Winter in the henhouse – by Barastoc Poultry

Crisp mornings and cosy evenings are here again! Winter is a wonderful time of year to take stock and catch up on some rest after the busy summer and autumn months. And it’s no different for your chickens after a demanding season of laying eggs.

Many people are surprised to find that chickens are quite capable of dealing with the cold and are a lot hardier than they think. The arrival of shorter days and cooler weather stimulate changes in a chicken’s body and behaviour which will help her stay warm and healthy over winter.

To maintain their body temperature, chickens have a layer of specialised small, soft feathers under their outer contour feathers. These ‘down feathers’ trap air next to the chicken’s skin, keeping it at body temperature and preventing it from escaping into the environment – the same principle which keeps us toasty warm inside a down jacket. Chickens will fluff their feathers to bring more air into this insulating layer if needed.

There are some parts of a chicken that aren’t covered by feathers, of course, and this is where behaviour comes into play. Chickens will often stand on one foot at a time, keeping the other one warm by tucking it up into the feathers on their abdomen. The comb and wattle – which act as excellent ‘radiators’ in the summer months – need to be similarly protected during the cold nights, which is why hens will tuck their heads under their wings to sleep.

Alongside these natural adaptations, there are a few things you can do to help your flock keep warm and avoid any health problems over winter. While Australian winters generally don’t reach sub-zero temperatures, it’s worth making sure your hens have everything they need for the cold months:

  • Check the roost

Night-time is when chickens are most vulnerable to the cold so it’s important to provide them with a good place to roost off the ground. Ideally, the perch should be wide enough for them to roost side-by-side to conserve heat and of the right thickness for them to grip comfortably and allow them to cover their feet with their feathers.

  • Keep the coop clean and dry

Make sure the coop is well insulated from drafts and protected from wet weather, whilst allowing ventilation to stop the build-up of moisture. Regular cleaning is also a must.

  • Make sure they’re eating right

Keeping warm takes a lot of energy so it’s important to make sure chickens are getting enough nutrition to stay healthy. Free access to a high-quality feed will ensure the chicken meets her energy needs, and give her a head start when Spring Flush comes around again.

Tips for Keeping Your Animals Cool

Dogs:

  • Plenty of cool drinking water
  • Try to place the drinking water in a shady place to avoid it heating during the day
  • Sometimes an ice bottle/block in the water will help keep it cool during the day
  • Inside dogs will find the best spot in the house – usually near the air-con duct
  • Outside dogs may need a hose-down occasionally or access to a water bath or trough
  • Aim to take them walking early morning or evening after the sun has gone down and the road/pavement surface is no longer hot.

Horses:

  • Try to provide access to trees or a shelter shed during the hot part of the day
  • Ensure plenty of drinking water is available, a larger volume will not heat up significantly during a hot day. Placement in the shade is desirable.
  • Aim to ride/exercise your horse early morning or during the evening
  • If you plan to ride during warm conditions, pre-cool before riding: cover the saddle area with a plastic sheet to keep it dry, sponge or hose your horse, then saddle him up and as the horse exercises the evaporation of water in the coat will keep him cool for 10-15mins.
  • Upon finishing exercise, allow your horse to walk for 3-5 minutes to trigger sweat loss, dismount, unsaddle and either wash with cool water and a sponge or lightly hose his body and legs. Use a scraper on his topline, neck, sides and underbelly to remove the ‘warm’ water allowing any water in the coat to evaporate more efficiently. If he is hot and panting, take him for a short walk and then sponge or hose again, repeat the process until he is comfortable.
  • During a ride on a hot afternoon, you can carry a saturated sponge in a plastic bag attached to your saddle. If you decide to stop for a rest, you can sponge his neck, topline, flanks and underbelly. If continuing to ride within a few minutes, scraping will not be necessary as the water will evaporate with airflow as you ride. Otherwise just scrape the excess water off with your hands.

Rabbits, Guinea Pigs, Birds, Chooks:

  • Provide plenty of cool water
  • Use a frozen bottle of water for rabbits and guinea pigs to lie against
  • Cages placed in a shady location are desirable or use a shade cloth or rigid shade placed over the cage.
  • A garden mister attachment on a garden dripper line can be used to provide a cooling spray for chickens and birds. Consider using a timer tap so it operates for a specified time.
  • A garden sprinkler run in a chicken coop will provide a patch of damp dirt for them to scratch about in afterwards.
  • Cages can be hung with a wet hessian bag or towel which acts with evaporation as the air passes through to make the environment in the cage cooler.

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