Care for backyard chickens during winter

ETX Ag news: pasture conditions improving across the nations
ETX Ag news: pasture conditions improving across the nations
Published: Dec. 21, 2018 at 6:59 PM CST
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EAST TEXAS - Keeping laying hens productive through the winter months means keeping them well-fed, well-watered, healthy, and comfortable. Below is a checklist developed by experts to assist the backyard grower in keeping their flock comfortable.

First, provide 14 to 16 hours of light per day for your laying hens. There is no advantage to supplying more light than this. A 60-watt incandescent light, 13-watt Compact Fluorescent or comparable LED bulb hung 7 feet high with a downward reflector will provide adequate light for a 200-square-foot or smaller pen. Place lights on a timer for convenience and consistency. Keep light bulbs clean for light quality and quantity.

Your hens need two to three square feet of floor space per bird. Birds need ample space for their comfort, reduced stress, and ease of movement. Be sure to provide comfortable roosts so that all birds can roost at the same time. Provide at least 6-8 inches of linear roost space per hen. Roosts should be 1.5-3 inches in diameter. Round stock is preferred, but clean tree branches with bark work fine as well.

While you keep them from cold drafts, be sure to provide adequate ventilation. This can be accomplished with intake or exhaust fan(s) or natural ventilation. If the smell of ammonia is evident, adequate ventilation is missing.

You can distinguish drafts from adequate ventilation as a draft is a continuous current of cold air that could chill your birds. Check for drafts at high points, low points, and at every corner. A technique for checking is to wet your bare hand with water and feel for drafts or use a piece of tissue paper and watch for movement.

Keep all areas of the pen clean. Remove soiled feed and dirty water immediately. Keep feeders, roosts, nests and waterers clean. Keep bedding (litter) dry and clean. Wet bedding should be removed and replaced with clean dry shavings.

My friend, Garret Ashabranner is a big fan of deep bedding. Not only is it an insulating factor in keeping the feet of birds from getting too cold but requires fewer changes between cleanings. Pine shavings, pine straw and other materials can work for bedding. Use 4-6 inches as a bedding base. Clean out pens in spring and fall. Then add fresh bedding after complete cleaning and disinfection.

If you want hens to continue laying in the winter, you may need to provide adequate warmth for the hens when the temperatures drop below 55 degrees F as laying hens begin to slow egg production below that point. This can be accomplished through insulating the floors, walls and ceiling. Protect insulation from bird pecking by covering it with wood or metal sheathing.

Consider supplemental heat if birds cannot adequately heat the area with body heat alone. Infrared heaters may be the most efficient method of heating the area. Infrared heaters are said to be effective by heating the bodies and not the air. These heaters can be controlled with a thermostat. Consider using a Thermo cube – a device plugged into an outlet into which the heater is plugged. They come on at pre-set temperatures to activate heaters, fans or any other device you plug in them.

If using a heat lamp, use the red infrared type. Use chains, not rope, to hang lamps at the desired height. Keep a thermometer or sensor inside the pen at bird level to monitor the temperature. Try to maintain a temperature at least 40 degrees F during really cold spells. As always, be aware of any potential fire hazards when using heaters and heat lamps.

Birds typically need extra feed in cold and freezing temperatures. Supply a 14 to 17 percent crude protein layer ration so the birds are never without feed. Avoid making changes in the feed ration as this can cause them to go off feed.

A hand full of “scratch feed,” a mix of cracked corn, oats and wheat, per 10 birds can be broadcast on the litter in the late afternoon. The scratch feed will keep the birds busy and will help turn over the litter.

Lastly, the winter season can bring about an increased predator pressure on poultry. This likely occurs because the number of the predator’s natural prey may be in decline due to cold temperatures and natural cycles. Any wildlife biologist knows, wild animals require additional calories to maintain body condition and core temperature. As such, predators must either survive on fat reserves or find more prey.

Best of luck with your hens this winter. I know of several folks that enjoy the gifted and purchased farm eggs that our local, backyard raised hens supply.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is