This is part two of a two-part in-depth series on raising chickens written by Bill S in upstate NY. The first article can be found here: How to Start Raising your own Chickens
An Intro into Raising Chickens in Winter
In the last article I was privileged to write for TI, I discussed the very basics of raising a small flock of chickens. Now that winter is fast approaching, we need to look at what needs to be done to keep the flock healthy when the temperatures drop. But, first let’s make the assumption that you live in an area that has 4 seasons, and it will get below 32 degrees F at least some of the time.
To start with, you will need to choose the right breed of chicken to suit your life style, needs and climate. While most breeds would probably survive winter with minimal preparations on your part, not all would. Some chickens are much better suited to hot climates. The goal here, though is not just to have them survive winter, but to actually thrive.
By thriving, they will be able to provide you with an almost self-sustaining source of high quality meat and eggs. Regardless of what is happening around you, storms, riots, acts of terrorism, or disease, by having your own private source of high quality food, you will have a much better chance of surviving than many others. But, just having the chickens running around your property is not enough to feed your family. You need to learn some basic skills to maintain them before they will provide you with an ongoing food supply.
The Importance of Free Range
When your chickens are truly “free range”, and they eat bugs, seeds and vegetation, as they were meant to do, the nutritional value of their eggs are dramatically improved when compared to commercial eggs.
The image, below, although of a U.K. operation, is similar to some commercial poultry operations here in the U.S., as well. They are packed several birds to a cage and that is where they live 24/7 for their whole (but thankfully, brief) lives.
This is why they are dosed with antibiotics. Injury and wounds from pecking causes infection to run rampant. All those drugs are passed directly to the consumers and will contaminate local streams and ground water near the operation with all the manure and antibiotics used.
The use of antibiotics in commercial operations is directly responsible for the new drug resistant “super-bugs” like MRSA and other staff infections that are so common in most hospitals. The commercial farms are certainly not the only cause, but one of several major contributors.
Raising your own flock will help keep your family healthier
Here are links to a 3-part article on how to start changing local laws to allow backyard flocks.
You need to find the right breed for your location and your needs. If the ultimate safety and security of your family’s food supply depends, at least in part, on how much fresh, high quality protein you can provide for them, year round, then you need to get this right.
Luckily, it’s not that hard and can be an educational experience for everyone.
Every family or group member needs to learn how to start and maintain a flock of chickens should be a high priority. It could prove vital someday soon, that another family member knows how to raise the flock. What if you were stuck out of town when a disaster struck? Or you were incapacitated in some way, or even killed. The survival of your family may be at risk if you were the only person who knew how to raise and butcher the chickens.
Maybe that sounds a bit extreme, but not planning for it now, I think, would be a grave mistake. The chances of your family or group thriving in an adverse situation, is much higher, if all the members learn the skills they need to survive.
This applies to anything, really. Fire making, shelter building, water purification and the few hundred other skills that prepared people should be striving to learn. The more family members who have learned and practiced these skills the better the group will fare in hard times.
Having a healthy and productive flock of chickens and learning the skills needed to care for them year round, will provide you and your family with a level of security many others will not have. The flock will be an almost self-sustaining source of high quality meat and eggs for your family when times are uncertain at best and possibly even hostile.
There are, obviously, many ways and methods to raise your chickens throughout the winter. I’m going to discuss what I have experience in and give you links to learn much more.
Raising Chickens in Winter – A Micro-Course
To begin with, some people like to butcher the whole flock in the late fall and have a freezer full of meat to start the winter off. In doing this, they eliminate the need for insulating the coop, hauling feed and fresh water through the snow, and even shoveling a path to and around the coop. Then in the spring, buy chicks either from a local farm or a mail order hatchery, and start all over.
It is certainly a viable option. Some hatcheries will ship you a box full of day old chicks of your choice, overnight. (links to hatcheries below)
Not the best option, in my opinion, but many people do it. You can pick between many breeds and even choose to have only pullets (young females) or add a cockerel (young male) to the order, if you wish.
Telling the sex of a chick can be difficult, even for the hatcheries, and sometimes you will accidentally end up with a chick or two of a gender you didn’t want. The hatcheries only ship during warm months and almost always have a minimum number of chicks per order. This minimum order, usually around 25, is to ensure they are warm enough in transit.
I would rather visit a local farm and see the birds in person and the conditions they live in and look for signs of disease and at the overall health of the birds before I commit to buy. I can also ask the farmer about what, if any inoculations they may have had, and why.
I am all in favor of raising chickens organically and with little, if any medicines, but sometimes they might need to be medicated for one of several reasons. Keep in mind, though, what goes into your chickens, either through food or medicine, goes into you. If you spray herbicides and pesticides on your property, and the birds eat the vegetation you sprayed, it is little different than you eating the chemicals, too. (There are organic versions of pesticides and herbicides that are much safer, if you need to use these things.)
This holds true for neighboring properties if the chickens wander there. You need to be sure they are only eating and drinking fresh, clean and safe things, since what they consume will directly impact the health of you and your family.
For most people, butchering chickens actually ends up costing a little more per pound of meat than store bought, if you take into account time and equipment, but it is much healthier meat, provided you raise the birds properly. There are several pieces of equipment you will need for efficient butchering. It doesn’t need to be very expensive, but to do the job well, and do it humanely, takes some instruction and practice. I will leave that for a future article, though.
Most people, though, prefer to keep the chickens all year round and only butcher when necessary. It is more effort, but for people who like to prepare for emergencies, it’s a smarter option, too.
A live chicken will keep producing eggs, which are, ounce for ounce, one of the highest quality protein sources you will find anywhere. Once you butcher the bird, obviously, you will eat the meat and that’s it. Its usefulness as an ongoing food source just died with the bird. Also, if disaster strikes, and all your birds are butchered and in the freezer, you will have a real problem when the power goes out and they thaw.
A live chicken can also be very good in bartering. Either the whole bird (live or processed and frozen) or just the eggs. When the chicken is alive, you have more options open to you. You can always butcher them one at a time as you need to. When you do butcher a chicken, you can skin it rather than pluck it (with the feathers still attached to the skin) and use, sell or barter this for use in tying flies for fly fishermen. The cape is the area behind the neck and shoulders, and is especially good for fly tying.
With that in mind, the rest of this article will assume you will keep the flock alive all winter long.
Here are the main considerations; keeping water from freezing, ensure good coop ventilation without drafts. providing adequate and appropriate food and shelter for the climate, keeping rodents and other predators away and giving the flock ample room both in the coop and out, so they stay relatively stress free and productive.
The most any hen can produce is one egg per day. That’s it. Usually they will lay 5 or 6 a week, sometimes 7. It depends on the breed. Luckily, most of the winter hearty breeds are also some of the best layers. Barred Rocks, New Hampshire and Rhode Island Reds, Orpintons and Austalorps are dual purpose chickens, winter hearty and excellent layers of large eggs. There are other breeds as well, in this category.
When days grow shorter, hens will lay fewer eggs, and they will begin to molt (lose and regrow feathers) By adding a light in the coop and artificially extending their days to approximate summer hours, they can be made to lay more eggs, (about 16 hours of light is needed for them to lay their maximum amount of eggs) when nature tells them to slow down, but I feel it’s better to allow them their natural rhythms and cycles. They will be happier and healthier for it.
Molting requires lots of energy and nutrition, so if you make them lay more eggs at the same time you will really stress them. This is just my opinion. If you do choose to provide the extra light using a bulb, keep the wattage low. 60 watts or less is good. A timer can be used to switch the light on and off so you don’t have to get up at 2 am to do this.
I have been told by people who have really studied this topic, that the light should be turned on early in the A.M. and left on until it is light out, rather than turned on in the evening and left on all night.
A great local resource for chicken questions (and gardening questions) is your local county extension office. In New York state, Cornell University has hot lines for just such questions and they are always glad to help.
On average, hens will lay at their best until 2 or 2 ½ years old, after that production will slow. They may live for quite a few years yet, but egg production slows with each passing year and will eventually stop altogether.
If you know you require a certain quantity of eggs per day, let’s say 6 a day, then getting only 6 chickens will not be enough most of the time. They will have a day here and there when they won’t lay an egg. So, plan on having a few extra chickens to make up the difference.
Also, as chickens age, they lay fewer and fewer eggs. Usually after 4 years or so, they have about had enough. Sometimes they will still give you one, once in a while, but don’t count on it. You can butcher it or just let it live out its life with the flock.
Keep in mind, the more chickens you have in a coop in the winter, the warmer they will be, just provide enough space for them. Here is a link to a great site, “My Pet Chicken”, they have loads of good info and sell chicks and supplies, as well.
Winter Breed Choices
This link takes you to their “especially cold hearty” breed page.
This link is to their “best layers” page http://www.mypetchicken.com/catalog/Our-Best-Layers-c67.aspx
This last link is for something unique, a “Breed Selector Tool”, enter the parameters and it tells you what breeds fit your needs. This is very good!
As I said earlier, start with a breed of chicken that will tolerate your winter climate. This usually means larger, dual purpose breeds. A dual purpose breed is simply a breed of bird that will provide a steady supply of eggs year round and, if necessary, be a good source of meat as well.
Birds bred in Northern climates that do well in the deeps of winter, may not do so well when the summer temps climb into the 90’s, though. You will need to provide shade and plenty of fresh water for those breeds during the summer or they will suffer and not produce many eggs.
Some of the breeds that fall into this category are, in no particular order; Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, Barred Rocks, Australorps (mix of Australian and European breeds) Orpingtons, Dominique’s, Speckled Sussex and Wyandotte’s.
There are many others, but these are popular and easy to find. Pay attention to the colors of the adult birds if you plan on having your flock be unobtrusive and even un-noticed. The colors of the chicks are not always going to be exactly what the adult birds look like.
To be as discreet as possible, look for subdued earth tone colors and a temperament that is calm and docile and not prone to running around flapping its wings and making a racket. The sites and catalogs below will give you enough information to let you choose wisely.
This is a good article on chicken breeds from Mother Earth News. There is also a short list of mail order hatcheries there, too. http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/best-breed-of-egg-laying-chickens-zmaz03fmzgoe.aspx
All of the breeds I listed above, plus many others, will be cold hearty and lay a good amount of eggs through most of the winter, as well as be able to supply enough meat for a meal.
Here is a link to one of the most popular hatcheries in the U.S. https://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com
Their web site and catalog will give you a good place to start to look over several breeds and see what qualities each have. If you give them a call, they will gladly let you pick their collective brains on any poultry subject.
Look for a breed with a small “comb”. Which is the fleshy, red protuberance on top of the heads of most chickens. If the comb is large and sticks up like a red glove, then it stands a chance of getting frost bite in the winter. Some people rub some Vaseline onto the comb to help prevent freezing.
Rather than try to get a chicken to cooperate for this, I find it easier to get a breed with a small “pea” comb. Look through the photos of the various breeds offered in the hatchery catalogs for a bird with a small comb.
Here is a link to Mother Earth News. They have an interactive map showing registered breeders and hatcheries, across the U.S., plus a listing of them. http://www.motherearthnews.com/directories/hatchery-directory.aspx
Mother Earth News and its sister publication, Grit magazine http://www.grit.com/ are great sources for a wealth of information on many, many topics and contains ads for dozens of poultry related products.
Here is an article from Mother Earth News on raising a backyard flock ; http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/raising-chickens/raising-backyard-chickens.aspx
Okay, you have a breed chosen that will work for your climate. Now look for a coop design that will allow your birds between 2 ½ to 4 square feet of room per bird. Chickens are well insulated and many will do well in the cold. But, they need some type of shelter to protect them from wind, rain, snow, ice and summer sun. Here is a link to a lot of free chicken coop designs and plans. http://www.todaysplans.com/free-outbuilding-plans.html#ChickenCoops
Most people don’t want to spend a lot of money on a chicken coop, so scrounge around for materials.
I like to find building sites and ask permission to haul away scrap Tyvek plastic house wrap, lumber and other things. If they plan to take it to the dump, they will pay a hefty price to throw away scrap materials. Most sites would be thrilled to give you some un-needed supplies, if you ask.
In my last article I mentioned coop designs in more detail, so I won’t re hash it all here, but put some thought into the type of coop you may need, like portable chicken tractors on wheels, which you can move from spot to spot on your property, or a full-fledged hen house and complete enclosure for the ultimate in security for the flock.
I built my most recent coop attached right to my back porch. I extended the roof about 3 feet further than the porch and built a narrow coop whose floor is level with the porch floor, about 3 feet off the ground. I used plywood and T-111 siding and it is almost unnoticeable.
The birds can stay sheltered under the porch or go into the fenced yard to forage, as they see fit. I used two old windows on opposite ends of the coop so they have plenty of natural light and I can control ventilation. I attached a section of an old dog crate (heavy wire cage section) over the window to keep predators out when the window is open.
Let’s get to some specifics about how your coop should be designed for the winter.
The rule of thumb for space is between 2 ½ to 4 square feet per bird. Less than that and they’ll peck at each other and be too stressed to lay well. Too much room, though will make it harder for the chicken’s body heat to keep it warm, without a heat source.
Overcrowding can lead to pecking due to stress and can lead to infection very quickly, which can be a real problem if they are confined much.
They should have roosting bars to perch on. This is a natural behavior for them and keeps them up off the cold floor. During the day they will need to come down from their perch to eat, drink, lay eggs and socialize, whether they are in a coop or not.
They need nesting boxes to lay eggs in. Any semi enclosed area will do, usually raised up off the floor a little. You can buy wooden or plastic nesting boxes but it’s very simple to construct one yourself. The hens will share boxes. You don’t need one nesting box per hen. One box for every 3 or 4 hens, is fine. Take a look at the link to coop designs, above to see examples.
Here is a link to an article from Mother Earth News on coops:
Here is another one: http://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/portable-chicken-mini-coop-plan-zmaz07amzsel.aspx
This is a link to the coops offered by “My Pet Chicken”http://www.mypetchicken.com/catalog/Chicken-Coops-c3.aspx
By looking over these types of coops, you will get a feel for what will work for you. It’s always a good idea to leave room for more birds if you choose to expand the flock a bit in the future.
Below are 2 photos of a pre-made nesting boxes, from My Pet Chicken:
I’d rather make my own out of scrap wood but plenty of people buy them.
Hens will share the boxes to lay eggs in. For example, if you have 6 hens, 2 or maybe 3 nesting boxes would be plenty. Build them a foot or more off the floor of the coop to deter them from leaving too much manure in. Many people also put a slanted top on them, to prevent them from hanging out or perching on the boxes, again leaving manure over them. Keep fresh litter in them, like wood shavings or straw. (never use hay! It does not absorb much manure and your chickens will end up getting sick. If that happens, you will need antibiotics for them, and you should not eat the eggs they lay while they are being medicated.)
The bedding material, with the manure, is perfect for using in a compost pile! Be sure to let it decompose for at least a few months before adding to your garden. The manure is very high in nitrogen and will “burn” your plants.
This a link to a blog post with more tips for keeping chickens in winter. http://blog.mypetchicken.com/2012/11/16/cold-weather-chickens-8-things-not-to-do/
Composting in the coop
Composting can also be done in the coop. Layer the floor with straw or whatever bedding you use and vegetable scraps all summer long. Put down some straw, then some kitchen scraps in alternating layers (never use meat). Sprinkle a little water on the layers and let the chickens scratch it all up.
Soon the bacteria will start to break down the pile, giving off quite a lot of heat in the process. Let it accumulate until it is at least a foot deep. This is called the “deep Litter” method, and it works beautifully. In the spring, clean it out and add it to the garden compost pile. It not only keeps the birds warm without electricity and the risk of fire, but it allows the composting action to continue all winter.
In an outdoor compost pile, when the temps drop too low, decomposition stops until it warms up again in spring. You can (and should) continue to add to your regular pile all winter, though. This is another example of how raising chickens goes hand in hand with gardening. Your flock will love the vegetable waste and scraps, and their manure is a great addition to the compost pile. Everything comes full circle.
What to feed your flock in the winter.
Like humans, they benefit from extra calories in very cold weather to help stay warm.
Commercial “layer” feed is pretty good. You can get organic feed, if you wish but it is expensive and not that easy to find. For the most part, commercial feed comes in 2 forms. Crumbles and pellets. Crumbles look like Grape Nuts cereal or granola. All chickens will readily eat this. Pelleted feed looks like pellets for a pellet stove. Mine have always liked the pellets, but either is fine. Give them unrestricted access to feed and fresh water.
Laying hens will also need a calcium supplement if they are to be in a coop, especially in the winter. Laying hens need extra calcium because to make the egg and shells require extra calcium. If they don’t have it supplied, calcium will be leached from their systems, usually from the bones. Most people buy crushed oyster shells, which come in small, but heavy (50 lb.) bags for only a few dollars, and are available at all farm and feed stores that sell animal feed.
You can mix some of this into the feed or you can offer it to them in a separate feeder. This is called “free choice”. Personally, I never saw the benefit of giving chickens a choice, but many people prefer to.
Another requirement for a flock is “grit”. All chickens will need this. Tiny pebbles / sand like particles that will grind up and help digest food in lieu of teeth. If the chickens have access to the outdoors, they will get all the grit they need on their own, but if they are inside a coop for a long time, you need to provide this, too. Every feed store sells these things in various sizes for only a few dollars. I always store the feed in Galvanized steel trash cans. This will help keep rodents out.
To help them stay warm, it’s good to supplement their regular diet with some whole corn and / or black oil sunflower seeds. They don’t need huge amounts of these. Just mix some in with the regular food and give some before they go into the coop at night.
You can use striped sunflower seeds, but the black oil seeds have a higher oil and calorie content. I have found that cracked corn can scratch a chicken’s throat and other digestive tract organs, so use the whole corn, for adult birds. The adult chicken can easily swallow a whole corn kernel, but if your birds are still young; the whole corn may be too big. The black oil sunflower seeds give them more calories / energy than corn and will be easy for birds of all ages to eat. There are also many types of treats sold to give them more calories.
This is a link to good chicken products for the winter. www.mypetchicken.com sells these products.
Ventilation is critical to your chickens, especially in winter. If they are “cooped up” in bad weather, be sure there are no drafts on them. But, be sure to have plenty of ventilation in a spot in the coop. Chickens breath as well as their manure contain a lot of moisture.
This moisture will build up in the coop and will make it harder for your flock to stay warm. I like to have 2 old windows installed in the coop, that I can open and close depending on the weather. Put one down low and one up above the highest point the birds have access to. This lets in fresh air at the bottom
and the moist air exits at the top. Be sure to cover them in hardware cloth to prevent predators from entering.
You also need to keep the water from freezing. The easiest ways to do this are products made to keep the water above freezing all the time.
See some products offered for this, in the above link. I use a heated dog water bowl mostly, but I keep it outside. If it were on the floor of the coop, they would walk through it and poop in it. The water will be fouled and their feet would freeze. Outside, at least for me, works best.
To keep water in the coop, you must be sure whatever container you choose is not located under the roosting bars, or manure will just go right into it. You can use a heated metal base and a waterer that sits on top of it. As long as it is several inches off the floor, it should stay clean. Be sure the electrical cord is not accessible to them. Run it through a piece of PVC or something similar. Some waterers have the a/c cord covered in wire to keep the chickens from pecking at it, like the green water bowl, below.
The red and white waterer is heated and can be either suspended off the floor (usually at the level of the birds’ backs to help keep the water clean). The Galvanized metal heated base at the left is meant to use with a metal waterer, not a plastic one.
Below left is an example of a basic feeder. Like the hanging waterer, it should be suspended off the ground to keep it free of bedding and manure.
These products and others are available at www.mypetchicken.com
Bio-Security and the Avian Flu
Now some information on bio security and the Avian flu.
The USDA has some suggestions for owners of “backyard” chicken flocks.
- Restrict access to the yard. Do not allow anyone in who does not have to be there.
- Always wash your hands before and after handling birds or any equipment used in their care.
- Wash and disinfect your equipment, clothing, shoes and any equipment that were in the chicken’s area.
- Do not borrow tools or equipment from anyone who also raises birds. (any type)
- If you are near other flocks of chickens, wash and disinfect hands, clothing, shoes and equipment before returning home.
- Learn about warning signs of the Avian Flu, and what to do if signs are present. Mainly, upper respiratory distress like sneezing and runny discharge from nose. Watery or green diarrhea, loss of energy or appetite, sudden decrease in egg production.
- Swelling of eyes, neck and head
- Purple discoloration of waddles, combs and legs.
If any of these signs are present call your local or state veterinarians or call the USDA at 1-866-536-7593
This is a link to a USDA article (PDF) on questions and answers regarding the flu. http://www.usda.gov/documents/avian-influenza-protect-birds-qa.pdf
This link takes you to the USDA site on the page dealing with Avian Flu. There is a lot of very good info. Here. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=avian_influenza.html
Another very good USDA link to a very recent Avian Flu page. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/home/!ut/p/a1/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOK9_D2MDJ0MjDz9vT3NDDz9woIMnDxcDA2CjYEKIoEKDHAARwNC-sP1o8BKnN0dPUzMfYB6TCyMDDxdgPLmlr4GBp5mUAV4rCjIjTDIdFRUBADp5_lR/?1dmy&urile=wcm%3apath%3a%2Faphis_content_library%2Fsa_our_focus%2Fsa_animal_health%2Fsa_animal_disease_information%2Fsa_avian_health%2Fct_avian_influenza_disease
This last one is to a PDF article from the CDC on Avian Flu and other pandemics. http://ftp.cdc.gov/pub/phlpprep/Legal%20Preparedness%20for%20Pandemic%20Flu/8.0%20-%20Non-Governmental%20Materials/8.1%20ABA%20Journal%20-%20Avian%20Flu%20Time%20Bomb.pdf
I hope this article provided you with some good information about raising chickens at home. I think that having your own flock is one of the best ways to insure you and your family will have fresh and high quality food for years to come. Once the flock is established, maintaining them is very simple and does not take more than 15 minutes a day, usually. Read the information the links provide for more in-depth information on the various topics.
Take the time to talk to people who have been raising chickens also. Keep in mind everyone has a different opinion on how things should be done, and there are usually many good ways that will work. It is well worth the time and effort , in my opinion to start raising chickens, even on a very small scale.