Tips for managing backyard chickens in the winter

A few wise strategies can keep your hens comfortable and producing eggs all winter long!

With a thick layer of snow on the ground, it seems as though winter is sure to be long and cold. As an owner of backyard chickens there are a number of simple strategies to keep your birds safe and productive. Below are some tips by Michigan State University Extension for you to follow this winter.

Keep your birds well fed! Consider allowing your birds’ free-choice access to feed during the winter months. The chickens will adjust their consumption rate depending on the temperature. Another option is to offer the birds’ additional high energy feed such as corn or sunflower seeds to help meet their increased caloric needs in the cold weather. A good tactic is to provide this additional feed in the evening to help birds manage the overnight drop in temperatures more efficiently. If you normally feed the birds outside, avoid attracting vermin by bringing the food inside in the evening.

Access to water is critical. All animals must have a consistent source of water to survive. Keeping the water from freezing during the cold winter months can be a real chore. A number of water heaters are available on the retail market and there are even plans for designing your own on the web. Another option for those who do not have electricity in their coop is to utilize aluminum or rubber buckets, which do not split like plastic when the water freezes. By purchasing at least two buckets you are sure to have one available for watering your birds when you bring the second one in to thaw out.

A well light coop maintains egg production. Consider adding plastic insets into windows. Windows must be closed; no screens or drafty windows. Keeping as much light as possible in coops will maximize egg production during the long winter months. By incorporating supplemental lighting, with ideally 16 hours of light per 24 hours, hens will lay the maximum number of eggs. The light should be on a timer to turn on in the middle of the night and off at day break. This will ensure that the hens get on their roost as the sun is setting in the evening.

Ventilation is important. Adequate ventilation, but no drafts, is necessary in the chicken coop to minimize excess moisture which can lead to mold and respiratory issues.

Bedding provides insulation. By keeping a thick layer of bedding, up to a foot in depth, the coop will provide your birds a comfortable environment. Turn your bedding weekly with a pitchfork, adding more as needed.

Active birds are happy birds. Allowing birds to keep themselves busy by foraging will keep them from activities like pecking each other. Scattering corn or sunflower seeds in your coop at your evening feeding will allow birds the opportunity to scratch for these treats. Consider suspending a head of cabbage in your coop to keep birds entertained. Toss loose straw or add corn stalks, wood chips or brush to your run area; your birds will forage for any bugs that may find a home in the degrading surface.

Chicken ownership can be an enjoyable experience any time of year. Michigan 4-H Youth Development has numerous resources to help youth gain valuable knowledge and skills in order to successfully raise poultry. Contact your local MSU Extension office to learn what clubs are available in your area or to start your own 4-H poultry club.4-H can provide you with a valuable opportunity to gain skills while working with young people.

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