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 choware 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 tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center 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 J. Peterson

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Respiratory Health in the Silkie Chicken Flock

20180119_124720-1     During this cold snap you may hear some strange sounds coming from your flock.  All of a sudden you may hear a high pitched squeak which begins to sound like a sneeze. That is a red flag that one of your birds may becoming down with some kind of respiratory issue.  Upon closer examination you may see that your bird has a runny nose or watery eyes.  This is the time to take action and isolate that bird from the rest of the flock.

Respiratory issues in poultry can be either a minor problem or a major problem depending on the severity of it.  Most of the time it can be easily dealt with. However, there are some deadly respiratory diseases that can effect your entire flock and medicine will need to be given.

One cause of sneezing and cold- like symptoms in poultry can be all of the dust that can collect in a coop.  Chickens can cough, splutter and get watery eyes if they breath too much dust in. Dust can come from the pine shaving you use as bedding or just from the dander on the birds themselves. You may want to switch to a dust free bedding or use sand or straw.  Use an air hose to blow out the dust in the coop periodically. Install fans to blow air out or the coop so that dust can’t collect.  Let your birds free range when they can or be out in their runs all year.

When cleaning the coop and changing bedding it would be a good idea for you, too, to wear some kind of face or mask protection.  Dust, dirt and chicken feces particles and not good for your lungs. People that work in the poultry industry routinely wear masks when cleaning.

Any kind of stress can also cause your chicken to start to display respiratory distress.  Extreme temperatures , being transported and crowded conditions all add to a lowering of the immune system and coughing and sneezing can result.  Make sure that your coop is not too crowded and that the coop is well ventilated.  You need fresh air freely flowing through the coop.

The introduction of a new bird to the flock can cause stress as a new pecking order needs to be established.  Chickens love routine and anything that is new or different can stress them out.  That new bird could also be a carrier and be bringing in new viruses.  Quarantine is very important when adding new birds. A minimum of three weeks is needed to protect the rest of your flock from incoming diseases.  Buy chickens from trustworthy sources who you know have healthy birds.

Check your birds daily for signs of respiratory illness. Symptoms include sneezing or sniffling, runny nose or mucus coming out of the nose, watery eyes or swollen sinuses.  Isolate the bird if you see these symptoms in a crate and if possible keep it where you can observe it.  Your bird is contagious.  Change the bedding in the coop to try and keep germs from spreading to the rest of your flock.  Treat with some Vetrx around the nostrils or even in the water.  Use some Terramycin or Vetericyn in the eyes if they are watery or are closing shut.

You can bolster your bird’s immune system by giving them probiotics and plain yogurt. Chopped garlic added to the water is good for the immune system.  So is adding dill, oregano and thyme to the feed. I always add apple cider vinegar to my chicken’s water water to help with digestion and to improve health.  Vitamins and electrolytes also work well for overall health.

There are some serious respiratory diseases:

 

Causes of Respiratory Illness in Adult Chickens
Disease Occurrence in Backyard Flocks Distinctive Signs of Illness Average Mortality Rate
Mycoplasmosis Common Foamy eye discharge, more common in winter, roosters usually
show more severe signs
Usually none
Infectious coryza Common Swollen face or wattles, gunky eyes, foul odor, more common
summer and fall
5–20 percent
Infectious bronchitis Common Decreased egg production Usually none
Newcastle disease Mild strains are common. Highly deadly strains are absent from
chickens in the United States.
May also cause diarrhea, staggering, paralysis, sudden
death
5–99 percent
Fowl cholera (chronic form) Not so common Swollen face, gunky eyes, rattling or difficulty breathing,
more common in late summer
0–20 percent
Infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT) Not so common Gasping, coughing up bloody mucous, dried blood around nostrils
and lower beak
10–20 percent
Avian influenza Rare (Deadly strains are absent from chickens in the United
States)
Droopy birds, rattling breathing sounds, diarrhea, sudden
death
5–99 percent

*taken from Chicken Health For Dummies

If you feel that your chickens have one of these diseases, you should probably call a vet.  They will give you antibiotic for their water or antibiotics given with injections.

The problem with these more serious diseases is that the symptoms are the same as lesser illnesses.  Unless you do a blood test you will never know for sure what you have.  Treatment is the same for any respiratory disease.  Complete recovery may take 2-4 weeks.  Your bird may recover but become a long term carrier of the infection.  A healthy looking hen could be contagious to others because she carries the disease.

Vibatra is an all natural antibiotic alternative.  Homeopathic sprays are another natural alternative to antibiotics.

Amoxfin is an antibiotic used for tropical fish that you can get over the internet and put in their water.  Tylan is an antibiotic injection that you can find at places that sell chicken supplies.

It is important to know whether your bird is contagious if you are planning on selling birds or if you take them to shows.

Silkies have a hard time seeing with their large crests and muffs.  Many times I will see eye issues because feathers had lodged themselves into their eyes and are acting as a irritant.  Keep their crests and muffs trimmed if this is an issue.

Some people think that silkies need more vitamins than other breeds of chickens. You may want to feed them a better quality feed or give them vitamins in their water to help their immune system. Check out “When Something Is Wrong With My Silkie”

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center 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 J. 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 tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center 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 J. Peterson

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How to Deal with Below Zero Temps in the Chicken Coop

white rooster outsideOften we think that we have winterized correctly for normal winter temperatures. But often in January the temperature can dip below zero which leaves us scrambling for additional tricks to get us through a couple of days of rough weather.

The first thing to do is observe you chickens. A chicken that is feeling stressed from the cold will look cold. It will be huddled up and not moving much.  It may be standing on one leg trying to keep the other leg warm under its feathers. This may be the time to take action.

Chickens are designed to self regulate body heat. Their feathers hold in the warm air around their bodies.  There is a lot of heat inside of a coop just from the number of living, breathing chickens in it. The more chickens you have, the warmer your coop will become.

Your coop probably has some insulation in it already.  A coop should be designed for the kind of weather you live in. Insulation can be built in or added later.  Coops built with a double layer wall will trap air between the layers or, you can us conventional insulation covered with plywood to keep the chickens from pecking at it.

Last minute insulation ideas are things that you can place either inside your coop or outside.  Straw bales can be placed around the outside of the coop as well as inside the coop to block drafts. Straw is a warm bedding because it holds the warm air inside the shaft of the stem. Use it sprinkled on the floor of the coop or outside sprinkled on the run. It will keep their feet warmer than on just plain pea rock.

I use square pieces of reflective insulation to block the pop door at night after I shut the main door.  This helps to block drafts at the floor level. Remove the square in the morning or leave it on extra cold days where you don’t want them to go outside.  I also stuff old pillow cases with old t-shirts and put those in the pop hole area to cut off drafts.

A coop should provide shelter from wind, wet weather and cold drafts along the floor. The north sides and west sides need extra protection.  Wrap clear tarps around the fencing in your run to use as a wind break and to keep snow out of your run. Information on how to do this can be found here. Silkies do not like to walk on snow and won’t leave the coop until it is shoveled off of their run.

Ventilation is very important. Keep the wet out (snow/rain)  but remember,  water vapor needs to escape. Do not keep the coop air-tight. I leave my windows open all year long. When it is below zero, I will shut them halfway but I probably shouldn’t.  Ventilation is air that moves freely in and out of the coop. Drafts are air currents that blow directly on the chickens both on the floor and on their roosts. You want to eliminate drafts but you want as much ventilation as you can.  Trapped water vapor will make things damp in your coop. If you see frost on your walls and on your doors inside the coop, then you need to increase your ventilation.

Your birds will increase the amount of food that they eat in below zero temps.  You need to keep their food bowls filled and keep the food inside the coop where they can find it easily.  Cracked corn is your friend in below zero temps. It will keep your bird warm. When  it is really cold I give them cracked corn before going to bed so that their crop is full all night.  I cook eggs every morning to feed back to the silkies.  Warm, cooked oatmeal will warm up their insides and help them in low temperatures.

You will need to have a way to keep your water from freezing up. I use heated bases and put a galvanized metal 2 gallon waterer on top. Information on Heated Water Bases is here.  Other people use a heated dog dish for their water. I worry about the silkies beards becoming wet with an open dish like that.  I like to put vitamins and electrolytes in their water when it becomes cold to help perk them up.

I change my chicken’s bedding fairly often, but when the temp is below zero I begin to use the deep litter method. I keep adding more and more pine shaving bedding to their pen. I kick it around with my boot every morning so that it does not become compacted.  You want it nice and fluffy. Do not try and clean or change bedding when it is below zero.  Just keep adding more to the mix. You want it as dry as possible in the pen. Remove large chunks of poo when possible.  You will need to gather eggs more often as well or they will freeze and crack.

If you see  a bird that is clearly weak or sick you will need to separate it from the rest of the flock. You can crate it in a dog crate in your laundry room or garage. You will need to wait for warmer temperatures to introduce the bird back to the flock as they will have to be acclimated to outside life.

I use heat lamps as a last resort. I do not like to use them as they can be a fire hazard and are expensive to run. I will turn them on if the temperature is -10 degrees or colder. You need to factor wind chill in there as well especially if you have drafts you can’t block out. If you want to read more about heat lamps, look here.  Some people like to use Sweeter Heaters instead of heat lamps because they can be safer and less expensive to use. They will not be as warm as a heat lamp will be. Other flat panel heaters include Cozy Products which is similar.  Make sure you have a back up plan in case the power goes out. A portable generator is a good thing to have on hand.  Birds will not be able to handle extreme changes in temperature and may it may prove deadly.

Frostbite can occur especially on feet, combs and wattles. Silkies have small combs and wattles so usually frostbite is not a problem in those spots. However, frostbite on feet can happen to silkies. If you have other breeds of birds you may want to use some Waxlene on their combs and wattles to protect them.

Remember that you need to dress appropriately in order to do your chicken chores in these cold temperatures. I wear Carhartt gear because it is very warm.  Their products are made for people who have to work outdoors. Start with insulated bib overhauls.  Add some Carhartt winter boots and your feet will stay very warm.  A warm winter jacket and a hat that covers your face. Don’t forget warm gloves as my fingers are the first thing to get cold and warm socks for my toes that also get very cold.

Ultimately, it is your decision on what steps to take for your birds. There are some days where I don’t even open the pop doors to the run because I think that it is too cold. If you want more information on winterizing your coop check out Tips for winterizing your chicken run and How to Winterize a chicken coop built from a Kit.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center 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 J. Peterson

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