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Help Your Homestead Birds Weather the Winter

The time to begin preparing for winter care of your chickens, ducks, and geese is early in the fall. Chickens can handle colder temperatures into the mid-teens, and ducks and geese, thanks to their heavy down feathering, can handle even colder temperatures. The one thing none of the common homestead birds can take, however, is drafts and direct exposure to the elements.

Keeping the Coop Warm

Chickens and ducks can easily be kept together in the same coop when necessary, as long as there is sufficient space. Larger fowl, such as the bigger geese, may require separate housing unless the birds are kept in a large barn with a lot of space. A good way to provide necessary warmth in normal cold temperatures is to insulate the walls of the coop or barn.

You can use common household insulation to warm the interior of a coop or barn. However, care needs to be taken to make sure any insulation is properly encased inside the wall. Chickens are especially notorious for picking at walls, and they can tear up plywood or other coverings, exposing (and possibly eating) the insulation. Safer types of insulation are wads or layers of newspaper inserted between the walls or wood shavings poured into the crevice between interior and exterior walls.

For very small coops or buildings, sometimes just putting an additional layer of plywood on the inside walls provides good insulation and blocks drafts.

Another good form of insulation is carpet or plastic draped over the top of the coop. This is most effective for small chicken coops and small buildings not easily insulated between the walls. The insulating material across the top of the building keeps warm air from escaping up through the roof.

Providing Proper Ventilation

The one thing you do not want to do is seal up the coop so tightly that there is poor ventilation. The droppings of chickens, ducks, and geese are nitrogen rich and create high levels of ammonia that can be harmful to the birds and any caregivers who enter the building.

Whenever you do keep your birds inside, such as during times of inclement weather, make sure you clean the floors regularly. If the outside weather is cold but not inclement (freezing rain or snow falling), a door or hatch should be left open and available so the birds can get out in the yard, relieve themselves outside, and get some sunlight and exercise.

As long as the birds can get back inside when they are too cold, they are safe to go outside even in colder temperatures for short periods of time. If you do have to close the door to prevent the birds from leaving the coop, there should be some opening, such as a window or vents, that will allow air circulation.

Observing Their Condition

It is important throughout the winter to pay close attention to the physical condition of the birds. Chickens, especially, when kept in close confines tend to pick on each other. You want to separate any birds being picked on, but you also need to make sure they aren’t being pecked at so much that they have lost significant amounts of feathering.

Without a covering of feathers, chickens, ducks, and other homestead fowl cannot handle colder temperatures very well. Any bird with bald patches on their skin must be taken to a more temperature-controlled environment.

Additional Warmth

If you cannot insulate the coop or barn, you can add warmth by hanging a heat lamp high enough that it can’t be touched by the birds, but low enough to heat up the ground area. Extreme care needs to be taken with heat lamps. Excessive heat can cause bedding to ignite. If you haven’t insulated the area, you will lose a lot of the benefits of the heat lamps through the walls as well.

Sick, injured, or picked-on birds can be brought into a basement or separate porch area and monitored more efficiently and provided with more warmth. Keep in mind that conditioning a bird to more warmth will mean you probably aren’t going to be able to place it back out with the flock until spring when warmer weather appears again, regardless of their improvement. Some flock owners will choose to cull birds that need such immediate care rather than deal with it. Your choice will depend on your outlook and possibly the size of your flock.

If you bring birds into any room of your home, remember that houses are often sealed up far more efficiently than a barn or coop. The accumulation of ammonia can be much greater and get heavy much faster. Constant exposure to the ammonia from bird droppings is an extreme health hazard. Make sure you keep the areas you are housing your birds in your house very clean. Pick up bedding or scrape up droppings several times per day, and do not store the waste indoors.

Making Sure Water is Available

Fresh, liquid water is one of the biggest challenges to livestock care in the winter. Small containers of water freeze quickly. One method of helping to control freezing of water supplies is to insert small electric water heaters into the water fountains, buckets, or bowls. There are several types of these heaters available to work with various types of watering systems. The best types of waterers for chickens, ducks, and geese are fountain-style containers often referred to, simply enough, as chicken waterers. These types of water supply use a gravity flow to keep a small basin at the base of the container full of water. Essentially, these are water towers with a trough. Fountains keep chickens from fouling water, in addition to preventing ducks and geese from getting in water containers.

Bowls, buckets, and other open water sources are easily tipped, and you may find your ducks and even larger geese attempting to sit in the buckets rather than drinking from them. Chickens can have difficulty getting to the water in a bucket, and shallow dishes are too easily dirtied by any of the fowl.

If you are using a heater, you still need to change the water daily to ensure it is fresh. Another reason for daily checks is to make sure the heater is constantly below the water level to avoid shorting out.

If you choose not to use a heater, whether it is because of the lack of electricity, the cost of electricity, or just because you are worried about the hazards of electrical equipment and water combined, you must check on the water supplies for your flocks several times per day. The best system is to provide fresh water first thing in the morning, after lunch, and last thing at night.

If you are not using a heater, fountains become the last choice as a good watering system because they are so hard to open when frozen and can crack or break due to expanding ice. Put the fountain away until spring and break out the buckets or bowls, making sure to keep a vigilant eye out to be sure your birds have plenty of water that is clean and healthy for them to drink.

Protecting Your Chicken’s Wattles and Other Bare Skin

If you have breeds with large combs, wattles, or ear tufts and the weather is going to dip below freezing, you need to protect those areas. They are often small, thin, and very prone to frostbite. A thin coating of Vaseline over those areas can help protect them from exposure to the cold. If you live in an area where winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing, it is a good idea to avoid those breeds of chicken.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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