Saturday, January 1, 2011

Caring for Backyard Chickens & Goats in Cold Weather

After weeks of mild weather, we've experienced a bit of a cold snap. This morning I realized that you really know it's cold outside when there's steam rising out of the pail after you've finished milking!

Inquiries about winter care are some of the most frequently asked questions during my backyard chicken and goat classes, as future animal owners consider the challenges of raising animals that have to live outside 24/7 -- even during the harshest conditions.
The good news is that livestock (including the city kind!) are pretty tough critters, and are built to withstand the cold. The goats grow a thick winter coat, and the chickens puff up their feathers and hunker down. Backyard animal care isn't too difficult during the winter, but when temperatures start to fall there are a few things you can do to help keep your animals healthy.

Adventurous chicken tracks
Shelter: First and foremost, make sure your animals have a place to spend their day where they can stay dry and out of the wind. They may choose to wade out into the snow from time to time (surprisingly, the chickens are much more likely to venture out when it's snowing than the goats) but it's very important that they have access to dry bedding. In fact, you might want to give them a little extra bedding, just so they can burrow in when it gets really cold.

Water: As every animal owner knows, it's important to never let your critters go without water. And unfortunately, frozen water is as good as no water. Luckily, there are many different ways to keep your water from freezing. You can purchase a heated base for your water dispenser, or buy a heater that floats in the water bucket. If you spend most of the day at home, you can simply boil a teakettle of water from time to time, and use it to melt the ice that's formed in the water bucket.

My friend Jamie has a special trick she likes to use for her chickens and goats. She has a small, insulated cooler (the kind you'd fill with ice and soda cans before a picnic). She makes her animals their special "tea" by heating water on the stove, then pouring it into the open cooler. The insulation keeps the water warm, and the animals absolutely love to drink from it on cold days.

Food: Cold weather is no time to skimp on food. Goats, especially, use the process of ruminating their hay to warm their bodies. Give a little extra food to both your chickens and goats, so they can eat everything they need to keep their bodies nice and toasty.
Supplemental Heat: Many animal owners (though not all) use some form of supplemental heat during especially cold nights. The mechanism for delivering heat depends a lot on your shelter. A small chicken coop just needs a 60-watt light bulb, whereas a larger coop or shed might need a heat lamp. In the case of goats, you don't want to fully close them in because any ammonia fumes (from the bedding) will damage their lungs, so hanging a tarp to create a small insulated area can be helpful. Of course, be sure that any heat source is very well secured, and it's not a bad idea to keep a smoke detector in the area.

Vaseline: Chickens keep most of their body warm with their feathers, but their tender combs and wattles are susceptible to frostbite. Even with supplemental heat, you may find that you need to coat the comb and/or wattle of certain chickens with vaseline to protect from frostbite. In my flock, I've discovered that the only chicken at risk is my White Leghorn, with her extra-large comb. Vaseline-ing the head of a chicken is exactly as difficult as it sounds, but it's worth it because frostbite is very painful and can lead to infections.

Attention: While your animals don't need a constant babysitter during cold weather (though they always like the company), making an extra trip or two out to the barnyard to check on things is advisable. It's nice to be able to spot a burned-out heating lamp, or a chicken that stumbled into the water dish and now has damp feathers, before the cold weather turns the situation into an emergency. 99.9% of the time things will be just fine when you pop outside to check, but the peace of mind you get is worth the effort.

While cold snaps may add a few minutes to your daily animal care routine, you'll soon find that winter weather is nothing to fear. Happy backyard-animal-raising!


The Real Gretchen Anderson said...

Thanks, Sundari! Your post showed up in my Google alert for "backyard chickens." I learned something new! I didn't know about the Vaseline trick. 8-)

Laurie's Chicks said...

Thank you Sundari. This is my first winter with my chickens and was starting to worry. I have 7 hens and 1 rooster. I plan on leaving a 75 watt light bulb on all night in their coop. My plan is to lock them in completely overnight, then open up their small opening in the morning. Should the light stay on 24/7 during the cooler months?

Laurie from PA

Sundari Elizabeth said...

Hi Laurie -- Actually, I've recently started allowing my chickens to go without any supplemental heat at all (based on the advice of some old-time chicken keepers). Some say that it's actually healthier for the chickens to not have heat, because then their bodies don't have to adjust from 70 degrees (inside a heated coop) to 20 degrees (outside on a chilly morning).