Advice on care and maintenance
During the winter, the number one priority needs to be the condition of the chicken house/coop; the housing will be used more by the birds during this period than at any other time of the year.
Older housing suffers with the passing of time: roofing soon becomes porous, split and damaged and felt is extremely vulnerable as it hardens with age and becomes quite fragile. Some coops are built with timber rooves that do not have any specific covering; these need to be checked to make sure the boarding is a good, tight fit. Other units come with a wide variation of roofing materials, such as Onduline or other synthetic roof coverings.
Any damage over the summer months will inevitably cause leaks and will need to be addressed before the really bad weather sets in. Leaking roofs cause damp inside the housing. This needs to be avoided, as it will lead to the birds suffering from illness and respiratory problems.
Patching can sometimes work, but it is far better to do a permanent repair as this will save further problems later. There really is only one answer – to replace the damaged roofing.
The amount of space inside the shed is another important issue, as overcrowding is a major cause of infection during the winter season.
The house/coop needs to be large enough to house the birds in comfort. They need to have enough space to roost and also be able to move around and have a suitable environment that allows them access to a good supply of fresh air.
Housing raised from the floor
Poultry housing comes in many different forms. There are houses that sit on the ground, movable coops with attached runs and others that stand on legs, raising the whole unit up from the floor.
Whichever type of housing you are using, it is always best to have space underneath to allow a constant flow of fresh air. There needs to be sufficient access to enable you to clean under the unit, and enough light under the shed to help minimise rodent problems.
Air flow underneath will prevent the floor from becoming damp in adverse conditions, which could in turn affect the health of your birds. Mildew spores and damp, in general, will, ultimately, lead to respiratory problems or worse.
Rodents love dark places where they can hide and breed. They do not feel safe in areas were they could be seen.
What a rodent needs is a dark, dry area to build their nest and rear their young; this needs to be avoided at all costs. There are some excellent houses that stand on legs, giving up to 18ins clearance underneath. This makes access to the underside of the house very easy and also means rodents have nowhere to hide.
The housing must have good ventilation, and one of the best places to enable that is through the windows. Most houses have at least one window, and this is generally fitted with either glass or Perspex. When open, the window needs to have a strong mesh undercover that will keep the birds inside and the predators outside.
Weldmesh is the best product to use as it is much stronger than standard chicken wire and comes in a wide variety of sizes. Choose the smaller size to make sure that it will keep out the smallest rodents, especially at night.
When the autumn begins and the days become shorter, the birds will go to roost much earlier. They should have enough space on their perches. This also allows them to breathe more easily. Some birds, however, may refuse to roost on the perches and will insist on sleeping on the floor. Some will take over nest boxes and use them as sleeping compartments. These habits are not acceptable, as the birds risk being affected by respiratory problems as they breathe in the ammonia created by the droppings. When this is mixed in with bedding, it creates heat and can produce fumes that can be quite toxic.
Some birds will soon become very soiled and, in many cases, will start to lose their feathers, especially from their underside. Ammonia in the bedding creates heat, especially if the bedding is soiled. The heat can have an affect on the bird’s hocks (knees) as the ammonia can burn the skin and the hocks can soon become swollen and infected. If the birds are roosting as normal, away from the floor, there should be very little chance of these problems occurring.
Sometimes, it may be necessary to teach the birds to roost on the perch. This can take a little time and patience, especially if they have developed the habit of not perching. To do this, wait until it is dark, pick up the birds from the floor and place them on the perch. It is almost certain that they will immediately jump off … and then the battle of who wins begins. By doing this in the dark, there is more chance that the birds will stay where you put them and not move until daylight. After a few days, this will become a habit, and they will eventually roost of their own accord.
Red mite are the scourge of all poultry keepers. Treating your housing against these mites needs to be carried out even during the winter months. The fact that their presence is far less when the weather is really cold does not mean they have gone away. They are still there waiting for the warmer weather to start breeding and feeding all over again. They have the ability to lie dormant for very long periods.
It is a good idea to clean the shed and spray it thoroughly. Powder and clean the floor before adding the bedding (see my feature on bedding in the October issue of Your Chickens). Diatom is excellent for this task, as it will help to destroy the mites and, using this alongside the other treatments, will help to keep the birds safe and well.
Do this on a regular basis every time you clean out the birds and this will help to reduce the mite population. It will give you an advantage when the mites start to increase in numbers as the new season and warmer weather approach.
There are several treatments available, both in liquid and powder form. These are well tried and tested, and the treatments need to be carried out on a regular basis. There is no easy answer to this issue, irrespective of the claims on some of the new products.
Weather protection for covered runs
The birds will spend most of their time outside, even if the weather is really bad; they are not affected by the extreme cold, provided they are in good condition.
Have a good level of outside protective cover, especially around the pop hole, as this will reduce the amount of wet and dirt that can be transported into the housing on the birds’ feet. Provide an area where they can shelter, yet still be outside in the fresh air and daylight. It could be a purpose-built covered run, or just a couple of sheets of roofing; even a plastic sheet will do what is needed.
What needs to be considered is that, if the birds are kept out of the weather as far as possible, then they will be drier when going into the housing, thus helping to keep the bedding and the housing in a drier and healthier condition.
The feed needs to be under cover or, at least, be in a feeder that is equipped with a decent-sized rain hood. Keeping the feed as dry as possible is very important as it keeps it fresh, and this will also help with the prevention of disease and parasites.
Fencing and security
Security is of the utmost importance, especially with the extra long nights; predators are hungry and will go to extra lengths to gain access to a free meal.
This is the time of year to check all the bolts and fastenings. Make sure the slide bolts are secure and, more importantly, check where they are fastened, as a good bolt fastened to a rotten timber can soon break away and be removed.
Pop holes need to shut tight and have no gaps around the edges. They should be strong enough to keep out any predators, and should not be easy to lift or pull. Be extra vigilant for marks on pop holes where rodents are showing signs of trying to gain entry. Windows need to fit and, as mentioned before, be backed with a good strong wire.
Fencing around the runs needs to be checked. Unless it is sunk well into the ground and sloping out at the top, it can easily be scaled by the average fox – even if it is as high as 8ft. By sinking the fencing into the ground and sloping out the top section most predators will be prevented from gaining access. (see drawing).
The main predator, though, comes on two legs. To try and prevent theft, some security lighting can help. Using strong locks and smart water to mark the equipment can prove to be a deterrent.
This is the time to repair or replace any damaged fencing, doors, locks, bolts and suchlike to try to keep the birds as safe as possible.
Lighting during the winter months is a matter of choice. If you are wanting to keep a higher level of egg production, then the birds will benefit from the extra time with light. There is, however, a time during the year when the egg production will fall, and this is quite normal. It allows the birds to go through their natural cycle and is better for their health and welfare. They will soon return to normal production.
The advantage of having access to lighting is that, during the shorter winter days, it does help the keeper to carry out the daily general management needed, such as cleaning, egg collecting and checking the birds.
There really is no requirement for heating in the chicken housing. The birds are perfectly happy, even in the coldest of temperatures; the only time that heating is essential is if you are rearing young stock.
Certain breeds can be affected by the cold, but these are more likely to be pure bred exhibition breeds, such as the Frizzle feathered birds. There are certain show birds which may not be quite as hardy as some s we keep in the back garden.
Water is very important and, obviously, will freeze during the very cold weather. It is very important that the birds have access to water, no matter what the temperature. Ideally, the water always needs to be outside the housing. This is purely to prevent it from leaking or being spilt inside the house. Water inside housing is a source of dampness, and so to be avoided. If it is freezing, empty the water at night and refill it the next morning. Refill each time the drinker freezes. This will allow the birds to drink their fill as soon as they emerge from the shed. If frozen, repeat as often as you are able and the birds will suffer no ill effects.
Auto systems to drain
For any keepers who have automatic watering systems, winter is the time to drain them and return to manual drinkers just for a short time. The auto drinkers will work perfectly, but, as they freeze, the ice puts a lot of pressure on the joints and this, in turn, pushes away certain parts of the drinker. As soon as it defrosts, you have a flood.
Feeders under cover
If your coop does not have adequate space to house your feeder undercover, there are some ideal chicken feeders with hoods that have been designed specially for use outside.
Always remember to take away food at night to prevent unwanted visitors from helping themselves to a free meal. Alternatively, place the feed under some kind of cover to prevent the feed from becoming wet.
Adding some split maize to the feed will help the birds to create a little extra body heat, which will help them through this cold period.
Checking your birds – how to check that your chickens are in good condition
Each year, chicken keepers must consider how best to prepare their birds for the potentially wet and cold weather during the winter months. We have looked at some of these issues about winter care in recent issues – but it is important to maintain your vigilance. Some of our worst weather can strike in February and March.
Most breeds of chickens are generally quite hardy, but certain breeds may need special attention due to their feather type and breed characteristics. As a general rule, however, standard birds will suffer no ill effects even in very cold temperatures.
The most important consideration is to make sure the birds are provided with adequate cover to protect them against the weather. The housing needs to be kept dry and free from drafts; this is especially important in the areas were the birds roost during the night. Bedding also needs to be kept fresh, dry and clean as this will help to prevent disease and infection. There always needs to be a supply of fresh, clean water and a regular supply of fresh dry food.
There are a series of checks that need to be carried in winter:
Checking at a distance
Initially carry out a visible check of the birds from a distance. By doing this, you can see the birds in their natural state without disturbing them. This enables you to pick out any birds that are looking under the weather and showing any signs of illness or distress.
If you are new to keeping chickens, then this can be a little difficult. If you are not sure just what to look for, this becomes easier as you get used to the way the chickens act and what they look like during there normal daily routines.
It is very important to get to know your birds, seeing how they react. In this way, it will soon become apparent if any birds are ill or look unhealthy.
A close inspection
You can only examine the birds properly if you actually catch them. If in doubt how to do this, see the relevant video on the Your Chickens website (www.yourchickens.co.uk).
Catching the birds can be difficult depending on the breed, but it is better to carry out this task in the evening when they are settling down. This will save you chasing them all over the pen.
Once caught and under control, handle them with care. Most birds are reasonably easy to handle, but there are some breeds that are very hard to control. It is these ones that can easily suffer from stress, so make sure they are secure and handled very carefully.
The birds need to be handled individually to be given a proper examination. The check can be made a lot easier if the bird is securely held, and this can be done by using a second person to help, or wrap the bird in a towel to help keep it under control. A struggling bird is very hard to examine.
Are there any signs of problems?
With the bird being held close, make the basic checks for signs of illness, damage/injury, mites and any other insects. Close handling also allows you to check for eye infections, closed eyes and discharge from the nose, as these can all be signs of a variety of very serious illnesses.
Chickens are very susceptible to infections, especially in the eyes, ears and nose. These are very easy to see and check, but the type of infections vary and, in many cases, can be quite difficult to cure.
Infection in the eyes is quite common. They can be runny or swollen, with the eyes closing. Once this happens, the eyes normally fill with a yellow puss. In some severe cases blindness can result.
Treatment will need to include eye drops and possible an antibiotic, but to ease the problem temporarily you can bathe with mild antiseptic and warm water so the bird can see to drink and eat.
A runny nose is another common symptom that sometimes appears at the same time as an eye infection, but generally this type of symptom is related to a respiratory infection.
Checking for respiratory problems must be carried out throughout the year, not just in the winter. Look for signs of the birds wheezing, gasping or sneezing, or if they have runny eyes and noses. These are signs of what is really a cold in chickens. It is better to consider this as a normal yearly infection very similar the colds and chills we suffer as humans.Some sneezing does occur after the birds have been eating or drinking, so do not jump to conclusions too quickly.
One very easy way to check the bird’s breathing is to wait until dusk,
when they are roosting. Stand and listen to their breathing, and listen for a rattling sound which would indicate a problem.
Antibiotics can be given mixed with the water or, in the worst cases, by injection obtainable from the vet.
Do the birds look physically fit?
You can tell a lot just from the appearance of your birds. The colour of their external parts is always a good guide. The comb and wattles should be a nice bright red colour if the bird is very healthy. Should these be pale or have severe damage, then further checks need to be made. The damage could be due to fighting or bullying, or paleness may relate to an insect problem.
Look for bright clear eyes, the birds being very active, and the breathing smooth, level and easy.
Every time you examine the birds, always check the feathers. Missing feathers could be a sign of an impending moult, or could be caused by mating or feather pecking. If the damage is serious, this can result in bleeding which in turn could lead to cannibalism. This is a problem that must be avoided at all costs. If there are any signs of bleeding, remove the bird until this has stopped.
Examine the underside of the bird, with special attention around the vent area. This needs to be clean and free from dirt and insect infestations. Signs of insects need to be treated immediately with a good dusting powder.
Feel for any signs of swelling. If any are found, the bird needs to be subject to a further examination to make sure she is not egg bound or suffering from another internal problem.
Checking the front of the bird, look at the ‘crop’ (this is were the bird stores its food before being ground down ready to be digested).
Some birds can become ‘crop bound, which results in the feed becoming stuck inside the crop. This means the bird is unable to digest its food, and the results can be fatal.
Insects, mite and lice are a constant problem and must be addressed.
There are many different kinds of lice and mite but the most common are the Northern Mite, Scaly Leg Mite and Red Mite.
Checking for these is quite easy. You need to part the feathers around the vent. Lice can be easily seen scurrying and disappearing into the plumage. Look down to the base of the feather to check if any look like cotton wool stuck to feather quills. These balls are the egg cases produced by the mite. These need to be removed and the area treated with a suitable mite spray. If left, they hatch very quickly.
You may need to pull out some of the feathers as the only way to remove the egg cases, then spray the area thoroughly, repeating this treatment again within a few days to make sure you destroy all the insects and their eggs. To make this easier, wash the bird’s vent area in warm soapy water to help soften the quills.
Northern mite look very different to lice. They can be missed as they are so minute. They look like a very dark clump of dust, even resembling dark cigarette ash. They are mainly found around the vent and along the base of the tail or at the nape of the neck.
Checking inside the housing for insects
The main insect problem is the red mite. We took a look at them in last month’s issue. Even with the temperature dropping, they are still lurking inside the housing. They do decrease in numbers during this period, but are still there to come out and feed off the birds, especially during the night. Regular treatment is necessary to help keep them under control. Remember that they have the ability to lay dormant for great lengths of time.
Avoid using spray treatments and wetting the birds when the temperatures are very low, however. If very cold, use dry powder.
Further protection against insects is to use a suitable repellent powder under the bedding alongside a good disinfectant powder such as Diatom (diatomaceous earth, and to keep the floor of the house dry, clean and sanitised.
Legs and feet
It is easy to miss potential problems with chickens’ legs and feet.
Scaly leg mite is an insect that lives on the bird and burrows under the scales on its legs, infecting the flesh beneath the scales and causing discomfort for the birds.
Look for raised scales on the legs and tell-tale signs of a residue of a whitish crusty dust on the surface; this is the result of the mite burrowing under the scales. These signs indicate quite a bad infestation that needs immediate treatment.
To treat, you can use a good quality spray produced for the purpose and then coat the legs in Vaseline; this will suffocate the surviving mites, but will need to be repeated until they are completely eradicated.
All through the year, chickens can lose there feathers for one reason or another, but during the winter many will go through an annual moult. This is a natural event. In some cases the birds shed very large amounts of feathers, and these are replaced with new plumage ready for the following season. There is nothing that the keeper can do except help the birds through this period by supplying extra vitamins. These can be added to their daily drinking water to help the bird reproduce what has been lost during this period.
This is a far more serious problem which can result in birds being lost. If not controlled, it can soon develop into a far worse habit cannibalism. The feathers are pecked, causing bleeding, and then the birds will just keep on pecking. In some cases serious damage is done.
New feathers are prime targets – as they re-grow they are full of blood in the quills. To try and prevent this from happening, use an anti-peck spray directly onto the affected area. This has a nasty taste which will deter the culprits.
Evidence of feather pecking is very easy to see – just look for areas where they have been removed. There will inevitably be some damage to the skin as well. Overcrowding and boredom are the prime reasons for this starting.
When trying to mate, the cockerel will mount the female and inevitably cause some damage to the hen’s back and neck. Again, this is quite normal, but it does remove feathers from both areas leaving them venerable to attacks. Mating is greatly reduced during the winter months giving time for the feathers to re-grow, but it can becomes serious problem again once the spring approaches.
Checking the birds for internal parasites is very difficult. It is almost impossible to know what is happening inside your chickens. All you can do is take suitable precautions by keeping a check on droppings; if these change in appearance, there may well be internal issues. Examine them for signs of blood, yellow diarrhoea or very runny watery droppings. Normal healthy dropping consists of a dark solid part with a white section; the dark part is the solid and the white consists of the urine.
The vent area of the bird is also a good indicator as to the bird’s health. It needs to be reasonably clean and dry, not soiled, wet and dirty.
Wormers and other products
Worming the birds is very simple; you can use a liquid based wormer that is mixed into the drinking water or a wormer powder or pellet that is mixed dry into the feed.
This comes in a powder form that is added into the feed. It does not have an egg withdrawal period stated but it is advisable to not eat the eggs for a period of seven days.
This product is ideal for use approximately once every six months.
You can now buy Flubenvet in a smaller 60gm pack that a more suitable size for back yard keeper.
This is a liquid soluble wormer that is diluted in the water. There is no recommended time to repeat the treatment, but every three or four months would be an advisable. There is no egg withdrawal period stated with this product.
Verm-X is a natural product for internal parasite control, while Flubenvet is licensed as a poultry wormer.
Verm-X is supplied in both liquid and pellet form that allows it to be added to the water or to the feed, whichever the keeper prefers.
The manufacturer advises repeat treatment every month.
Verm X has no egg withdrawal period.
To use all these products, check with the instructions given by the manufacturer. The dosages are clearly stated on the packaging.
Dosages will vary subject to the quantity of birds being treated.
Adding extra vitamins throughout the year is advisable as another form of protection; just add a general vitamin once or twice a week.
This will help to replace vitamins lost during the colder periods.