Keeping Your Chickens Healthy This Winter

As George R. R. Martin loves to remind us, “Winter is coming,” and now it is almost upon us. While other folks might be worrying about preparing for the holidays or making the most of their limited daylight, chicken owners have their own unique set of concerns about the health and productivity of their birds.

One of these, as always, is predation, which remains a threat to backyard flocks year-round, even as many predators go into hibernation or migrate to avoid the colder weather. There are many simple steps coop owners can take to protect their birds from the weather and maintain their productivity in the face of dwindling daylight, several of which will also help keep winter predators at bay. In addition to those, however, there are always a few more things the cautious chicken owner can do to make sure their chickens make it through the winter unscathed and uneaten. 

Install an automatic door on your chicken coop. An automatic coop door might seem like an unnecessary expense, but they’re worth their weight in gold once winter comes and the darkness starts setting in earlier and earlier. Getting the hens in by nightfall is probably the easiest and most important thing an owner can do to keep them safe from predators, and an automatic coop door is especially helpful in the winter. As a bonus, many automatic doors are light-sensitive, so they can adjust the hens’ bedtime with the changing hours of sunrise and sunset, regardless of when their owner gets off from work or back from the store. The one concern for people in wintery areas looking to outfit their coops with an automatic door is to make sure the motor and other hardware can withstand the inevitable freezing and icing that comes with high winds and subzero temperatures.

Clear the area around the chicken coop. Predators, especially ground predators, are masters of hide and seek, and the closer they can get to the chicken coop without being seen, the more likely they are to view it as a safe and regular source of food. Winter, unfortunately, increases these opportunities several times over, between the fallen leaves, accumulating snowdrifts, and growing piles of firewood and unused equipment. Keeping these handy hiding spots far away from the coop and trimming back high grasses, low-to-the-ground bushes, and overhanging tree limbs will all help encourage prowling predators to seek food and shelter someplace else, far away from your hens.    

Maintain protection from above. Anyone with an outdoor run knows that hawks and other birds of prey are one of the biggest threats to homegrown chicken flocks, even in winter – while some species of raptor migrate, others do not. Fortunately, stringing some chicken wire or hardware mesh over the top of the run is usually more than enough to keep the swooping predators at bay. This remains true in the winter; however, harsher weather and heavier precipitation – snow, hail, freezing rain – means this high-strung chicken wire is one of the coop’s most vulnerable defenses. Owners should check its impregnability regularly, especially after a particularly heavy storm or other weather event.

Keep your coop clear of snow and ice. The annual battle against ice dams is a long, cold, exhausting one. However, chicken coops present another, smaller front in the war. After all, ice dams on the chicken coop present all the usual risks of warping and leaking, which is just as unpleasant for your chickens as it is for you, in addition to the question of that warping and weakening presenting the perfect holes to allow weasels, snakes, and other predators into the coop. These holes are especially troublesome in the winter, when the coop is more appealing to intruders, not only an all-you-can-eat buffet, but also a warm shelter from the harsh weather outside.

Clean up after your hens. Most predators will be dealing with a decrease in food sources in winter, which will make not only your hens, but their leftovers significantly more appealing to hungry predators, especially rats and other small creatures to whom some leftover chicken feed would be a significant boost in their diet. Making a pass at the end of the day, or at least every few days, to clean up any food scraps, feed piles, etc. lying around the coop and especially the run will go a long way in discouraging these foragers from making a habit of dinning at the Chicken Coop Market, which would inevitably escalate into stealing eggs and maybe even chicks.

There are many reasons winter presents a special challenge for chicken owners, from decreased egg production to the risk of frostbite. Unfortunately, predation is just one of these challenges, and one that doesn’t go away the rest of the year, either. The good news is that a little prevention goes a long way, and there’s no reason that, with a little foresight and a healthy vigilance, your entire flock of hens shouldn’t emerge in the spring, happy, healthy, and fully intact, ready to keep laying, playing, and living a happy hen life. 

Keeping Your Birds Healthy

As a backyard chicken owner, your first goal is keeping your girls happy and healthy. There are lots of ways to work towards that goal, and Nutrena offers you one more option: our unique FlockShield healthy flock shield system, found in our NatureWise poultry feeds. Learn about it here from Nutrena poultry expert Twain Lockhart.

 

Helpful tips:

  • FlockShield is an additive that boosts the chickens’ overall immune systems helping them to live longer and lay more eggs

 

Keeping ‘Em Healthy

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War a vicious flu epidemic quickly spread around the world. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died. Centuries earlier waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe leaving death in its wake. More recently an outbreak of measles spread across the United States.

When WWI ended, millions of refugees roamed around seeking a home. Soldiers from dozens of countries boarded ships and trains as they bid the war and military goodbye and looked forward to peaceful civilian lives. Many carried the deadly flu virus in their bodies, spreading it around the globe and infecting people nearly everywhere. It even reached the Arctic and Pacific islands. 

Bubonic plague was also deadly but quite different. Carried by rodents, mostly rats, and spread to humans by biting fleas, upwards of 100 million people died. The disease was deadly because people lived crammed together in filthy buildings and towns, allowing rats and their fleas to thrive.

Lack of sanitation and the movement of microbes enabled diseases to thrive and spread. Lessons learned from human disease can help keep chickens healthy.     

Chickens are amazingly healthy animals. Given good care they rarely get sick. Many people keep a flock for years without ever losing a bird to illness. However, chickens are vulnerable to many diseases. Some are aggressively infectious and can quickly devastate a flock. Wise people heed the lessons learned from human flu, measles, and plagues and work to prevent deadly chicken diseases from sickening or killing their birds. 

The keys to keeping chickens healthy are to provide them a clean place to live, quality nutritious food, clean water and isolation from pathogens.

Maintain a Healthy Flock

Crowding in filthy cities gave The Plague an opportunity to kill millions of people. Chickens crowded together in moist, dirty housing are ripe for disease. Here are simple ways to keep chickens healthy and productive:

Give them space. Backyard flock owners typically have tiny coops. They are often tempted to crowd too many birds together. Crowding encourages cannibalism, egg eating, fighting, odor and disease. Good flock managers give chickens room to roam.  Larger breeds need a minimum of four-square feet of coop space each. Light breeds only slightly less. However, the more space they have the better. Access to a clean outdoor run offers healthy sunshine, fresh air, and lets the hens fluff up and clean feathers as they bathe in the dust. 

Keep them dry. Once litter gets wet, smell follows from enthusiastic bacteria multiplying in dampness. Keep the coop dry. If litter gets wet from a tipped over waterer or a leaky roof, immediately scoop out and compost the wet stuff, replace it with dry wood chips, and fix the roof or secure the waterer so it can’t tip. 

Feed them well.  Always provide chickens with fresh nutritious feed. Commercial rations, such as Nutrena NatureWise Layer Feed, are a healthy complete diet that birds can supplement with occasional tasty bugs and worms they discover in the run.

Protect them.  Make sure the flock is safe from furry predators, biting insects, and winter drafts.

Keeping Diseases Away

Keeping diseases away from a chicken flock helps prevent outbreaks. Fortunately, most backyard flocks are protected by isolation. A common scenario in an American suburb is that only a few families keep chickens. One flock is typically a long way from the next closest one. Microbes have a hard time getting to a flock – unless humans inadvertently bring germs to their chickens either on their clothes or shoes or in the bodies of other infected birds.

Detailed information on biosecurity can be found on many websites and is often printed in chick catalogs, magazines, and books. Some basic tips for keeping germs away from a backyard flock include:

  • Buy chicks from a hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), has appropriate permits, and ensures that their breeding flock and chicks are free of infectious diseases. Many hatcheries print biosecurity information in their catalog.
  • Be wary about adding new chickens to a flock. An easy way for a microbe or parasite to infect a healthy flock is to hitch a ride on a chicken. Backyard flock owners are often tempted to add a new bird or two to their flock. Make sure the bird comes from a flock that has not experienced any recent diseases and has been kept in a clean coop. Putting the newcomers in quarantine for a month removed from the rest of the flock gives time to allow a potential disease to show up in the newcomer.
  • Keep clothing and shoes clean. After visiting a poultry show or another flock change clothing and clean shoes. Even tiny scraps of manure or dirt hitchhiking on shoes or pants can bring disease to a flock. Make sure visitors who have been in contact with other chickens also practice sanitation.
  • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.
  • Limit flock exposure to wild birds and mice that may carry pathogens.
  • Vaccinate if appropriate. It’s not practical or possible to vaccinate chickens to prevent all diseases, but most hatcheries will vaccinate chicks for a few common diseases. Medicated chick feed may help reduce coccidiosis; a common disease caused by a protozoan.

When small, healthy chicken flocks are kept in a clean coop, fed nutritious food, and isolated from disease they’ll likely never get sick. The hens will enjoy a long, healthy, and productive life.