Managing Laying Hens in the Winter

20180123_121042-1     For most chickens, winter is a time of rest and repair.  They have just finished a long summer of laying and their bodies are depleted of energy.  Most people will see a decrease in egg production from their flock as the days grow shorter.  It is discouraging to think that one might have to start buying eggs from the grocery store again. We miss those beautiful golden yolked eggs.

Chickens will stop laying during the year for many different weather related reasons. Hot spells, storms, steady rain can all have an effect on how the girls are laying but almost all hens dramatically slow down in winter for the entire season.  All breeds reduce egg production but the silkie never has had a steady egg production to begin with.  You might see nary an egg until spring.

First of all it isn’t natural for hens to lay at all in the winter, but selective breeding has made it possible to continue to get eggs all year long.  Hens instinctively know that winter is not a good time to be raising a brood of chicks but they can be tricked into thinking that spring is on the way.

Reduction in egg laying is caused by two factors. The first is the molt.   A molt causes the replacement of feather on the chickens body by shedding all of the old feathers and growing new ones.

Feathers are made out of protein.  Replacing all these feathers is very hard on the hen.  After the fall molt she needs a rest and a break from laying.  Increasing the amount of protein in the diet will decrease the time it takes for the hen to regrow her feathers and return to laying.

Make sure that you have a good Gamebird feed that is high in protein.   Feather Fixer is also a feed that many people use during a molt.  In addition there are high protein treats available to help with new feathers growing in. Mealworm Frenzy is a dried mealworm supplement but you can also serve the live mealworms to your birds.  Omega Fields has a high protein chicken supplement that can help with new feather growing and cat fish pellets or fish chow are high protein treats.  Remember that these supplements are for treats only. They should not replace a good Gamebird feed which also includes needed vitamins and minerals.

During a molt reduce their stress level. Don’t move them to new quarters or introduce new flock members. Increase their regular feed so that it is around 20-22% protein.

The second reason for a decline in laying has to do with the length of daylight.  Shorter days are telling the hen to suspend laying because it is not a good time to hatch out a family of baby chicks.  For more information on the effects of shortened days check out “Changes to Silkies as the Days Grow Shorter.

One way to increase the rate of lay is to manipulate the length of day using artificial lights in the coop.  You don’t need much light to fool the hens into thinking that the days are getting longer. A 25-40 watt bulb is sufficient to do the trick.

I use 40 watt Led bulbs on a manual on/off night light fixture.  You plug the entire assembly into a timer and plug it into an outlet.  You could even use a string of Christmas lights on a timer.

Have the lights on a set schedule with the timer, not just whenever you think about turning the lights one. Erratic lighting will encourage chickens to molt which you do not want in the winter.  They need their feathers in order to keep them warm in the winter.

The combined artificial and natural light should total around 14 hours.  Make sure that the supplemental light is coming on during the morning hours.  If you do it in the evening it will confuse the birds to have the lights suddenly go off and them may not make it to their usual night time spot.  This will cause them stress.

Set the timers so the light comes on between 4 am and 8 am.  Remember to check periodically to make sure that the bulb is still working.  Make sure you have a back up plan in case there is a power outage. Battery powered camping lanterns work well.

If your birds are getting up at 4 am they probably are not getting outside until sunrise.  Your chickens may get bored during this time.  This can result in them pecking at each other.  Food and water should be inside the coop so they have something to do.  Chicken toys such as Treat Balls and Peck and Play balls relieve boredom.   If you are a late sleeper you could install an Automatic Coop Door where you could decide when you wanted them let out.

One other thing that can influence egg laying is the temperature outside.  The colder it is, the less eggs seem to be laid.  Heat lamps, which create warmth, can stimulate laying.  250 watt red bulbs give the feeling of night time.  For  more information on heat lamps check out “Heat Lamp Use.”  Sweeter Heaters also create warmth in the coop.

Silkies are very hardy in winter temperatures far below freezing.  If their eggs remain at these temps for too long they will crack.  It takes temperatures below the freezing point for eggs to crack.  That means they need to be 28 degrees or lower for there to be a problem.  Hopefully a silkie will cover the eggs until you can pick them up or that a soft bed of pine shavings can act as an insulator.

Make sure that your hens have plenty of water in the winter.  If their water is frozen most of the time this will lead a huge drop in egg productivity.  Hens need a great deal of water to create an egg.  Use a heated water base to make sure that the water is always open.  For more information on using heated water bases check out “ Using Heated Water Bases. ” at the VJP Poultry blog.

In addition, offer supplemental oyster shell so that the hens have plenty of calcium for eggshell formation.

For more tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our weekly blog at VJPPoultry.com.

VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria Peterson

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How to Prevent and Treat Frostbite in Your Flock

20180104_120604-1     It has been said that a good offence is a good defense where frostbite is concerned. There are, in fact,  things that can be done before frostbite happens that can prevent this serious damage from occurring.

Many people have misconceptions as to what frostbite actually is.   Frostbite is damage that occurs to tissues when they are exposed to extreme cold.  Basically, the fluid inside the cells freeze.  Because of this freezing, blood clots can form which prevents cells from getting oxygen.  This, then, causes the tissue damage.

You want to prevent frostbite from happening in the first place.  Too much moisture in your coop is the top cause for developing frostbite.  Chickens create a lot of moisture just from breathing.   The more birds you have in your coop, the more you need to ventilate that moisture out.  I keep the windows open all year round. They are high enough so that they do not cause a draft. Adding roof vents to your coop can keep air circulating.  Put a digital thermometer/hygrometer to measure the temperature and the humidity in your coop so that you can always be on top of any changes.  If the windows have moisture or condensation on them then you need to increase your ventilation.

Another way to limit moisture in the coop is to make sure that you do not have damp bedding or moisture from droppings.  If possible, keep waterers out of the coop.  If you have a watering system that creates a lot of spillage, you may want to switch to a nipple water systemPine shavings stay dryer than straw or hay.  Make sure you are changing the bedding and removing the droppings to reduce moisture.  The dry litter method works well but remember to keep the bedding stirred up and fluffy.  Use dropping boards under your roosts for easy clean up daily.

Attention should be made to the chicken’s roost. During colder weather, most chickens will fluff up and poof out their feather.  They are trying to cover their combs, wattles and feet with their feathers and bodies.  Flat, wide roosting boards are best.  Rounded perches can be slippery.  A  2X4  board will work well and allow them to cover their feet with their bodies. Install as much ventilation as you can as high up as you can. The openings should not cause drafts on their roosts.  Silkies that do not roost high up but instead sleep on the floor will need extra protection from drafts that can occur from pop doors. I use squares of reflective insulation to block drafts.

Apply a coat of a wax based product to combs and wattles at night.  I like Waxlene or Musher’s Secret.   Other good choices are Bag Balm or Coconut oil.  Make sure that whatever you use, that it is wax based. Do not use a cream based product as the water in them will freeze and increase your chance of frostbite.  If your bird is hard to catch, wait until it is on the roost at night and then gently remove to apply the product.

Chickens need protection outdoors as well. Provide windbreaks through the use of clear tarps.   For more information on setting up tarps on your run look here.   Add wooden planks to perch on outdoor so that their feet can keep off the cold ground. If it is too cold out, just simply keep them indoors.  It won’t hurt them to stay inside for the day.

There are many things to can lead to frostbite.  Drafts on the floor, cold temperatures, wind chill factor, how long your bird is exposed to cold temperature, humidity or moisture in the air, high altitude, no access to shelter, rain or snow leaking into the coop, high humidity due to too many droppings or simply not enough bedding.

The early sages of frostbite are called frost nip. In cold weather, chickens are able to  conserve or hang onto their body heat by restricting blood flow to their combs, wattles and feet.  These are also the places that allow a bird to release heat in the summertime.  The results ends up being that the decrease in warmth and oxygen puts these regions at a risk for frostbite.

Wattles are very susceptible due to water dripping on them as they drink. A change to a nipple watering system with a pail and pail deicer can work in the cold weather.  They also sell a cold weather nipple system already put together.  Bearded silkies have their wattles protected with feathers but nonbearded silkies would need some frostbite protection.

Symptoms of frostbite include: a whitening or pale gray color to tissues, swelling of the tissues, combs and wattles feel cold or hard to the touch, blisters form that are filled with fluid, tissues become blackened, bird is limping (frostbite to feet) loss of appetite and listlessness.

Remove a frostbitten bird to a warmer area and gradually warm the injured area. Avoid rubbing it as that will cause additional damage  Do not use something like a hair dryer to try to warm it but let it gradually become warmer.  Do not break any blisters that have formed.  Do not remove the blackened tissue as this is protecting the healthy tissue under it.  The blackened part will dry up and eventually fall off.  Those areas will not grow back.

Keep the area clean with neosporin or Vetericyn VF Hydrogel spray.  Use it on the infected area 2-3 times a day until it is healed.  Watch out for infection.  If you see swelling, redness, oozing, or bad smelling discharge you may want to call a vet.  Soak frostbitten feet in lukewarm water and keep it indoors on soft bedding.

Watch to make sure that they are eating and drinking .  Add vitamins and electrolytes to their water to keep them hydrated.  Watch out for other chickens pecking at their frostbitten areas. Blue -Kote could help with that.   Frostbite takes around 6 weeks to heal.

The consequences of frostbite include pain for the bird, disfigurement (their combs will always look rounded), loss of movement in their feet, decreased fertility in roosters and loss of egg production in hens.

Luckily, silkies have walnut combs which give them protection from frostbite. If you live in areas of cold weather try to choose breeds of birds that have small combs.  Single comb birds have the worst time with frostbite, but even small combed breeds can suffer if it gets cold enough.

Other blogs of interest include How to Deal with Below Zero Temps in the Chicken Coop, and Tips For Winterizing You Chicken Run.

For more tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies go to our weekly blog at VJPPoultry.

VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria Peterson

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