Warming the Winter Chicken
Chickens all originated from the Jungle Cock in southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is for the most part a warm and temperate place. With the majority of breeds being bred for eggs, there are a few that are bred for cold hardiness. Typically large bodied birds have more mass and because of the larger body produce more heat.
When we think of cold hardiness we tend to think of birds that lay well in the winter time. The other aspect of this is birds that not only survive the frigid temperatures, but thrive. Chickens that tend to get frostbite and lose their combs, wattles, and toes are not cold hardy.
Winter time is a hard time of the year for your chickens. Providing them with a draft free shelter from the wind and elements is the bare minimum for your poultry. A dry place to huddle together is much appreciated by them as well.
Chanteclers and buckeyes are exceptionally cold hardy in most aspects. Birds that have tight feathers (think Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds, and Marans) and pea combs (Buckeye or Brahmas), cushion comb (Chanteclers) or rose combs (Wyandottes or Rose Comb Rhode Island Reds) generally fare better in the extreme cold.
Single comb breeds such as the Single Comb Rhode Island Reds and the Plymouth Rocks are normally cold hardy, but the males can get frostbite on their larger combs and wattles. Orpingtons and Cochins have a large body and fluffy feathers to help them stay warm and are good winter layers. Even though these breeds tend to be better winter layers they are not the most cold hardy.
The thinner Mediterranean breeds known for laying well, like the Leghorns, are not well suited for braving the cold. They lack the bulk of most dual breeds which creates more body heat. There is a difference between extreme cold hardy and winter layers. Even the breeds that are cold hardy need to be taken care of properly.
The winter layers that lay well on shorter days with less light still need to be taken care of properly. Rosecomb varieties of the mediterranean breeds that have been acclimated to the climate can be just as hardy as the stockier breeds.
What you can do to help with cold hardiness in all your chicken breeds is to supply them with a feed that makes heat and energy as they digest it. During any inclement weather that is below freezing it is worth spending the extra few dollars on feed to ensure that they not only survive in the cold, but thrive.
Water is a very important aspect of life to all creatures, but when temperatures are below freezing it doesn’t take long for water to freeze solid. This makes it inaccessible to your animals and it might as well not even be available to them. When the water dishes freeze be sure to go out several times a day to replenish the frozen solid water with warm water.
There are several brands of electrical hardware aimed at keeping the drinking water above freezing. While they are very useful and convenient they are not completely necessary. Most of them simply plug in and keep an electric element warm which in turn keeps the water from freezing. This brings the whole new element of electricity to your chicken coop which many may mind find daunting. Replacing frozen water several times a day is generally the best and easiest manner to provide water in sub freezing times.
Feeding whole grains such as wheat, corn, and barley will produce the much needed and appreciated warmth and energy your birds will utilize when trying to keep warm. The act of digesting whole grain alone creates heat, and the grain also gives them energy to produce heat to keep the body warm. While chickens need protein to make eggs, they need carbohydrates to produce body heat.
Whole grains are typically made up mostly of fiber and carbohydrates. Care should be taken not to feed too many carbohydrates. Whole grain corn is one of the better grains for producing body heat. It is not the corn that is creating the heat. It is the gizzard that is creating heat because it has to break down the corn.
When feeding whole grains make sure you are supplying grit so the birds can break down the whole grains. Feed about a half cup per bird or so. Too much grain and they may quit laying from an unbalanced diet.
The breeds with large combs and wattles are at the most risk from frostbite. Frostbitten combs and wattles will usually turn black. The cold damaged tissue will dry and eventually fall off in the process of healing. Trimming back the dead tissue will only create more damaged tissue. Unless there is an infection it is best left alone in most cases.
Let’s not forget about the delicate toes of the chicken. They help them scratch and forage for food. Their feet help them balance and walk around at their leisure as well. The best way to protect your chickens feet and toes is to provide them with a wide roost. A wide roost allows the chickens to sit on their toes so they remain warm from their body heat.
A thin roost that lets their toes wrap around leaves the toes bare and subject to getting frostbite. The flat side of a 2×4 will provide them with enough space that they have to sit on their toes. A thumb sized perch will mean that their toes are exposed to the elements. Any digits or extremities getting frostbite means that they will lose that tissue.
With a little pre-planning and some forethought you can easily bring winterizing your chickens into your program for poultry keeping. If done properly you won’t even notice the additional steps that need to be taken to protect them from the frigid elements. Treat your chickens well this winter and they will return the favor with fresh eggs and bright feathers.
Jon Alden and James Montgomery