With most of the country ensconced in freezing temperatures and snow and ice aplenty, giving your flock access to the outdoors may seem daunting. So, here are a few quick tips to make things easier.
During normal weather, my flock free ranges and I’ve found they like to get outside even when it’s cold. So I say let them be out; but be smart about it! The old saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure definitely applies here.
First and foremost, the large combs and wattles on hens and roosters can be susceptible to frostbite. Simply cover them with a layer of petroleum jelly for protection and then check your chickens daily to make sure they have incurred no damage.
Second, if your flock is voluntarily staying inside more during the inclement weather, it’s easy to keep them occupied; an essential to preventing bad behavior. For me, I like to keep it simple. I buy a Purina Flock Block at the feed store and put it in the coop. To keep it clean and out of the bedding, I sit it in on a big flower pot saucer and then let the chickens peck away. I also like to buy an extra cabbage or two at the grocery. I drill a hole through the center and then string it from the ceiling of my coop. The trick is to put the cabbage high, but not too high. The chickens love the fresh greens and spend tons of time hopping up and down to grab pieces of the cabbage. It’s hilarious to watch and a great activity for the chickens.
Third, give your flock dry places to be outside. Chickens do have an adaptation called rete mirable or “wonderful net” that helps regulate the temperature in the legs and feet by exchanging hot blood from the heart with the veins carrying cold blood to the feet and legs. However, they can still suffer frostbite if they spend too long in the cold wet snow. So I simply minimize their exposure. Over their attached run, I lay a tarp to keep the snow out. In the yard, I take anything I can find like on old baby pool and pieces of plywood and lay them down before the snow starts. I usually lay them down starting at the door to the coop and going to a larger area. Once it’s done snowing and time for my chickens to go outside, I reach under the snow and lift up the boards. Voila! Fresh grass and a dry place to scratch! If the snow gets too deep, I have also been known to shovel my yard with paths that go under our deck and to sheltered spots. I’ve found the chickens are smart and they diligently follow those paths.
No matter what methods you choose, it’s possible to let your chickens roam during the winter. They’ll be happier for it and so will you.