Chickens - Things to do this Month - January
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
One of the things chickens particularly hate is getting wet, muddy, bedraggled feathers. Make a mud-free turnout area for them by spreading a thick layer of coarse woodchip (look for Easi-Bed or similar products designed for horse bedding, but don’t use decorative garden woodchip as this often still has the bark attached that can harbour a fungus – aspergillus – that will cause respiratory disease in poultry).
The available daylight hours are much shorter at this time of year, and yet the chickens still need to be properly looked after – but there are ways to save time on your routine tasks, as well as acclimatising your chickens to the cold weather:
- The short winter 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 an organic ‘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 (and especially cockerels) with prominent combs and wattles can suffer from frostbite in really cold weather; Vaseline regularly smeared over these areas will protect them from freezing in all but the coldest temperatures. If one of your chickens does suffer from frostbite, you’ll notice the affected area will turn black – this indicates that the tissue is dead and will, in time, fall away. There’s nothing you can do at this stage, but do keep an eye on the affected chicken to make sure the other hens don’t peck at it, or that it doesn’t become infected.
- 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, but in really cold weather you’ll need to de-ice during the day. You can buy heated waterers, but of course this will require an electric socket, which few coops are fitted with!
- 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.
- Already the daylight hours are increasing, so if your hens haven’t been laying they should start again soon, so don’t stop checking the nest boxes!
- 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!
- Winter is a good time to ‘rest’ part of your chicken’s run or paddock; the cold will help kill off any worm larvae and pests, and if you also lime this area (use gardener’s lime) it will ‘sweeten’ the ground by neutralising the inevitable acidity that accumulates on ground used continuously by poultry.
As the weather gets colder, the rats get bolder as they start looking for an easy source of food!
- 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.
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.