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Backyard Poultry Need Protection from Wind, Cold

by Emma Hopkins

Published: Friday, December 23, 2016

As the first snow blankets the northern Midwest this month, backyard poultry producers, even hobby producers, need to give their poultry the shelter, nutrition and bedding needed to keep birds healthy over the winter.

Darrin Karcher, professor of animal sciences at Purdue University and the state's Extension poultry expert, said poultry can take care of themselves during the very cold winter months, as long as their caretakers equip them with the correct materials.

"The first thing to keep in mind with poultry is, for the same reason we like to have down jackets, chickens naturally have a built-in way of maintaining heat," Karcher said. "So the important thing for them in small flocks, is that we need to provide an area for them to get out of the wind. So even if you don't provide supplemental heat in their coop, as long as they get out of the elements, they can actually trap air between their feathers and their body to help maintain warmth."

Karcher said the physiology of a chicken allows them to conserve as much heat as possible when it starts to get cold, but for those producers wanting to be sure their birds are not expending extra energy to keep warm, Karcher suggests adding supplemental heat in the form of a heat lamp.

"Ideally, what you want to shoot for, if you're adding supplemental heat, is to maintain a temperature in which your water will not freeze in the coop," he said. "Because more often than not, that tends to be the bigger issue—the fact that your birds become dehydrated because they cannot have a water source that is open."

Typically, Karcher said areas sheltered from winter winds can get into the 25- to 30-degree temperature range, in which case birds will still be fine. However, they may eat more.

"What you may notice, is that as a result they tend to eat a lot more, because they use that consumption to help generate more body heat to help maintain their warmth," he explained. "So you can give them more feed, or you can add supplemental heat. Those are the two options."

If producers would like their birds to have outdoor access for any reason, Karcher said relying on snow as a water source is not an option, though they will peck at it. The biggest concern with outdoor access, however, is frostbite.

"You can give them outdoor access and they may or may not even use it," he said. "If you do give them outdoor access, one thing you should keep an eye on is frostbite. With turkeys and ducks, frostbite is going to be much worse on the feet, whereas with chickens, the other concern for frostbite is going to be combs and wattles. Typically, the points on the comb is where we will see some discoloration. So you can give them outdoor access, but those are some concerns you have to have."

If poultry do have outdoor access, Karcher said they should also have an indoor area where they can get warmth back to their bodies. But with indoor facilities, producers need to be sure coops are ventilated.

"We want to use minimal ventilation," Karcher said. "We want to have an opportunity for fresh air to come in. When we ventilate, it's not because we're trying to bring in oxygen, what we're actually trying to do is to remove the moisture in the environment. So we want to provide a small opening where fresh air can come in, and we typically provide it toward the top of our chicken coop."

As the air comes in, it will absorb moisture, Karcher said, and exit upward. He recommends producers use a roof vent to maximize the heat in the coop and remove moisture. Another way to remove moisture is by choosing the right bedding. Karcher said he recommends pine shavings, but there are other options.

"People can use straw, or hay, but they'll have to recognize that they need to add it more often, just because the waxy covering, especially on straw, doesn't allow moisture to be absorbed like it would with wood chips," he said. "And so if we're going to use that, preferably we're going to need to chop our straw, and then we'll just have to add it more often so it can actually absorb the water."

He said corn cobs and sand are also options, but may not be as effective.

"Some people use corn cobs or sand," Karcher said. "Those are fine. The concern with sand is that, no different from the beach, it's going to be extremely cold, and so you're going to run into issues from a heating perspective. But on the opposite spectrum, if you're using supplemental heat, it might end up getting too hot. So it's usable, but wood shavings or straw are something more commonly used."

Laying Hens

Karcher said for producers wanting their hens to maintain egg production over the winter, special accommodations will need to be made.

"The first important thing to know about laying hens, is that they are responsive to the amount of daylight," he said. "So as our days get longer in the spring, the birds lay eggs, and during the fall, as the daylight gets shorter, birds don't lay as many eggs, because their reproductive systems regress. That's because they're thinking it's time to molt and head south. If we want to maintain egg production during the winter, we need to maintain a level of light—typically 16 hours."

Karcher recommends using a light on a timer to keep 16 hours of daylight in the coop. This would require a light to switch on before sunrise, and after sunset, to simulate natural daylight.


While chickens, turkeys and other fowl generally need similar management practices, Karcher said waterfowl have some different needs.

"A huge misconception is that waterfowl need to have water to swim in all the time, but they don't," he said. "From a welfare standpoint, it is preferred that they have access to swimming water because they're aquatic birds, but if you need to try to limit the amount of moisture in your building during the winter months, then I would go to just a simple drinker for your ducks or geese."

Giving more water access to waterfowl, Karcher said, could harm them in the winter because they tend to spill it, soaking the bedding and adding moisture to the air. When it is very cold, it may not be a good idea to clean out the coop because birds will be exposed to the cold. Thus, Karcher suggests completely cleaning out the coop at two particular times of the year.

"I would recommend something similar to what you might do in your own house—do a spring cleaning as soon as it's warm enough for birds to be outside, and then at the end of September or the beginning of October, is when I would suggest that you go ahead and clean again before you put them back into the coop," he said. "So that way you're trying to limit whatever parasite exposure either has been there, or what they might have brought in over the summer."

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