Watering Backyard Chickens – Winter Water

Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.

Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.

Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.

For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.

Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.

Let Electricity Do the Work

By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies.  They all work.

Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing.  Thermostats soften the electric bill.

A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs.

These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.

A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.

Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks.

It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.

Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens.

Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production.

Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.

If There’s No Electricity

Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable.

Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Take advantage of free heat from the sun.  Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
  2. Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
  3. Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink.   Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.

Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores.

They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake.

Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail.

Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid.

Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected.

Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.

Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof.

Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.

When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.

Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.

Winter Is Coming

The temps are dropping, and for some of you, even the snow is starting to fly. It’s that time of year where we are busy preparing for the upcoming holidays, but there are additional preparations that need to be made – to your chicken coop!

Weatherization of your coop is vital in ensuring your feathered ladies survive and thrive the cold winter months. A quick checklist for sealing the coop up can make the task easy and achievable.

Consider the following:

Clean and disinfect

  • Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
  • Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.

Pitch out and deep-bed your coop

  • Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust, or straw.
  • Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
  • Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
  • Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.

Feed and supplement your birds correctly

  • Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
  • To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.

Check for drafts

  • Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
  • Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
  • Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.

Set up any heat lamps and water heaters

  • Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
  • Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
  • If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand and have safely located the lamp.

Chicken Coop Plans: Creating a Delightful Chicken Home

Fall is the best season for a family to prepare for the delightful experience of welcoming a small flock of chickens to the backyard. For poultry newcomers, fall gives them plenty of time to research the breeds they’d like to welcome, acquire, design or create and research chicken coop plans or build a coop, and read up on chicken care.

Perhaps there’s even time to visit other families who already have chickens or take a beginning chicken class at a nearby farm store or nature center.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will detail the construction of a sturdy, attractive coop. It’s not always necessary to build a coop, but construction is a fun family learning experience.

Characteristics of an ideal coop

Whether a coop is made by a family from scratch, purchased as a kit, or crafted from an existing building, these characteristics are necessary for chickens to be comfortable, safe, and productive.

  • Sized right: Be sure to have at least four-square feet of coop floor space per hen. More is even better and attaching an outdoor run to the coop adds living space. Coops can be as small as eight or ten square feet, suitable for two hens. More common backyard coops are 20 to 30 square feet and designed for four to six hens. If space is tight, consider bantam chickens. They only need half to a third as much space as full sized birds.
  • Comfort: Coops should provide plenty of ventilation, yet thwart chilly drafts come winter. Hens enjoy a cool breeze on sultry summer evenings and need to be protected from winter’s harsh winds. Great coops allow opening windows or vents when the weather is warm yet closing them down when frost arrives.
  • Protection: Raccoons, opossums, mink, and a host of other furry predators love eating fresh chicken. Mosquitoes and gnats enjoy a meal of blood. Good coops have heavy duty wire mesh on the outside and mosquito netting on the inside stretched over windows to keep predators at bay. A sturdy door, locked each evening after the chickens go to bed, keeps nocturnal predators out.
  • Furniture: Chickens sleep while standing on a perch. A pole or 2×4 with rounded off corners a couple of feet above the floor, makes a comfortable sleeping structure. Hens prefer to lay in nest boxes, which also keep eggs clean. Coops should have at least one nest per four birds. Many small coops have a hinged door that allows for egg collection without entering the coop.
  • Feeders and waterers: These should be easy for hens to reach and humans to clean and fill.
  • Light: Chickens need light. Windows should be positioned to gather as much natural daylight as possible. In the northern regions, positioning a coop so windows are on the south side helps gather the most sunshine and warmth on cold winter days.
  • The weather: Chickens love frequent drinks of clean fresh water, but a wet coop is an invitation to disease and foul odors. The coop must have a good roof that will always protect the interior from rain and snow.
  • Electricity: It’s not necessary to have electricity to the coop, but it makes care of chickens easier, especially in cold climates. Having electricity allows adding artificial light on dark winter days. That increases egg production. Also, a great convenience is a waterer with an electric heating unit inside it. This eliminates the need to keep replacing frozen waterers with fresh water.

Ideal coops should look great in the yard and be part of a backyard decor.  Access should be easy, so hens can be examined, feeders and waterers filled, and cleaning a snap.

Four ways to acquire a coop

  1. Modify an existing building: Often one of the easiest and least expensive ways of creating a backyard coop is to modify an existing building. A large corner of a garage or storage building may work well. Modification may be as simple as making a frame of 2×4 lumber, framing in a door, and covering the interior with chicken wire. Add a feeder, waterer, nests and roost and, bingo, it’s ready to house the flock. Cut a pop hole door in the exterior, create a fenced outdoor run, and the chickens have a snug home to sleep in and escape foul weather and a pleasant outdoor place to loiter and search for tasty insects and seeds. Many home stores sell pre-built or kit garden sheds. These can be modified into a coop.
  2. Buy a pre-built kit: Most places that sell chicks and chicken supplies sell coop kits, and they are also available from chick hatcheries and online. Most kits are small and lightweight. Many allow the purchase of an attached outdoor run. Some kits seem quite frail and may be best suited for people trying chickens for the first time. If they grow to love their hens, they may graduate to a larger or more elaborate coop. Some coop kits are high quality and durable. Take a close look at materials before buying.
  3. Buy a custom-made coop: Many garden and farm stores sell custom made coops. These are often high quality. They look great and are durable but may be relatively expensive. Well-made coops are heavy, so make sure the seller is willing to deliver it.
  4. Building a coop: This is an ideal way to enter the backyard chicken hobby. Later blogs featured on Scoop from the Coop will detail why and how to build a coop perfect for any yard.

Chicken Molting: Molt Is Coming, Are You Ready?

It’s hard to imagine that dreaded time of year is almost upon us, you guessed it, molt. Even though molt is a very natural process for poultry, it doesn’t make it any easier as a flock owner. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for the less-favorable chicken molting season.

  1. Be proactive – Supplemental light, especially in the winter months, is a great consideration for your flock. Hens 18 months or older can benefit from this practice, and it can possibly lessen the extreme experiences of molt.
  2. Feed adjustments – Now is the time to dial up the protein and cut back on the treats. Higher levels of protein are required for birds in molt so they can replace those protein-rich feathers. A product like Nutrena NatureWise Feather Fixer can also aid in getting through the painful period of molt just a little quicker. Feeding this at least 30 days in advance of the onset of molt will provide maximum benefit to your birds.
  3. Clean is key – A clean coop will not only prepare you for the long winter months, but it will also reduce the bacteria and chance of infection for birds with bare skin due to molt.
  4. Keep the creepy crawly’s out – Parasites like mites and lice will only make the molt process more challenging. Examine your flock and their housing for any parasites and treat accordingly, to prevent the issue from affecting your birds during the regrowth period.
  5. Make sure everyone can play nice – If you have a flock member that has a rap sheet for being a bully or acting aggressively, it may be time to assess if that bird should continue to be kept in the flock. Tender, exposed skin and blood-filled pin feathers can be a prime target for angry birds (no pun intended…ok, maybe a little).

Just remember, molt is no one’s favorite time of year, but it does serve an important purpose in the life-cycle of your chickens and the health of the flock.

Check out these posts to learn more about molting and what to expect.

Caring for a Multi-Species Flock of Chickens

Flock expansion can be an exciting endeavor, especially when you are looking to add a new species or two. It can be a fun and challenging task to meet the needs of a multi-species flock of chickens.

Here are a few tips and recommendations to consider if you plan to take your flock to the next level.

There are three main areas of focus before caring for a multi-species flock:

  • Coop Cleanliness
  • Living Space
  • Management Techniques

Coop cleanliness

Providing your multi-species flock with a clean home is of the utmost importance in preventing sickness.

Keep the coop clean and dry, and keep waterers out of the coop area to prevent splashing and playing by waterfowl.

Remember, anytime you bring new poultry in, you must quarantine them before mixing with the rest of the flock.

Not only will the aid in preventing any pre-existing disease they may bring in, but also is safer for the birds until they are acclimated.

Living Space

Larger poultry need more space, so plan accordingly. Factor in a minimum of 4-square-feet per chicken and even more for larger birds. Failing to provide adequate space can lead to boredom and birds will likely begin to peck at one another.

If space is an issue, or the birds are more confined during the winter months, make sure there are plenty of food/toys/distractions to relieve boredom.

Management Techniques

A successful multi-species flock is an environment where there is little stress on the birds. Having a good ratio of male to female poultry will help keep a balance in the coop.

A good rule of thumb for chickens is approximately 7 hens to 1 rooster. For ducks or other waterfowl, a good balance would include 5-6 females to 1 drake.

Remember that waterfowl are different from chickens and other birds in that they like wet conditions. So their bedding should have more absorbency like straw, pine shavings or grass from lawn mowing.

Additionally, ducks don’t like to roost like chickens, so don’t expect to see them on the perches of your coop! They also prefer cooler weather, are more active at night and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to take a dip in a pool or other body of water.

Another multi-species management recommendation would be to keep chickens and turkeys separate. This is to preventing Blackhead disease carried from chickens to turkeys.

Although not extremely common in a small flock setting, it can be fatal to turkeys if contracted.

These considerations and many more should be made before you dive head first into managing a multi-species flock.

If you are up for the challenge, undoubtedly much enjoyment of watching them grow and flourish is in your future!

Storing Chicken Feed: Chicken Feed Storage Must-Dos

The area where feed is stored can quickly turn into chaos if you’re not paying attention, especially with a flock that seems to grow daily (chicken math, anyone?).

Failure to store feed and equipment properly can be a headache for you and your flock.

Feed storage areas should have the following characteristics:

  1. No direct access by birds (or other pets!) – While keeping sealed bins of feed inside the coop is convenient, other equipment that’s not currently being used can quickly pile up next to the feed – making them at risk for collecting droppings and even worse, becoming a home for a feed-loving pest. Store feed separate from your flock and if that’s not feasible, think of ways to contain it all. We like this idea. Securing your feed isn’t just to keep it from your flock or pests. Some types of poultry feed can pose a serious health risk to horses.

  2. Dry and well ventilated – Feed must be protected from moisture. Feed bags should not be stacked directly on the floor as moisture may be absorbed in the bottom bags and the feed may mold in the bag. Any feed storage containers (bins, garbage cans, etc.) should be water and pest resistant.  Also, you should completely empty and clean out the feed storage container on a regular basis.  If you store feed in bags, make sure old feed is not allowed to accumulate by stacking new feed on top of the old bags.
  3. Well lit  – It is important that you can clearly see the condition of any feed you have stored. Once the feed has left a feed mill, it may be exposed to other conditions in storage, so it is wise to be able to see clearly what the feed looks like every time you feed your flock.
  4. Clean – It is important to keep the feed room/storage area free of spilled feed, dust and potential sources of contamination.
  5. Pest free – Feed tends to attract rodents, birds and insects. Spilled feed should be cleaned up.  If pest control is required, make sure any pesticides or rodenticides cannot contaminate the feed and that animals cannot access the pest control material.

Poultry Feed Storage – Something You Mite Watch out For

People ask us often about poultry feed storage and how to properly store feed. Have you ever had the following situation happen to you? You go out to feed your chickens and notice a fine dust on the outside of the feed bag. You look closer and realize the dust is moving! Yes, you can see all those little bugs bustling about, in search of food and other little bugs to reproduce with. Yuck! Where do they come from? Is the feed safe to give to your chickens? Can they harm you?

It turns out that these little critters are grain mites (Acarus siro L). Grain mites are common and exist in all grains, but only thrive and appear when the conditions – temperature and humidity – are just right for reproduction and growth. Their ideal environment is warmer than 77 degrees F, and over 85% humidity. Hence, you would have more problems with them in the warmer months of the year. Temperature changes, condensation, and poor ventilation may produce areas with enough moisture to encourage mite infestation.

If you have infested feed you should not feed it to your animals. These mites can contaminate the feed with allergens and can also transfer nasty germs. Infestation can negatively affect palatability and when animals are fed infested products the results can be decreased intake, inflammation of the intestines, diarrhea, impaired growth and allergic reactions. The good news for you personally is that these mites do not bite humans.

To help reduce your incidence of mite outbreaks:

  • Store your feed in a cool, dry place
  • Use your oldest feed first
  • Keep no more than a two week supply of feed on hand (especially in hot weather) to ensure freshness
  • If you store your feed in a container, clean it regularly between fillings to prevent buildup of fines
  • Keep your feed area clean and neat
  • Air movement, such as from a fan, can help prevent outbreaks

If you do have an outbreak in your feed storage location, remove affected feed immediately and thoroughly clean the area. Pyrethrin can be applied to the area with a hand held fogging machine or aerosol spray can.