Feeding chickens in the winter is a little different than feeding chickens during the rest of the year. During nice weather, chickens love to forage and free range in the pasture looking for the choicest bits of protein and green roughage. They are so happy and content and their minds are fully occupied. In the winter, however, there are limited opportunities to free range. They do not like snow and in Minnesota their chance of finding bugs is slim to none.
Hens that are laying eggs need extra protein all year round and its not just the right kind of food but the right amount of food that is important as well. As winter approaches , a chicken’s feed consumption will be 1.5 times the amount they eat in the spring and summer. You will notice an increase in your feed bill and you will be filling those feeding dish more often.
This increase in food consumption is due to the fact that they are coming off of their fall molt and need energy to regrow feathers. They are also using more energy in order to keep warm in the winter. They can’t just put on another sweater. They have to generate body heat to keep themselves from freezing. If they were free rangers they no longer have access to free food in the form of bugs and greens. Instead they will be increasing their feed consumption in their feeding bowls.
The most important thing to remember when feeding in the winter is to make sure that they are getting plenty of their regular, nutritious feed. Some people have their hens on layer food which has calcium in it. It is around 16% protein. I like to feed mine a Gamebird feed which has a higher percent of protein. I think that silkies benefit all year round from that higher 24% protein. These basic feeds are created to give your bird the correct amount of vitamins and minerals that they need. This is what they should be eating most of the day. Add Oyster shell to the feed for eggshell development. I also put vitamins in their water because I think that silkies need that extra amount of nutrients.
Carbohydrate treats help to keep your birds warm especially on exceptionally cold days. The best sources are what you would find in chicken scratch. Cracked corn, oats and wheat. Scratch scattered around the coop or run will also give the birds something to do and keep them occupied. Remember to offer grit with the scratch. In the winter the small rocks in your run may be covered in snow not allowing the chickens to find their own grit. They need the grit in their crops in order to grind up these scratch grains.
Some people make a nice bowl of warm oatmeal for their chickens on cold mornings. It is a great treat to warm up their insides. Just use regular breakfast oatmeal but make sure that you are not serving it too hot. Cracked corn is a wonderful winter treat. I give mine to my silkies right before bedtime. They will go to bed with a full crop and be warm all night. Watch out for cracked corn turning white silkie’s feathers a yellow tinge on their necks and crests. I usually feed oatmeal instead of corn to the whites. Also, be aware that too many carbohydrates will make your chickens overweight. A heavy hen is not a good layer so be careful with the amount of treats. Treats should be given later in the day as the birds need the nutrients from their main feed first.
Sprouting grains and fodder is a great way to bring the goodness of the outdoor summer pasture all year round. Sprouting grains can increase the enzyme, vitamin and protein content of any seed. I have sprouted and fed my birds both oats and wheat. If you would like to learn how to sprout check out “Sprouting Grains and Growing Fodder” in our blog archives.
Live mealworms can be grown at home or ordered as a fun protein treat. You can grow them using wheat bran as bedding. If you are not sure that you want to deal with live mealworms, they also have the dried form which the birds also enjoy. You can also order live crickets which your hens will have no trouble gobbling up. There are freeze dried crickets as well.
Boredom is common during the winter in the coop. You don’t want the birds to turn on each other in desperation for something new and interesting to do. Try hanging a cabbage or head of lettuce in one of these treat balls. They will spend hours trying to get at those leafy vegetables. Be sure and feed extra greens such as kale, collard, chard and spinach. Leftovers from your salads are great for them as are any kitchen scraps.
Flock Blocks are popular because they lasts a long time. Chickens have an instinct to peck at things. Better to have them pecking at a flock block than pecking at each other during the winter months.
If you are offering treats to your flock outside in the winter, make sure that you are placing it in some kind of bowl or feeding dish. The ground can be very wet outside in the winter. If you sprinkle food on the ground it will get soggy. Birds do not like soggy food. Make sure you clean up any left over food and pellets. If you don’t it will attract pests such as mice. Store extra food safely in sealable containers so you don’t attract predators.