How to Help Your Chickens Beat the Big Freeze

As winter weather swirls around the coop, keeping the flock hearty through the cold, dark days requires some extra effort. Chickens need support during this time of the year. Christine Heinrichs, backyard poultry keeper and author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, gives her top tips.
calendar icon 10 January 2017
clock icon 6 minute read

Some breeds are better adapted to cold conditions than others. First, they must survive. Better still if they can continue producing eggs.

Generally, bigger birds with lots of feathers do better in the cold. Large fowl have a better ratio of external area than bantams. Jersey Giants, at 13lb for a rooster, 10lb for a hen, don’t mind it.

Feed them well

Chickens acclimatise gradually to the cold. They will want more food, especially hot feeds such as corn. Solid nutrition will help them stay naturally warm. A warm oatmeal mash on cold mornings is much appreciated. A snack of corn or scratch feed before dark will help them stay warm through the night. I like my girls to go to bed with a full crop.

Animal husbandry specialist and farmer Kermit Blackwood keeps a flock in Vermont, where it gets extremely cold in winter. His flock includes breeds listed in the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection such as Wyandotte, Ameraucana, Barnevelder, Lakenvelder, Brahma and Langshan, as well as Russian Orloffs, which are no longer in the Standard. He keeps the South American Quechua Olmec, North American Quetero and Incan Basket hens, and local Vermont breeds Copper Scotch and Sugarbush.

He shifts his flock’s nutrition to a winter diet of 70 per cent barley or oats, 25 per cent Farmers’ Helper UltraKibble and 5 per cent finch seed or millet. This is his own formulation, now available online. He feeds Farmers’ Helper Golden Egg Nuggets and Farmers’ Helper HotCake to support the birds’ endocrine functioning – helping to regulate their hormones – and to maintain a healthy crop pH. The extra boost also helps them stay warm.

In addition to plenty of feed, chickens need fresh water in cold weather. Electric water dishes can help prevent it from freezing.

Winter layers

Chickens lay fewer eggs in the fall, as the days get shorter, and stop entirely during the shortest days of winter. They are conserving their energy to stay warm. Breeds that developed in cold climates lay more eggs through those cold winter days. Collect eggs frequently to avoid freezing.

Keeping a light on for heat can keep them laying, at the cost of disturbing their natural rhythm of slowing down during the short days of winter. Chickens need about 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs. I find mine respond to lengthening days. At least some of them start laying as soon as we pass the winter solstice (21 December in the Northern Hemisphere). If you decide to add artificial light, set a timer for it to come on in the early-morning hours.

Breeds that continue to lay during short winter days need additional nutritional support, so don’t skimp on feed.

Cold-weather breeds

Chanteclers are the only recognised Canadian breed. They were developed as a distinctive Canadian breed by a Trappist monk. Their small, low, cushion combs and almost non-existent wattles are well suited to cold weather. They are good winter layers. Their feathers are tight, but the downy undercoat insulates them from the cold.

Chanteclers manage happily on the snow. They are alert and active. They’ll call out any visitors or dangers in the vicinity. They are good foragers, content to explore the shady cool sections that other breeds ignore in favour of warmer, sunnier locations.

They are good winter layers of brown eggs, continuing despite cold temperatures and declining sunlight.

English breeds such as Orpington, Sussex, Australorp and Dorking withstand the cold well. White and Cuckoo Dorkings are recognised as rose-comb varieties. The Dorking is featured at the Dorking Museum and Heritage Centre in Surrey. The museum has published a booklet on The Dorking Cockerel, available from the Dorking Museum website. The museum houses a collection of emblems and badges from local organisations that honour the breed.

Orpingtons, meanwhile, have long been a favourite of the UK’s Royal Family. They are warmly feathered. The body silhouette shows a distinctive U-shaped back of the classic storybook chicken. The buff colour is popular, but black, white and blue Orpingtons are just as warm.

American breeds such as Wyandotte, Dominique, Java, Buckeye and Rhode Island Red and White all include cold weather in their histories. They are good all-round breeds.

Wyandottes take their name from a Native American tribe. The breed was developed in New York State and Wisconsin, states known for their cold winters. Its distinctive curvaceous silhouette is created by its smooth, broad feathers and close-fitting plumage. Even the rose comb curves around the head, fitting neatly and closely, rather than having its spike stand out.

French Faverolles are a hardy, composite, dual-purpose breed that was developed to lay light brown eggs during winter. Faverolles are the only breed with the Salmon colour variety, a silver wheaten pattern, which is very different on cocks and hens. The male looks very much like a Dark Dorking and females are similar to wheaten game hens.

Continental Hamburgs are a rose-combed breed that has been known in the past as the “Dutch Everyday Layer”. Kraienkoppes are an unrecognised breed from the Netherlands and Germany that is winter-hardy and a good layer.

Chickens of the Nordic countries such as Norwegian Jærhøns, Swedish Flower chickens and Icelandic chickens all do well in cold climates.

All three are landraces that developed to meet the needs of the farmers in these northern countries. They are not standardised, so no two are alike. They may have single combs, rose, or even double combs. They may have crests. Feathering varies: different colours, mottled, barred, pencilled, all kinds of markings.

The hardy survivors of these landraces have the traits they needed to thrive in the harsh climate. The result is chickens that are all different, but all useful and valued.

Further Reading

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 edition of The Poultry Site Digital. To read other articles from this issue, themed around 'backyard and smallholding', click here.

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