Feeding Chickens in the Winter

If you are new to chickens or even an experienced chicken owner, understanding winter feeding can mean the difference between your flock surviving winter or losing some of your feathered friends. To learn more, listen in as Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Expert gives a rundown of the dos and don’ts of feeding chickens during winter.

The Chicken Digestive System and Immune System: An Important Partnership

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC 

How are your chickens’ diet and their overall health connected?

Overview of Immune System

As humans, we rely on our immune systems every day to protect us from viruses, bacteria, toxins, and fungi. When this network of organs, cells, and proteins defeats a threat to our body, it makes a record of how to defend against the invader. The next time the body is faced with this particular attacker, the immune system can defeat it swiftly and efficiently.  

The chicken’s immune system functions in a similar way. It is also complex. Its main defenses are lymphoid organs, which produce, store, and carry cells that fight infection. The primary lymphoid organs in a chicken are the thymus and the bursa of Fabricius:

    • Thymus: This series of lymphatic lobes runs almost the whole length of the neck. It is similar to the thymus in humans.
    • Bursa of Fabricius: This organ is unique to birds and is located on top of the rectum. It forms a kind of pocket (the word bursa means “purse”) that contains folds of lymphoid tissue.

These two organs produce immune cells: the thymus produces T-cells and the bursa of Fabricius produces B-cells. These immune cells migrate to other areas in the body, including the Harderian gland, spleen, and bone marrow. However, more than 60% of these immune cells migrate to and reside in the various places in the digestive tract, including the cecal tonsils and Peyer’s patches. From these locations, they defend the body against invaders.  

In addition to hosting immune cells, the digestive system also contains other important components that support the chicken’s immune system. Beneficial microflora (bacteria and yeast) live in throughout the digestive tract. They provide important services, such as protecting the walls of the intestine from colonization by harmful bacteria. Scientists also think that the friendly microflora help keep the bird’s body on high alert for disease-causing organisms.

So, the immune system of a chicken includes both immune cells and beneficial microflora that are located in the digestive tract.

Benefits of a Diet That Supports the Immune System

You can help keep your chickens healthy by providing a high-quality, commercially formulated feed containing elements that are necessary for gut health. These include probiotics, prebiotics, yeast culture, and essential oils. These ingredients populate the gut with good microflora and can boost the immune system. Studies have shown that feeds formulated to boost the immune and digestive systems can result in better health and quality of life and improved egg production and quality. In addition, healthy chickens are less likely to harbor harmful bacteria in their reproductive tract, meaning safer eggs for you.

Finally, a diet that supports the immune system can increase absorption of nutrients from food by increasing the surface area of the intestine, meaning your birds will use their feed more efficiently. It also aids in digestion of calcium, which is important for strong eggshells and healthy bones.

In short, a chicken with a diet that supports a healthy immune system is a chicken that is both happy and productive, living her best life.

Support Your Chickens’ Immune Systems

Nutrena® NatureWise® Poultry feeds with FlockShield® and essential oils are specially formulated to support both the digestive system and the immune system for birds at every stage of life. They contain probiotics, prebiotics, yeast cultures, and essential oils that contribute to gut and immune system health. Choosing Nutrena NatureWise with Flockshield will help your birds live their best lives by improving their health, digestion, and productivity.

Weathering your first Winter with Chickens.

If you are new to raising chickens, you’ll need to know the basics to keep your hens healthy and safe through the cold days of winter. From whether to heat your coop or not, to how to keep your hens from feeling cooped up, Nutrena Poultry Expert Twain Lockhart has advice on winter care that will help you keep your birds safe, happy, and healthy.

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Getting the Most Eggs from Your Hens in Winter

Bring more eggs in from the cold!

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

Woman collecting eggs

As cold winter weather approaches and the days grow shorter, your normally productive hens may be challenged to stay productive, and the cold weather may take its toll on the eggs they do lay. How can you keep your hens in optimal laying condition and assure that their eggs are the highest quality possible, while helping the birds live their best lives in the dark, cold months of winter?  

Let’s look at some important factors to consider with regard to winter egg production.

Egg Care

Check your nest boxes early in the morning and several times a day, depending on how cold it is. Collecting eggs often prevents them from freezing and expanding, which leads to cracked shells. You can also winterize your nest boxes to help prevent your eggs from freezing:

  • Ideally your nest boxes will be in the interior of the coop.
  • Insulate your nest boxes by cutting pieces of cardboard to fit sides, top, and bottom. Do not use insulation! Chickens will eat it.
  • Put deep bedding, such as pine shavings or chopped straw, in the nest boxes.
  • Make curtains for the nest box entrances from a heavy cloth, such as wool.

If you find a cracked egg, assess how bad the damage is. If only the shell is broken and the membranes are intact, wash the egg and eat it right away. If the membranes are broken, discard the egg. Do not feed broken eggs to the chickens; they will break and eat their own eggs once they realize how tasty they are!

Mental and Physical Health

The winter months can bring boredom, leading to pecking problems, also called flockmate persecution. Provide enrichment for your hens, such as scratch scattered in bedding/litter, a cabbage hung from the ceiling of the run, and suet baskets with lettuce and other vegetable treats (not suet!) tucked inside. 

Nutrena’s scratch grains can provide energy and keep your birds’ metabolism going at night when it’s cold! Feed only a handful of scratch in the evening. Be careful not to overfeed; extra fat on their body can lead to egg binding and other health issues.

Winterizing Your Coop

While chickens can tolerate low temperatures, sudden temperature changes can be challenging for them. A heat source such as lightbulb in a safety cage (Beware: it’s a potential fire hazard!) or heat panels can be used to raise the temperature about 10° F above outdoor temperature. Heat only part of the coop; this allows the birds to choose where they are most comfortable. Other ways to winterize the coop include

  • putting extra bedding in coop;
  • providing heated perches;
  • making sure the coop is well ventilated;
  • eliminating moisture and drafts, especially around roosts; and
  • covering the coop and part of the run with tarps or heavy plastic (not blankets).

You can find more tips and suggestions for winterizing your coop in this post.

Light

Chickens lay in response to the photoperiod, or amount of light they get per day. They need about 14 hours of light per day to lay their best. Check out the post “Feeding Chickens in Winter” for more information.

You can supplement light by installing a bulb that comes on in the early morning. For more information you can read this post. If you do choose to provide extra light, it’s best to limit it to 16 hours per day. However, you may choose to give their bodies a break for the winter months.

Water

Fresh water is critical for egg production. Your birds’ bodies and their eggs are mostly water, and they need to continually replenish this vital element. Slight dehydration may cause hens to go out of lay. Winter presents unique challenges because waterers freeze quickly. Heated waterers are especially helpful, but they require an electric outlet in the coop or a very long extension cord. Another alternative is to have a couple of waterers so you can place a fresh one outside for your birds while the other is inside thawing.

Feed

Once you’ve addressed the factors above, consider if your birds are getting the nutrition they need to be productive. Continue to feed your birds a balanced layer ration even though they might not be laying. They will need to be in top shape when days start to lengthen to go back into lay. Your birds will eat a bit more in the winter, so keep the food available at all times.

A 2020 study, conducted in 10.5 daylight hours at 12° F, showed the importance of a nutritionally well-balanced feed that includes ingredients like pre- and probiotics, yeast culture, essential oils, and Vitamin D3. In the study, hens fed NatureWise with FlockShield and essential oils not only kept laying, but they also produced thicker, stronger shells with no broken eggs. After three weeks of eating this diet, egg production increased by 325%.

As winter approaches, make sure to include NatureWise Poultry Feed as a balanced source of proper nutrition to keep your hens happy, healthy-and laying!

Coop Odors: The Stinky Truth and How Nutrition can Help

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

Sometimes your coop can get a little smelly, which can be a little embarrassing. What’s the scoop on coop odors, and how can you help your hens live their best lives by reducing odors in their home?

Causes of Coop Odors

Although chicken poop can be stinky, the most likely culprit for coop odors is the colorless gas ammonia. A combination of hydrogen and nitrogen, ammonia has a sharp, pungent smell, similar to vinegar.

Chickens that are exposed to this gas can develop permanent damage to lungs and eyes and will avoid the coop if levels are too high. Ammonia can cause damage at very low concentrations, which are below the level that the human nose can detect. So, if your coop smells like ammonia, clean it immediately!

Fixing a Stinky Coop

While cleaning is a quick solution, there are several longer-lasting measures you can take to eliminate odors and make your coop a more pleasant place for you and your birds.

Eliminate Moisture

A dry coop will lead to happy, healthy hens. Moisture in the coop not only can contribute to ammonia odors, but also lead to conditions that favor parasites and bacteria. To keep moisture low, use the following tips: 

Hens on a Henhouse Ladder

  • Every few days check for and replace damp bedding. 
  • If you use the deep litter method, clean out the upper layers several times a year, keeping the lower layer, which contains helpful microbes that break down bedding and waste.
  • Repair any leaks in the roof of your coop immediately.
  • Turn the litter if your chickens don’t do so on their own.
  • Add high-carbon materials that don’t pack easily (e.g., kiln-dried wood shavings), ground dolomitic limestone, or products containing zeolite.
  • Provide good ventilation. An air-tight coop might sound like a good idea, but air circulation will help dry out litter and prevent odors. 

Choose Feed Wisely

Your choice of feed can also reduce coop odors. Odor can be caused by waste protein from undigested feed. You can combat these smells by choosing feeds with the following plant extracts and essential oils:

  • Saponins: Additives called saponins, which include yucca, reduce ammonia production in a chicken’s body. As a result, they can increase the bird’s nutrient absorption and reduce the amount of proteins your chickens excrete.
  • Phytogens: Yucca is also a phytogen, one of a number of plant-based compounds that are increasingly being used in animal feeds. Other phytogens include essential oils, herbs, and spices. These compounds work with yucca to reduce waste protein by increasing digestibility, balancing gut microflora, and reducing gut inflammation, again contributing to better use of feed.
  • Proteins: You can also choose feeds that are more easily digestible, such as processed feeds available in pellets or crumbles, rather than whole grains blends. Feeds that are lower in crude protein can also help reduce odors; however, remember that your laying hens need 16% crude protein to stay healthy.

Choose NatureWise to Help Combat Coop Odors!

Nutrena NatureWise feeds can be part of your efforts to combat coop odors. NatureWise uses all-natural ingredients: essential oils, spices, bitter substances, and saponins that

  • support healthy enzyme production,
  • promote crude protein and nutrient absorption, and 
  • aid in the control of ammonia odor.

Remember that if you make a change to a new feed, switch slowly from your current feed to ease the transition, and help your birds feel more comfortable with the change.

Learn more about NatureWise Feeds