Chickens are awesome additions to any homestead. They’re small, they don’t require a lot of intervention. And they keep you in fresh breakfast for a large portion of the year.
While chickens do not require a lot of special care in the winter. They can be prone to frostbite. Especially those beautiful roosters with their tall combs and large wattles.
The problem with frostbite in chickens isn’t so much that it gets really cold. It’s the moisture. Keeping their coop nice and clean and dry goes a long way to preventing frostbite, but it isn’t the end all be all. Especially roosters when their wattles drip down into the water when they get a drink. They can get frostbite from that.
While it isn’t a huge worry for most, avoiding frostbite in chickens during the cold winter months is a concern for most homesteaders. So, here are some ways to keep your flock from succumbing to the potentially painful condition.
How to Avoid Frostbite in Chickens
1. Raise heritage breeds
Almost all heritage breeds are cold hardy. They were bred to withstand the elements a lot better than the commercial breeds that are so often utilized in industrial farming today. I am a huge proponent for not only returning to the old ways, but preserving these amazing creatures that our ancestors worked so hard to develop.
Raising a cold hardy, heritage breed bird is going to get you a long ways to preventing frostbite. When selecting the chicken breeds for your homestead, though, keep in mind not only the plumage (more feathers to block the elements results in warmer birds) but also the comb size and type.
A bird with a thin, single comb is more prone to succumbing to frostbite than something with a rose comb. Our favorite rooster has a massive single comb, as he’s a Welsummer. He also has super large wattles. He is a lot more likely to get frostbite than an easteregger with a pea comb.
Australorps and barred rocks are fantastic examples of heritage breeds that can withstand the elements and do not have huge combs. While they do sport a single comb, it’s small and not near as susceptible to the elements.
2. Use Flat Roosts instead of Dowel Rods
A lot of people think that a chicken needs a rounded bar to roost on. They don’t. In fact, in the winter they are far more likely to get frostbite… on their feet with a rounded roost bar than a flat one.
Why? Because a chicken will wrap its toes around a rounded bar in order to stay up there. Doesn’t sound like a big problem, but a chicken also will pull its head under its wing and try to cover its feet with feathers. A rounded bar leaves the toes exposed to the elements instead of being able to be covered by the plumage of the bird.
If the roosts are flat, they can cover their entire foot. Keeping it warm with the feathers God gave them. I find that incredibly amazing.
We opted to just use some old scrap 2X4 boards to make roosts in our big coop. The chickens have no problem roosting on them and they don’t have to wrap their feet around the bar in order to hold on. They can just stand and cover up their feet without issues.
3. Leave the Water OUT of the Coop
I know, I’m cruel, right? How dare I make the birds go out to get a drink and… to eat! But, I do. Especially since we have ducks on our homestead. Our mixed flock shares a coop. The ducks hang out on the floor, the chickens roost above. It works well and no one fights. But ducks and water inside a coop? Hahahahaha. I’d have a frozen swimming hole in there in no time!
Even if you don’t have ducks, you should really leave the water outside. Your birds can venture out to get a drink. They don’t need near as much water to sustain themselves in the winter, anyway. So, it isn’t like they’re going to be frequenting the water trough.
Leaving water inside the coop contributes to moisture. And remember I said moisture is the cause of frostbite? Not… cold. But moisture. Water inside the coop will just add to the moisture you’re trying to avoid. So, keep it out and you’ll not have that issue.
4. Keep the Coop Clean & Well Ventilated
This is important any time of year, but especially in the winter. If you have a bunch of soiled bedding, it’s wet. Wet bedding contributes to moisture inside the coop. Moisture causes frostbite.
And lack of ventilation is bad for your birds any day of the week, but especially in the winter. Ventilation should be up high, above the roosts, not at bird level. This will help keep the coop nice and aired out and dry.
5. Do Not Use Heat
Just don’t. I’ve talked about this so many times. It’s not worth it, for one. The fire risk of adding heat to your coop is ridiculously high. I know… they have things that aren’t heat lamps that are considered “safe heat”. But just don’t. Here are the reasons:
- Heat contributes to moisture in the coop, so it’s counterproductive.
- If the electric goes out (or whatever means you’re using to heat the coop) your birds will not be acclimated to the temperature and could actually die from the drastic temperature change
- They don’t need it! God designed them to keep themselves warm. They have plenty of feathers, they aren’t near as uncomfortable as you may think.
6. Coat The Combs
If you have roosters with large, single combs and/or wattles or hens with big combs and wattles, you can try coating them as a preventative. We use coconut oil, twice daily, on days that it’s going to be really cold.
All you have to do is warm it up in your fingers a bit and coat it onto the exposed combs and wattles. This will be incredibly difficult to accomplish with some birds. I know our rooster last year would not have it, and he got a little bit of frost nip on his comb. But, a docile rooster is a must on a homestead anyway. If they’re not friendly and docile, they aren’t a very good rooster.
With Kellogg, I’ve only had to coat him up once, as it’s been really warm here lately. But, I just go grab him in the morning before I let everyone out right off the roosting bar. And after he goes up in the evening, I go apply more. He doesn’t usually mind.
This just provides a little protective barrier to help keep the wind and moisture from making direct skin contact.
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