by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and BI chicken farmer
With the shorter days and colder weather, you may wonder if your chickens are comfortable. Should you be supplementing the light in their coop to keep them laying through the winter? Do they need extra light for warmth? Should you buy a warmer for their water? What do chickens (and their keepers) in Pennsylvania or Minnesota do?
Gardeners here know that much of this state is temperate, and Bainbridge Island is actually in USDA hardiness zone 7b (as is a strip of the southeast from Texas to North Carolina). Our temperatures rarely dip below freezing, so compared to chickens living farther north in zones 3 and 4, ours are considerably more comfortable. And they’ve been preparing for winter.
By now they’ve gone through their molt and should have a nice cape of glossy feathers. During the molt, their laying slows, if not stops, a sign of the protein competition between egg production and feather production. If you avoid supplementing daylight with a low-voltage light source, you’ll ensure their protein supply goes to feathers for warmth. Yes, you’ll see a decline in egg production, but with younger birds (in their first year of laying) the decline will not be as noticeable. Last year we saw an approximate 30% decline. Instead of 18 eggs a week, we were getting about a dozen. Our younger hens kept laying while the older hens took a couple of extra days to lay another egg. The entire molt process can take a month or more depending on the hen and her nutritional status.
In addition to age, breed of chicken can make a difference in terms of hardiness. We found that our large Jersey giant continued laying and weathered the winter very well. The Rhode Island Reds, which are good meat birds as well as solid layers, also fared very well. Minnesotans and Alaskans posting to a chicken forum say that Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth (or “Barred”) Rocks, and Red Stars and Black Stars (hybrid breeds) do well in cold weather.
Breeds with larger combs and wattles will tend to get frostbite, but you can help prevent that with a coating of Vaseline. Although these tough northern birds sometimes live in a three-sided shelter in the middle of a snowy field, you might want to be sure your coop isn’t too drafty but does have proper ventilation. Use gaps no bigger than half an inch, though, or you’ll find more than fresh air getting into your coop!
In a temperate climate like ours, winterizing is pretty easy. For example, Rolling Bay Farm’s Adrienne Wolfe uses a “deep litter system.” She keeps about six dozen laying hens to supply her farm stand with fresh eggs. “I just keep adding bedding material—straw mixed with about 20% pine shavings—to the floor of the hen house,” she explained. “The chickens mix the materials together to create compost, which heats the coop as the manure decomposes.” Adding fresh bedding keeps the methane levels down so the chickens don’t get sick. The manure will dry and turn into a fine dust at the bottom of the coop. In the spring you can shovel out the bedding and add it to your compost pile. I appreciate the sheet-metal floor in my coop because it makes cleaning with a hose quite easy!
One of my favorite chicken husbandry books is Choosing and Keeping Chickens by Chris Graham. Bay Hay & Feed carries an excellent selection of books on chicken breeds, and there are plenty of good web resources, such as Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart.
[This article from the archives was originally published November 25, 2012.]
- Yet Another Coop Fire Is a Cautionary Tale for Chicken Keepers
- Bainbridge Chicken Coop Destroyed by Fire: Experts Warn About Heat Lamp Use
- Rooster Head Falls from Sky
- Bainbridge Island’s “Happy Chicken Sign” Lady Brings Style to Urban Farming
- Bainbridge Farm Good a Finalist in Martha Stewart American Made Awards
- The 2012 Tour de Coop Scoop and Photo Gallery
- The 2011 Tour de Coop Scoop
- Tour de Coop 2011: Chicken Dumpling Photo Gallery
- Bucks for Clucks: Tour de Coop 2011 Earnings
Images courtesy of RickPilot_2000 and Julie Hall.