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Winter-Proof Your Flock: 7 Vital Tips for Backyard Chicken Owners

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As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, backyard chicken keepers across Australia, particularly here in the Southern parts, face the annual challenge of winter flock management. Fear not, as with a bit of preparation and know-how, you can ensure your flock remain in tip-top shape throughout the colder months. Let's dive into seven essential strategies to keep your chickens clucking contentedly, even when Jack Frost comes knocking.

1. Batten Down the Hatches: Sealing Your Coop

    First things first, let's talk about draught-proofing. A well-sealed coop is your chickens' first line of defence against the winter chill. But how can you easily spot those sneaky gaps letting in the cold air? Here's a nifty trick that works well:

    1. Wait until nightfall
    2. Arm yourself with a torch
    3. Station a friend or family member inside the coop
    4. Shine the torch along all the external walls not forgetting the roof

    Any gaps will be immediately apparent as light seeps through. Once you've identified the culprits, use a felt pen and mark them with a cross then patch them up when convenient. Use any materials that are suitable such as wood, silicone sealant, gap filler or any other materials that will do the job. Your chickens will thank you for their now cosy, draught-free nights!


    2. The Nightly Lockdown: Closing the Coop Door

    It might seem obvious but you'd be surprised how many chicken keepers forget this simple step in winter. Once your flock has settled in for the night, make closing the coop door part of your evening routine. Not only does this help keep the cold at bay, but it also provides an extra layer of security against nocturnal predators such as the ever-present fox.

    Pro tip: If you're prone to forgetfulness or often return home after dark, consider investing in an automatic coop door. These nifty gadgets can be set to close at sunset and open at sunrise, ensuring your chickens are always tucked in safely. Avoid the ChickenGuard units as you’ll need to troubleshoot and do any technical repair work yourself when they stop working - a frequent problem for those buying them!


    3. Skirting the Issue: Install a Coop Skirt

    Adding a skirt around the bottom, perimeter of your coop run is a game-changer for winter chicken keeping. This 20-30 cm high barrier of corrugated iron or timber serves multiple purposes:

    • Keeps bedding drier by blocking wind-driven rain
    • Acts as an additional deterrent for crafty predators like foxes
    • Provides a good visual barrier for chickens by reducing scares
    • Stops bedding and litter materials from migrating out, through the mesh where it is wasted

    Think of it as a cosy windbreak for your chickens' run area. You and your neighbours will appreciate the reduced odours and your chickens will love their sheltered, dry space for scratching, dust bathing and pecking.

    4. Wind Woes Be Gone: Protect Against Prevailing Winds


    Every chicken keeper knows the importance of location, location, location. If your coop faces the brunt of winter winds, it's time for some strategic shielding. Create a windbreak using corrugated iron, plywood or even straw bales. This doesn't have to be a permanent structure – a temporary shield during the worst of the winter weather can make a world of difference.

    Remember, the goal is to keep your hens warm and dry, not to create a hermetically sealed environment. Which brings us to our next point...


    5. Bedding Basics: Keep It Dry

    Dry bedding is the unsung hero of winter chicken keeping. It's not just about comfort; it's a crucial factor in your flock's health. Here's why:

    • Helps to efficiently break down droppings into compost
    • Destroys harmful pathogens
    • Helps destroy parasite eggs and larvae
    • Reduces odours by promoting the rapid breakdown of wet droppings

    Make it a habit to check your coop regularly and particularly after any rain event, then top up any damp or soiled patches with fresh wood shavings. Your chickens will appreciate the dry footing and you'll notice a significant reduction in coop odours.


    6. Cleanliness: Increase Cleaning Frequency

    Winter means your flock will be spending more time indoors, which inevitably leads to increased manure build-up. This can result in higher ammonia levels, which are harmful to your chickens' respiratory health. Combat this by:

    • Cleaning under perches more frequently
    • Scraping off any manure deposits on hard surfaces (scrapers work well with this task)
    • Removing wet or soiled bedding promptly
    • Ensuring proper ventilation (more on this in a moment)

    Regular cleaning might seem like a chore, but it's one of the most effective ways to maintain a healthy environment for your flock. Plus, your nose will thank you for the reduced ammonia levels!


    7. Breathe Easy: Ensure Proper Ventilation

    It might seem counterintuitive to let fresh air into your coop during winter but proper ventilation is crucial for your chickens' health. Good airflow helps control moisture levels and prevents the build-up of harmful gases like ammonia.

    The key is to create ventilation above your chickens' heads to avoid direct drafts. Install vents near the roof of the coop to allow stale air to escape while keeping your flock cosy. This makes use of the convection current that creates the gentle, rising airflow to help expel harmful gases.

    Bonus Tips for Winter Chicken Care

    Nest Box Knowhow

    Keep your hens happy with clean, dry nest boxes:

    • Replace any soiled nesting materials with hemp as soon as you find them
    • Discard any eggs with cracked shells to avoid foodborne illnesses

    Let There Be Light

    As daylight hours decrease in autumn and winter, you might notice a drop in egg production. One option to help your hens keep laying is by:

    • Providing supplemental lighting to ensure they have 16 hours of light daily
    • Make sure that the lighting illuminates their feed so that the hens can easily see it
    • Use a timer and set it to turn on lighting at least an hour or two before sunrise

    Feeding and Treats

    Your flock's appetite may increase by up to 25% in cold weather in order to help keep them warm so it’s vitally important to keep them well-fed on a “complete” diet such as Sustainable Layer. Extra ways of keeping them warm at night include:

    • Continue providing a high-grade, balanced diet
    • Offer healthy treats before bedtime such as peck blocks, corn from the cob or butternut pumpkin to help generate body heat overnight

    Winter chicken keeping doesn't have to be a chore. With these seven strategies along with our bonus tips, you'll be well-equipped to keep your backyard flock healthy, happy, and odour-free throughout the colder months. Remember, a little extra effort goes a long way in ensuring your chickens stay comfortable when the mercury drops.

    Before you know it, spring will be here, and you'll have a healthy flock in great condition ready to enjoy the warmer weather.

    * Baxter, M., Joseph, N., Osborne, R., & Bédécarrats, G. Y. (2014). Red light is necessary to activate the reproductive axis in chickens independently of the retina of the eye. Poultry Science, 1289–1297.
    * Jácome, I., Rossi, L., & Borille, R. (2014). Influence of artificial lighting on the performance and egg quality of commercial layers: a review. Brazilian Journal of Poultry Science.
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