In addition to our usual flock of laying hens, which is doing very well this winter, we have a small flock of ducks and even some turkeys.
Here in Western Oregon, where it rains like crazy and often freezes at night, but the daytime highs are almost always above freezing, poultry don’t much care about winter weather. Getting clean eggs in spite of the additional mud is more burdensome than the cold.
In snowier climes, it’s a little different. Free-range poultrykeeping is a challenge when snow lingers for long periods on the ground, while my birds can just tough out the few days per year with snow. And watering systems that freeze and stay frozen are not useful!
But in the more mild climates, the biggest challenge is in the mind of the poultrykeeper! Why would that be?
Do you remember the first time you raised baby chicks? And your determination to keep the adorable, helpless chicks safe and warm and away from chilling drafts? It’s a vivid experience, and as the chicks turn into chickens, we still remember, and tend to apply the same kind of nurturing even after it’s appropriate.
But the fact is that adult chickens are surprisingly hardy in cold and wet weather, and suffer more from attempts to keep them snug than they do from the winter itself. In Fresh-Air Poultry Houses Dr. Woods talks about a flock of his that insisted on spending a New England winter in a grove of pine trees instead of their nice, snug henhouse, and was far healthier than his enclosed flocks. This is a common experience, and the book (which I have reprinted), tells you how to get the same benefits for your own flock.
To give just a few quick pointers:
- Keeping the flock dry is more important than keeping them warm. A house that has condensation dripping from the ceiling or walls, has wet litter, or has an ammonia smell needs more ventilation, no matter how cold it is outside.
- Frostbite on combs and wattles is caused more by dampness than cold. (Get rid of bucket or pan waterers that let a chicken get its whole head wet when drinking!)
- The rule of thumb is that hens don’t lay well when daytime highs are below freezing, but don’t suffer from cold above -20 F if they’re dry and out of the wind, and have plenty to eat (they need to burn more calories in cold weather).