FarmTek Farmers – How I Get My Girls Ready for Winter
Autumn in New England means the nights are getting colder, days are getting shorter, leaves are turning bright oranges, yellows and reds, and the feathers are dropping like crazy! Feathers? That’s right, feathers! The onset of shorter days and colder nights throws my ladies into a molt. My ladies being barred rocks, rhode island reds, black stars and auracanas, that is. The girls are getting ready for winter by shedding all their feathers and growing new ones. This process takes a lot of energy, which usually means egg production drops from 12 to 16 eggs per day down to 1 to 2 eggs per day. While they are preparing for winter, I am as well.
I have a small backyard flock of 16 laying hens that are going on their third winter with us, so by now we know the routine. I don’t use artificial lighting to prolong the egg laying season. I prefer to let things go natural and let them rest for the winter. I’ll still get a couple of eggs per week which is just fine for my wife and family.
Consider supplemental light
I like to let our birds stay on the natural light cycle, which causes them to molt and go out of production. The rule of thumb is if you go with natural light, you will have your chickens a lot longer (5 to 7 or more years of laying) with fewer eggs due to seasonal cycles. If you use an artificial lighting program to keep your birds on a high laying cycle throughout the winter, your chickens will last about 1 to 3 years before they are “spent” and need to be replaced with a new flock. My wife is pretty attached to our “pets,” so they will stay with us regardless of their egg production.
Feeding through the winter
With winter on the horizon, it’s time to start thinking about the preparations I need to make to over-winter my flock. The first thing I do is switch their feed over to a low protein diet. Most local feed stores and feed mills start carrying low protein feed this time of the year anyways, so it should not be hard to find. For egg layers, I switch to a feed that has 16% protein or less. If you keep your flock on artificial lighting all winter so they continue to lay eggs, keep them on a high protein feed (16% to 18% or more).
Don’t be afraid to add a little variety
On the coldest days of winter I can find the chickens out in their yard walking around in the snow waiting for treats. We like to feed them many of the veggies from our garden that my wife has frozen for them. Nothing goes to waste. Bags and bags of extra tomatoes and green beans, squash and potatoes are a welcome sight in the midst of winter. I have also recently been experimenting with feeding hydroponically grown fodder. In New England, along with most of the country, there are no grasses for my chickens to forage. I wanted to provide my birds with fresh, green feed throughout the winter as well as with the frozen vegetables from our garden. My efforts have paid off in a big way. They can’t get enough of it and devour every last morsel! They need lots of extra calories to keep warm through the long, cold winter nights. Being able to provide them more options with frozen vegetables and fresh fodder has reduced my feed costs and provided a better quality of life for my chickens.
Clean fresh water at all times is a must and probably the biggest challenge in the winter months for any backyard flock owner. I use a platform heater underneath my waterer which works great. It kicks on at just-below freezing temperatures and keeps their water accessible at all times. There are many water heaters on the market, so pick one that works best for you. I also have a spare platform heater as a backup in case of emergencies. You never know when a squirrel or a snow blower will chew through the electrical cord and make the heater useless. Yes, a snow blower!
While the weather is still mild, it is a good time to get the coop ready for winter. I have my girls in a 10’W by 20’L canopy covered with chicken wire. In the winter, I cover the two long sides with side panels and the back side with a roll-up gable end panel. We have access to the nest boxes from the back side, and on milder days, I can roll it up out of the way and let some fresh air and sunshine in.
I leave the front open for ventilation. Protection from wind and moisture is more important than protection from the cold. You don’t want your coop or pen closed up tight. Moisture and harmful ammonia will build up which will cause more harm to your birds than the cold will. Chickens can handle the cold very well. I don’t even use heaters or heat lamps. Some people like to use heat lamps to prevent frost bite on combs and wattles, but I have never had that problem. When it snows, I also shovel a path to the chicken coop and shovel out their yard so they can get exercise on bright sunny days.
When winter arrives, you will be glad you took these few simple steps to ensure your birds are comfortable and happy even in the coldest weather. Over-wintering your chickens is easy and everyone has their own tips and tricks that help them get through the cold weather. The best thing to do is use a little common sense and check on your birds frequently. I like to go out just before sunset and check their feed, water and side panels to make sure everything is all set. After all, they are my “best girls!”
Bio: “I grew up in Enfield and still live there today with my wife Patty, our Scottie dog Sophie (AKA the chicken herder) our cat Henry (famous from the freak October storm), and of course the 16 ladies. I graduated from UConn in 1986 with a degree in animal science and worked 10 years in the broiler breeding industry before coming here to FarmTek. I have been working at FarmTek for over 15 years and I enjoy seeing what is hot and what is not in the farming communities all over the country.”
What do you do to make sure your flock is prepared for winter? Share your tips here.