Winter Poultry Care
by Lucy Hampstead-Taylor, taken from the 2012 Yearbook
The Christmas break arrives at last, eleven days off work and a chance to complete some of the outside jobs I have been waiting to do. The list is already written; 1) creosote poultry sheds, 2) lay new path, 3) plant hedging/trees. Everything is bought ready in anticipation of the time off work but the one thing which cannot be planned for is the weather.
Rain, rain and more rain. Attempting to do any of the above jobs creates so much mud there is no point trying, so, instead of doing the jobs I thought I would write a few lines for the yearbook on a topical subject, winter poultry care.
Most breeds of poultry generally cope better with cooler weather than warmer weather. With summer behind us and the threat of coccidiosis and other heat related illness over, we have other issues to think about.
I find that it is possible to categorise the basics of poultry keeping into three areas; housing, feeding/nutrition and healthcare. All three need to be present and correct for poultry to thrive, if one fails problems occur. For example, it is largely irrelevant how good your poultry feed is if the birds are riddled with Northern mite. Equally, you could spend time powdering your birds every few weeks, but if the shed is damp and overstocked you will still have problems. Its worth having a closer look at these three areas.
Leafing through the latest Smallholder magazine there are several companies advertising what they claim to be the ‘ideal poultry house’. There is a common theme to these adverts; small arks, often with no windows, inadequate ventilation, made of questionable materials and without fail, a large over-estimation of how many fowls can live in there. Not to mention a hefty price tag.
In summer when the days are long and the nights are short, the fowls may spend only 8 hours overnight in the ark so it is possible for them to live in the ark during these months without too many problems. However, I would say that arks are unsuitable for anything other than a few months in the summer, and would recommend the best place for them between the months of October and March is stored undercover out of the way.
The ideal set-up
I would recommend to anyone keeping large soft feather heavy breeds, like the Lincolnshire Buff is to buy or build a simple wooden shed—large enough for you to walk in to. Ideally as large as they have space for and can afford, this coupled with a scratching shed and grass run is the ideal set-up. A trio of Buffs or 3-4 pullets would suit a 6ft x 4ft size shed.
A garden shed can easily be converted into a suitable house with opening windows, dropping boards and perches, a nest box and a pop hole. If you can supply the shed with electricity so much the better; this will make the long winter months much more pleasant for both you and the fowls. Cleaning out and looking after the fowls is much easier in light, and during the short winter days the fowls will appreciate a little extra light to balance out the 8 hour days and 16 hour nights. If you really want to go to town add guttering and lay a sturdy path and winter will be an easy time for you.
Space permitting, an old fashioned ‘scratching shed’ adjoining the poultry house allows the fowls to have exercise on miserable days. A scratching shed is a fox proof enclosure, roofed with tin with tin also running along the bottom of the sides with the remainder fenced over with wire netting. Make it tall enough so you can walk in and cover the floor with bark chips or dried leaves.
On wet days the poultry can be left in there with access to their shed and they will be kept dry and occupied. The dry floor will be a welcome area for them to dust bathe in. The scratching shed will ideally be a minimum of 6ft x 4ft for the set up we have talked about above, this would obviously need to be large for more fowls.
The set up described here particularly suits the fancier who works full time or is away from home a lot of the time as the darks nights aren’t an issue. The fowls are safe in their house and scratching shed, and then when you arrive home you can drop their pop hole securing them in the shed and then give them a corn feed by electric light.
I have a few sheds like this and in winter the fowls are only let out into their grass paddocks on a weekend. I prefer to let them have 2 days a week of grass rather than 7 days a week of mud, and have peace of mind they are safe when I’m not there.
Since the modern practice of feeding pelleted feed which is easily obtainable, feeding is probably the easiest part to fulfil. What you feed depends on the age of the fowl but generally all adult fowl can be fed layers pellets in the morning, (approx 4-5oz each) and a feed of corn in the afternoon (approx 1-2oz each).
This afternoon feed is very important in winter as it allows the fowls to fill their crops with wheat before perching for the night. The wheat provides slow release energy to sustain the fowls through the long nights. Generally speaking when feeding, try not to overfeed as there is nothing more certain than the fact it will attract rats and mice. Lastly, don’t forget the mixed poultry grit needed by poultry to help grind their food up in their crop.
Other feed supplements can be given during the winter to help the fowls keep going, cod liver oil and a spoonful of poultry spice always goes down well. Poultry tonic can be added to the water.
Frosty weather causes extra work in ensuring the fowls have fresh water to drink. There is no quick way in doing this but I empty the drinkers out at night and refill in the morning. In very cold weather I use old saucepans for drinkers as they are easier to bang the frozen water out of than a conventional drinker. When buying drinkers try and buy galvanised ones if your budget allows. Plastic ones are much cheaper but are easy to break once frozen and become brittle with age.
Don’t forget that poultry enjoy a supply of fresh greenstuffs throughout the winter, a cabbage hung up in their scratching shed will occupy them for hours and keep them healthy.
Routine healthcare is generally quite straight forward; the most important aspect is the power of observation, ‘eyes and ears’. By detecting many problems early they can be treated and prevent the condition from worsening and spreading to other fowls.
Poultry will try their best to look well when they are infact ill and consequently; by the time you notice they are ill it is often too late. I would say the main threat to poultry during winter is damp conditions, nothing is more certain to bring about respiratory problems.
Unfortunately for poultry, they, like other birds, have air sacs instead of lungs and the wide spread location of their air sacs means that breathing problems take hold fast and often spread quickly to other birds. This is where suitable housing comes in and if sheds aren’t overstocked dampness shouldn’t be a problem. Healthcare should be aimed at prevention rather than cure.
Try your best to check your birds every month for external parasites. Although they can occur at any time of the year, some are more prolific at certain times of the year. Winter can see an increase in Northern Fowl Mite so this is one to watch out for.
Check the fowls vent area and on males check their wings and the back of their necks. Look for tiny black/grey mites running along the bases of the feathers and clumps of grey/white debris attached to the feather.
If you find Northern Fowl Mites apply a pytherum based powder. If a heavy infestation occurs the bird will need powdering every 4-5 days to break the cycle of new mite eggs hatching. It is also possible to apply one small drop of Panomec (Ivermectin based, available from your Vet) at the back of the neck.
Other parasites are Red Mite, which live in the nooks and crannies of the shed and feed by sucking the blood from your hens at night. Check your perch ends for white spotting and dark red mites crawling around. I have found Diatom based powders most effective for treating the sheds, this can also be used as a prevention at any time of year.
Lice, which are larger than the mites mentioned above are grey/brown in colour and move very quickly when the feathers are parted. The tell tale signs are sugar cube textured clumps at the base of the feather where the lice breed. Lice are usually quite easy to eradicate by dusting the birds with a general farmyard louse powder.
With all lice and mites prevention is better than cure and there are no short cuts to managing this other than regular checking. Birds have been known to die from severe infestations so it can become a serious problem.
In cold spells check your cockerels combs for frost damage. If a cold night is forecasted apply a good coating of Vaseline to the comb and wattles, paying particular attention to the tips of the combs.
A sure sign that the comb needs some care is when it is starting to look blue/purple at the tips. Ignoring this can lead to the comb turning black and eventually shrivelling/dropping off. Very painful for the poor cockerel.