Many first-time chicken keepers find themselves swooning over baby chicks during the spring, enjoying fresh eggs throughout the summer and fall but may find themselves at a loss when the leaves fall and the snow sneaks in. How do you manage your birds? Should they be on layer feed? Something else?
Today, we’ll look at exactly what you should feed your chickens during the coldest time of the year based on what region you’re in and what type of chickens you have. Let’s get started.
If you’re very far north and your birds are stuck trotting through snowy drifts and desperately seeking a bug or a bit of grain, you’ll have the toughest job ahead of you. Poultry often deals with cold weather pretty well if given significant bedding. I recommend a deep litter method started months ago and topped with fresh straw once a week to keep things clean but toasty. You can add a light if you like, but remember that these lights are a fire hazard when all is said and done.
However, feeding can be a challenge. While you can keep your birds on layer feed, this won’t help them build up the fatty layer they need to remain warm and you may have some birds draw down on their body condition while this weather stays with you.
I recommend a high-fat, high-protein diet. Much like people used to when homes weren’t so thoroughly heated, these birds need to eat extra calories and dense calories to help them pack on the weight. Bluntly? Gut-loaded insects and suet packs are wonderful additions to their usual meal of layer feed. You may also want to add something like a scratch grain for them to eat at their leisure, too.
Offering kitchen scraps such as vegetable trimmings, cooked rice, and leftover fruits can provide additional nutrition and variety to their diet. Just make sure not to feed them anything toxic to chickens, like avocado pits or onions.
Rain, rain, and more rain. While you’ll see some chilly weather, it’s usually not snow drifts and frozen lakes level of cold. However, that doesn’t mean your birds can get by on simple layer food, either.
I usually recommend a flock raiser and feather conditioner food that has 18-22% protein and a minimal rise in fat. The birds won’t need a huge layer of fat to get them through the cold, but extra weight will be appreciated.
By adding a feather conditioner-type food to your flock, you’re offering them a better ability to build a “winter coat” as opposed to letting them molt and then have patchy feathers come in.
For those in very southern locations, you may even be getting eggs during this period. Go ahead and keep your calcium supplement handy for your girls. It won’t hurt them in the slightest even if they do stop laying.
Fluffy, Not Feathery Breeds
For breeds like Silkies, you’ll want to up their rations to the “northern” type feeding regardless of where you live. While typical Silkies and other powder puff breeds may not have such a hard reaction to the cold, your frizzle types and young Silkies will be sensitive to any temperature under 40F.
Some Silkies may enjoy the colder temperatures, but they’re the most likely ones to be found in a little ball at the back of the nesting box, shivering and looking at you like it’s your fault that the weather is so chilly. Planning ahead can prevent them from getting so cold. While we won’t encourage you to bring full-grown chickens into your home just because it’s cold, any temperatures overnight lower than 20F should be met with caution. Silkies may need a warming-up station regardless of what you feed.
The same goes for any other breed in which the skin is not fully covered by flat, broad, typical feathers. Turkeys may also see frostbite and shivering issues if exposed to long periods of cold due to the naked patch on their neck.
Preparing for Sudden Cold Snaps
Perhaps you’re in Florida or another state that sees very mild (or non-existent winters. Suddenly, the weatherman is telling you that you’ll be seeing ice and snow very soon. What does that mean for your chickens? You don’t have weeks to build up a fat layer or improve their feathers and overall robust ability to keep warm with a sudden cold snap.
This is a huge problem that many chicken owners face throughout the country, especially with the temperamental weather that we see these days. As I write this, it was 9F on Sunday morning. By Thursday it will be 77F. And temperatures like this, in either direction, can certainly wreak havoc on sensitive chickens. After all, they are just birds. Birds get cold very quickly when they are used to higher temperatures.
Related: Why Are My Chickens Losing Feathers?
Our recommendation is two-fold; habitat/keeping and also feeding. You’ll want to keep them on their typical ration because any change this quickly may give them diarrhea, which may cause issues with hydration and will only lead to them being colder. Instead, you want to add mass and warmth to their diet. Buy a heated water bowl or waterer that will give them body-temperature heated water. Offer them a hot mash twice a day. Even something as simple as oatmeal (plain rolled oats boiled sloppy in hot water and offered in a pan) can be enough to keep your birds both fit and warm until the harsh weather passes through.
The biggest and most important thing is to keep chicken habits as comfortable and normal as you can. Try to keep them warm from the inside without disrupting their normal behavior. Stress is your enemy and stress comes from weird, new situations. Now is not the time to make enormous changes no matter how much you intend for them to be the right thing to do.
Did we miss something? Do you have a suggestion that you feed your chickens during the winter? Comment down below; we’d love to hear about your experience with your flock and with the frosty time of the year. And, no matter what winter throws at you, Happy Homesteading!
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