Here in the Bay Area, it's getting extremely cold this month, a reminder that winter is not messing around, even in California. But humans aren't the only ones feeling the chill — if you're keeping chickens, you need to make sure they're snug for the winter. Chickens without adequate shelter won't lay as well, and they're also more prone to diseases and more vulnerable to parasites. Make sure your feathered friends are comfortable this year with a few easy tips!
Hopefully, you already have a hardy breed of chickens that does well in cold weather, and there are a lot of choices, including Cochins, Plymouth Rocks, Amaraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Wyandottes, among many others. These breeds tend to be heavier, with smaller combs (less surface area exposed to cold), and they're less delicate in the chilly weather. Incidentally, if you do have animals with larger combs and the forecast calls for extremely low temperatures, rub the comb with petroleum jelly to prevent frostbite.
Ventilation is critical for chickens, as their droppings are high in ammonia, and thus, while you want an insulated coop, you don't want it to be airtight. If that feels counterintuitive, don't worry; you can balance the need for warmth and ventilation with a small insert of ventilating wire right at the roof overhang, allowing air to flow across the top of the coop. Meanwhile, insulate the floor with a warm layer of straw, which you can easily change out (and use to mulch crops or enrich compost in your landscaping), to provide the chickens with ample snug nesting material.
Sawdust in nesting boxes can provide added insulation as well as a comfortable spot to nest. Additionally, you can consider installing a heat lamp for chickens who benefit from warmer temperatures, but be careful; with more straw and sawdust around, you don't want to accidentally start a fire. Finally, make sure you have some good roosts in place to allow plenty of room for your flock. They will fluff out and snuggle together to insulate themselves and each other, doing a lot of the work for you.
Confirm that your roof is in good condition to keep the coop dry, and consider extending it to create a dry outdoor area for the chickens to use during the day. That way they'll have room to roam, but they still won't be exposed to harsh rain, snow, and ice. Scatter alfalfa and other treats in the roaming area to provide enrichment and entertainment, so your chickens won't become bored and develop negative behaviors like picking or scratching at themselves.
Rich feed with supplements is advisable in the winter to keep your chickens healthy, and you can add some corn to help them stay warm as well. Also, make sure they have access to frost-free water. Heated buckets are available if you live in an area where the winter is extremely cold — otherwise, change your water and break through the ice on a regular basis so there's always an ample supply of water.
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