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Winter Care of Poultry

We are in NY state and our birds regularly see temperatures below zero throughout the winter, sometimes for weeks on end. In those kind of temperatures a 5 gallon bucket left out overnight will freeze SOLID. We don't mean to belittle southerners but 30 or even 20 degrees isn't a crisis ;) If some of you southerners have some tips to share on keeping birds cool in extreme heat, we'd love to hear them because we don't have a clue about that. We do have some tips for those of you who suffer through the same kinds of temperatures that we do here in NY.

This is not directed at equatorial breeds such as Muscovy ducks, Java Green Peafowl, Serama chickens or the like. We'll leave that sort of information to people who raise these heat loving breeds in our colder climates. This document is directed primarily at Mallard derived ducks and most breeds of chickens in areas of the country experiencing extreme cold. Most of it will also apply to geese as well though they are another species with which we have little experience.

The most important means of keeping birds healthy and alive through extreme temperatures is by providing adequate shelter. The shelter need not be heated, insulated or extravagant but it does need to be dry and draft free. The shelter should not be so air tight that there is not sufficient circulation. That can lead to too humid conditions which can lead to frostbite on the extremities of the combs of roosters and occasionally other fleshy exposed parts of birds. Birds CAN get frostbite. This is a valid issue which needs to be addressed. Most people tend to solve the problem by heating their coops. This can be an expensive and potentially dangerous solution to the problem and is generally not good for the health of the birds.

Some things you can and should do to ensure the comfort and health of your birds in cold weather include the following;
- make sure they have plenty of clean, dry, deep bedding
- make sure they have access to good quality, fresh food (Treats such as lettuce greens and other fruits and vegetables can be a welcome addition in winter. Good, rich alfalfa hay can be fed to chickens in the winter to provide them with greens as well as scratching entertainment. Ducks may enjoy this somewhat but don't seem as interested as chickens.)
- make sure they have access to clean, fresh drinking water at LEAST once daily, more often is desirable (more on waterfowl, swimming water and how to do that below)
- a little corn (cracked or whole) can be fed in the afternoon during extremely cold weather (Care needs to be exercised when feeding corn since many feeds already have a lot of corn in them. Too much corn can make birds fat and interfere with reproduction.)
- if you feed corn, make sure grit is available for the birds to grind the feed and utilize it

In our opinion, birds should NOT be given supplemental heat through the winter for the following reasons;
- most methods of heating in a chicken coop are serious fire hazards (just ask how many people we know who have lost coops to fire for this reason)
- birds that have been heated through the winter are generally (not always) less healthy than those that are not heated
- if power goes out and it is cold out, you will need to provide an alternate arrangement for heating your poultry
- many heat bulbs also emit light which may interfere with bird's normal wake/sleep, laying and molting schedules

That said, many people will opt to heat their coops anyway. If you insist on heating your coop, please consider the following suggestions;
- if you start to heat for the winter you MUST follow through the entire winter, slowly acclimate them to the cold or risk losses from birds that are not accustomed to the cold
- consider using ceramic heat bulbs which won't shatter as easily as glass bulbs (Mor Electric manufactures and supplies ceramic infrared heaters. They are very pleasant folks to do business with.)
- use ceramic fixtures designed to withstand heat
- securely fasten heating fixtures by wire or some other means so that they are not apt to fall down
- do not hang heaters close to combustible materials (straw, shavings, wood)
- use a circuit breaker sized to trip on overload based on your heater wattage (15 amp for 1500 watts, 20 amp for 2000 watts)

The biggest challenge northerners face in winter is keeping open water available to their stock. Fortunately there are many options available today. For those with electric available in their coop, care needs to be taken to run electric water heaters safely. There are many people without electricity in their coops or people who wish to keep electric use to a minimum. Hopefully there will be some ideas here that almost everyone can use. I will list some suppliers below the ideas.
- water can simply be carried once or twice a day as needed if the number of birds is small enough and the owner's schedule allows
- Little Giant makes 1.5 and 3 gallon pans that are smooth plastic (ice comes out fairly well) yet are sturdy enough to take a LOT of abuse without breakage
- heated dog dishes and/or buckets can provide open drinking water to a small number of birds very easily
- stock tank heaters work well for larger quantities of water but may prove rather expensive to operate - using a stock tank heater in conjunction with some of the following ideas may help reduce electrical useage
- a thermostat or timer to turn off/on the heaters may help reduce electrical useage
- heat tape can also be used in connection with a thermostat to help keep water open
- stock tank bubblers/pond bubblers/fish aerators can keep ice out of larger pools of water as long as temperatures aren't too low
- electrical cords and bubbler hoses can be run through PVC piping to keep geese from chewing on it
- insulating the waterer, digging it into the ground and/or using black materials to absorb the sun's heat will all help to keep the water as warm as possible
- a lightbulb can be used fairly safely as a heat source under a waterer (if your design is safe) to keep water open without a huge electrical output

Many people do not provide water indoors for ducks because they are so messy. This is quite alright and will keep the indoors dry which will promote the comfort of the birds. If you feel you MUST keep water indoors and have the luxury of designing your own coop rather than converting current space, you can provide an open area at the bottom of the coop with adequate structural support to hold the water. Cover the area with 1/2"x1" welded wire to prevent predator access.

You do not need to be concerned about water freezing on the ducks feathers. That just shows how well insulated they are. If they were loosing body heat, the water wouldn't freeze. Consider what down jackets are made of. Waterfowl have built in down jackets that they wear year round. Even in below zero temperatures, ducks will want to swim. This actually helps keep their feathers in good condition and allows them to better survive the cold temps. Swimming water is not necessary EVERY DAY. You can provide it 2-3 times per week and just provide drinking water other days. Just remember on sub-zero days to check them often or dump the water when they're done to prevent them from freezing into the pan or to the ground around the pan. Ducks can die from struggling to get free when they are frozen in and can lose limbs from frostbite this way.

You can put a water heater on a lamp timer if the current draw does not exceed rating of timer. The following link is to some nifty thermostats including an inexpensive outlet with a built in thermostat that comes on below 35F and goes back off at 45F. ACF Greenhouses Heat tape is also available with a built in thermostat designed to keep pipes from freezing. and I'm sure other merchants. Guidelines for safe use of heat tape can be found at the following page: EFD Heat Tape Article

K & H Manufacturing This site had heated dog dishes, buckets and a couple of different types of pond and small water area heaters.

Pond Windmills Very cool! A windmill to aerate your pond and keep water open. A beautiful concept here in NY where there is plenty of wind, very little sun and lots of need to keep water open.

Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Access An excellent article with clever tips on ways to keep water open.

Warm Water An article for horse water but the same principles apply to poultry.

Iowa State University Cooperative Extension More tips on keeping water from freezing and cold weather pet tips.

Shagbark Bantams Winter Care Article

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