, let them out in the winter, too.
  • Chickens will learn to eat snow, but I think liquid water works better.
  • Feeding them grain in the afternoon lets them go to roost with a full crop, and they can digest during the long winter night, preventing them from running short on calories. I don't know if any research has been done on this, but it's plausible.
  • Scattering scratch grain in the litter keeps the chickens busy and helps prevent them from pecking at each other out of boredom.
  • I've reprinted Prince T. Woods' excellent book, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, which covers winter housing and winter care in great detail. Follow the link and read the sample chapter. It will help. Buy the book if you want to learn more.

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