SALT LAKE CITY -- Winter can present some challenges for Utah homeowners who are new to keeping backyard chickens. While most chickens are hardy and require little attention in spring, summer and fall, extra care is required to make them comfortable and keep them healthy in cold winter weather.
Chickens can actually suffer frostbite — particularly those breeds with large single combs on their heads like leghorns or barred rocks. These breeds are popular with commercial growers because of their excellent egg production.
Chickens that forage for much of their food during warmer months need additional supplemental food during the winter.
When chickens are housed indoors in large commercial barns, the type of comb is not an issue. It is an important consideration for free-range home flocks, however, because the points on the combs can freeze, turn black and fall off.
Chickens can’t sweat, so combs are the cooling system for chickens. While a damaged comb does not usually impair the overall health of the bird, it can sometimes lead to infection or make them more susceptible to overheating during hot weather.
Breeds with rose combs like wyandottes, or pea combs like ameraucanas or brahmas are less likely to experience frostbite. Some sources say that coating combs with petroleum jelly during cold weather can help protect against frostbite.
The most important consideration in keeping chickens warm and healthy in cold weather is adequate shelter. The shelter need not be heated or insulated, but it should be dry and have adequate circulation. An airtight shelter can become too humid, which can lead to frostbite. Dry bedding like straw, hay or wood shavings can help insulate chickens from the cold, but it must be replaced regularly with clean bedding.
A proper shelter helps protect chickens from predation, which becomes more common in winter months. Even in Utah’s most urban areas there are raccoons, foxes, skunks, dogs and feral cats that will all prey on chickens. During winter, there are fewer food sources available, so animals that might have ignored backyard chickens in the summer now find them irresistible.
Water is also a critical consideration. Chickens need fresh water daily, and in the middle of winter, buckets and water dishes can freeze solid in a few hours. The easiest solution is to provide electricity at the shelter. A wide variety of heated water dishes and heated buckets are available at feed and livestock supply stores.
Chickens that forage for much of their food during warmer months need additional supplemental food during the winter. The birds burn more calories to stay warm so they should be allowed free access to high quality feed. Leafy green vegetables and fresh fruits can be added as a winter treat.
An option is to save stale salad, vegetable peelings, left-over cooked rice, pasta and stale bread and feed it to chickens. Chickens also need extra calcium during winter. The easiest option is to offer ground oyster shell, available at farm and feed stores.
When it comes to egg laying, experts agree that chickens are most productive when they receive 14 to 16 hours of daylight. With shorter days, egg production can decline significantly. Right now, northern Utah gets about 10 hours of daylight. Providing additional light can keep chickens laying more eggs through the winter. Using a fluorescent light with an automatic timer can boost wintertime egg production.
During extreme cold spells, eggs can freeze in just a couple of hours if unprotected. They remain edible, but the yolks of eggs that have frozen won’t hold together when the eggs are broken. If eggs freeze solid enough that the shell cracks, they should be eaten immediately or discarded.
Flint Stephens has kept a flock of backyard chickens in his Utah Valley neighborhood for 10 years. He currently maintains about two dozen chickens and some geese. His personal website is www.mormonparentingsecrets.com.