Chickens - Things to do this Month - December
CHICKENS (Laying Hens):
Continue to do regular health checks on all your birds:
Signs of good health:
- Full, bright and velvety ‘headgear’ (comb & wattles)
- Full, round and bright eyes, not sunken or cloudy
- Dry nostrils
- Good, smooth feathering with a shiny appearance
- Clean, fluffy feathers around the vent
- Neither thin or over-fat
- Steady respiration, no panting or wheezing
- Active, moving freely
- Laying well and producing regular, perfect eggs
Winter Routine & Care
Domestic fowl are generally a lot hardier than we give them credit for, so don’t try to wrap them in cotton wool for winter! Although at the start of the month it’s still quite mild, the daylight hours are much shorter and the chickens still need to be properly looked after – but there are ways to save time on your routine tasks:
- If you can divide your chicken run into two or more parts, this is the ideal time to ‘rest’ one section; the cold winter weather will help kill off gut worm larvae, and spreading garden lime on the fallow section will address the problem of the ground becoming too ‘acid’
- The shorter daylight hours also mean the flock-keeper has less time, and as an alternative to daily ‘skipping out’ and a weekly clear out, you could consider adopting a ‘deep litter’ system for your hens. This means the bedding is left in the coop throughout the season, but is carefully managed by the addition of fresh bedding material (a source of carbon) as required – the hens themselves will scratch around, turning the bedding which prevents the build-up of harmful ammonia that might otherwise damage their airways. An ideal deep litter bed works as a biological cycle: micro organisms feed on the nitrogen in the chickens’ droppings, which breaks down the carbon in the bedding and leaves fresh-smelling compost for your garden! This system requires your nose to be the judge of when you need to add fresh bedding material to keep the biological cycle in balance! We deep-littered our hens in this way throughout last year’s cold, wet winter and the bed kept clean looking, dry and fresh smelling.
- Chickens with prominent combs and wattles can suffer from frostbite in really cold weather, Vaseline smeared over these areas will protect them.
- Your hens will appreciate having somewhere raised off the ground to stand in cold, icy weather – old wooden pallets can provide a good raised platform to keep their feet off the ice and snow.
- Chickens will appreciate a little more carbohydrate in their diet as the weather gets colder, but don’t overdo this – monitor their weight regularly and feed accordingly
- Suitable winter foodstuffs (which are best given in the afternoon after they have had the chance to eat their regular protein ration of pellets or mash) include: wheat, corn, rice and pasta – and they will still appreciate plenty of greens (ours also love tomatoes and apples!).
- Clear away all feedstuffs every evening so there’s nothing to attract rodents.
- Check WATER regularly to make sure it hasn’t frozen. A small ball floating in the hen’s water will help prevent it freezing, or switch to using a black rubber tub that will absorb the sun’s head, but in really cold weather you’ll need to de-ice during the day. Take the water containers indoors overnight to prevent having to deal with iced up drinkers in the morning!
- DRAUGHT PROOFING - don’t be tempted to block off ventilation – stale air will increase the risk of respiratory disease, but do make sure there aren’t any howling winds blowing through the house. If the weather turns especially cold, you could stack some straw bales against the hen house for added insulation – place these on the side against the prevailing winds, usually North or East at this time of year.
- You could also set up a strategically-placed straw-bale windbreak in an outside area, so the hens still get plenty of fresh air, but are out of the prevailing wind
- Many people use artificial LIGHTING for a couple of hours in the late evening and early morning to extend ‘daylight’ hours and encourage the hens to continue laying throughout winter. This is a good idea if your hens are run on a semi-commercial basis, and culled at 2-3 years. But remember, a hen is born with a finite number of eggs, so you will only encourage her to lay these sooner – it will not increase her lifetime output!
As the weather gets colder, the rats get bolder as they start looking for an easy source of food!
- Continue to be vigilant for RATS AND MICE and when laying traps or poison – take great care that you don’t unwittingly harm other wildlife.
- Clear away all feedstuffs every evening
- Set ‘nipper’ type traps: site wherever you can identify a ‘rat-run’ and cover the trap with an upturned trug to prevent accidentally trapping wild birds.
- If you chose to use ‘humane’ cages, be certain you will be able to humanely kill the rat you have caught (drowning is not a humane manner of killing; a sharp blow to the back of the head/neck is the quickest method – wear thick leather gauntlets)
- If you plan to use poison, go on a Campaign Against Illegal Poisoning course first, to make sure you do it safely, effectively, and don’t accidentally harm pets or wildlife. We’ve stopped using poison completely as rodents may be picked up by owls who then die from secondary poisoning – this is cited as one of the main causes for the disappearance of Barn Owls in many areas, particularly where there are intensive poultry sheds where poison is used as a matter of course.
If you’re just starting out with hens and can’t decide which breed will suit you best, have a look at our Guide to Chicken Breeds. If you decide to get a mix of different breeds, it’s best to choose those that are roughly the same size to prevent the smaller ones getting hen-pecked.
For more information on keeping chickens and increasing your flock, visit our Basic Principles of Rearing and Management of Chickens.