January is the coldest month of the year around here. We came home after New Years and noticed black spots on our chicken’s wattles. Frostbite has affected our flock.
Anyone who raises chickens in a very cold climate will have to deal with frostbite at some point.
It’s important to know how to prevent it, recognize it, and treat it.
10 Steps To Avoid Frostbite In Chickens During Extreme Cold:
- Raise Cold Hardy Chicken Breeds
- Keep Coop Ventilated, but Draft Free
- Insulate The Coop
- Provide Constant Access To Fresh Water Outside The Coop
- Use Flat Roosts
- Provide Snow-Free Zones
- Maintain Coop Flooring And Bedding
- Adjust Flock Feed Amounts And Type
- Provide Warm Meals
- Heat Coop Cautiously
Although these steps look simple, and many are, there are several factors you should be aware of to successfully pull off each step. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing more harm than good.
Let’s dive in.
1. Raise Cold Hardy Chicken Breeds
Despite your best precautions against the cold, some chicken breeds are very sensitive to the cold and will be at high risk no matter what other steps you do.
Cold-Hardy chickens have smaller wattles and combs. Rose combs and pea combs do better at protecting chickens from the cold.
Another factor that helps chickens to be cold-hardy is the size and feathering of the chickens. Some chicken breeds have poorly insulated feathers that don’t protect the chicken from water or cold very well.
This is true of breeds such as Silkies and Polish. They are going to struggle in cold, wet conditions. If you have more cold-sensitive breeds, you may need to consider housing your flock in your garage during the coldest parts of the winter.
If you are raising chickens for eggs, then another factor to consider is whether a chicken breed will continue to lay eggs in the dead of winter.
Some chicken breeds will slow down their egg-laying only slightly when it gets very cold and dark in January and December.
If you have roosters, they will be the most likely to get frostbite. Roosters often like to patrol the coop, which keeps them out in the snow and wind more than the hens. Plus, they have larger wattles and combs, which also makes them more vulnerable.
- Cold hardy breeds have small wattles and combs
- Pea combs and rose combs fare better in cold weather
- Thick feathering helps chickens to stay warm in cold weather
- Cold hardy breeds often continue laying eggs in the dead of winter.
- Roosters are more susceptible than hens to frostbite
If you search online, you will find that nearly every chicken breed is “recommended” for cold weather. That’s because chicken breeds usually do much better in cold weather than in hot weather.
But, that doesn’t mean all chicken breeds fare the same in cold weather. I’ve sorted chicken breeds into 3 categories: Amazing, Good, and Fair In Cold Weather.
4 Amazing Chicken Breeds Built For The Coldest Weather
Among cold-weather chicken breeds, there are four breeds that are superstars. These breeds have small combs and wattles, which makes them highly resistant to cold weather. For the most part, these super-star chickens won’t need much extra care in the winter.
The Best Chicken Breeds For Extreme Cold:
In addition to these 4 super-star cold weather chickens, there are several other breeds that do pretty well in the cold.
8 Chicken Breeds That Do Great In The Winter
The chickens in this list of good cold-weather chicken breeds do well in the cold but may need some precautions taken to keep them healthy. Mainly, some of these breeds will need to be watched for signs of frostbite in sub-zero temperatures.
Watch their combs and wattles for discoloration.
Great Cold-Weather Chicken Breeds
- New Hampshire
- Dominique or Plymouth Rock
- Rhode Island Red
- Lohmann Brown
I’ve also seen a couple other breeds listed as “cold weather” chicken breeds, but they are less hardy than the 12 I’ve listed previously.
Breeds That Do Ok, But Can Struggle In The Cold
I’ve seen many breeds that are listed as preferring cold weather to hot weather. This is true, but these breeds struggle more in super cold weather.
Many of these breeds are beloved for various reasons and you may want to raise them. However, you will need to watch them more carefully if you live in an extremely cold area.
Cold-Weather Chicken Breeds That Struggle In Extreme Cold
- Austra White – Has a single comb that is susceptible to frostbite
- Barnevelder – Lays dark Chocolate eggs. They do well in cold wet conditions, but not the snow.
- Dorking – Their larger wattles need more care against freezing temperatures
- Leghorn – Large comb needs more protection. They also have decreased egg-laying in winter months
- Brahma – A larger bird that prefers the cold, but has feathered feet. This makes their legs and feet more susceptible to frostbite and wet.
- Cochin – They lay good in the winter, but their feathered feet makes them liable for frostbite.
- Hamburgs – Large single comb should be watched for frostbite
- Langshan – Their feathered feet need to be monitored in cold and wet conditions.
2. Keep Coop Ventilated, but Draft Free
It may seem contradictory to say that your chicken coop needs to be ventilated and draft-free, but it is possible.
A ventilated coop helps to keep the moisture in the coop from building up. A moist coop increases the chances of frostbite. Both the moist breath of your flock and their droppings contribute to a moist environment inside the coop.
Most chickens can handle the cold air better than moist cold air. Chickens are particularly vulnerable to respiratory ailments.
A ventilated coop allows the moist air to escape.
But, a drafty coop will only make your chickens more likely to get sick and die from the cold.
What’s the difference?
A well-ventilated coop will have plenty of ventilation near the top of the coop. The eaves are the best place for ventilation. The warm, moist air will rise and escape the coop.
A drafty coop allows for the wind and air currents to blow through the coop on ground level and where the chickens are perched.
Seal up all holes and gaps in your coop, but allow plenty of higher ventilation for your chickens.
3. Insulate The Coop
An insulated coop also helps to protect your chickens from the cold. It doesn’t have to be as insulated as your house, chickens do have their own natural protection.
But, it should be enough protection to help keep the wind out and add an extra level of protection from the cold.
Chicken’s body heat will help to heat the coop during the night and protect them from the cold and an insulated coop makes this easier.
A well-insulated coop can be as much as 10-15 degrees warmer than outside during the winter and cooler in the summer.
3. Provide Constant Access To Fresh Water Outside The Coop
Water is critical for chickens during the winter. Without constant access to fresh water, your flock is more likely to suffer from frostbite.
Water is even more important than food. That’s saying a lot!
Water is how chickens keep their body temperature regulated. Without adequate water, they will chill easier and their circulation will be impacted.
Chickens will eat snow to get water, but it is very difficult for them to eat enough snow to maintain good body heat.
Although water is vital, don’t keep the water in the coop. It will increase the moisture in the air and increase the chances that it will spill and freeze.
Lastly, place your waterers higher. I raise my waterers on pallets outside. Because I live in a very cold area, nipple waterers are not practical. They freeze.
Instead, I use a heated waterer, but raising it 6 inches up helps to keep the wattles of my hens dry when they drink.
- Freshwater is vital
- Make sure to have the tools in place to keep water from freezing.
- Don’t keep water in the coop overnight.
- Raise waterers up so wattles don’t dunk in the water when your chickens drink.
4. Use Flat Roosts
Flat roosts help chickens to stay warm during cold winter nights. They are also helpful in the summer because they provide less stress to chicken feet to perch.
Chickens love to perch and perching helps them to get above the coldest air above the floor of the coop.
A flat perch allows your hens to fluff their feathers out and protect their feet from the cold. It provides a little more insulation.
A 2×4 is an easy and inexpensive way to provide flat perches for your hens.
5. Provide Snow-Free Zones
Many of the cold-hardy breeds I listed will venture out in the snow. They will usually come into the coop if their feet get cold or frostbite threatens.
But, providing a snow-free area outside the coop helps to give your flock more sunlight hours and a little more protection.
There are several ways to do this.
You can shovel a path for your flock to travel. You can add covering to shelter outside areas from the snow and wind. Plywood, tarps, and plastic all work well to provide an outdoor shelter.
I placed a path of rubber sheets down in my coop. During the early months of winter, it kept the area snow-free. But, once the snow came daily and temperatures failed to rise above freezing, the snow piled on.
At that point, we started shoveling a path from the coop to the water. We also place straw on the frozen ground daily.
Since most of my chickens still go out into the snow, they also have a place to be outside and off the snow.
Another solution is to use what is often called a hoop house for your chickens. Hoop houses are low-cost greenhouses made from cattle fencing, sheet plastic and a few other inexpensive materials.
They provide a warmer-sunny place for your chickens to play and be outside. Since sunlight helps chickens to continue to lay eggs, hoop houses can be a great solution that keeps your flock from getting bored and keeps them warmer.
6. Maintain Coop Flooring And Bedding
Nights are usually the coldest part of the winter. And moisture is often the cause of frostbite. It’s important that your coop have dry flooring that absorbs the moisture in your flock’s droppings.
The deep litter method has gained popularity because of its low maintenance requirements while also providing a great environment for your chickens.
It uses organic material such as leaves, twigs, bark, and straw. Use what you have available. Start in the spring so that you have time to build a nice colony of healthy microbes. Add 4-6 inches of litter. Add a little more every week. By the end of the fall, your deep litter flooring should be about 8-12 inches deep.
The deep litter method does well at absorbing moisture and keeping your coop healthy. Pine works the best in the winter for the deep litter method. Straw doesn’t absorb moisture as well and can get moldy.
Never use cedar in your coop as cedar can be bad for chickens.
Other solutions include sand, which does a great job of absorbing moisture. Sand is usually colder than the deep litter method.
If you don’t have any special flooring in place, then make sure that even in the cold of winter, you clean out the coop and keep the floor dry. This makes a big difference in the health of your flock’s feet and other sensitive body parts, such as wattles and combs.
7. Adjust Flock Feed Amounts And Type
As the cold weather comes, your hens will instinctively eat more. But, if you have been free-ranging, then cooler weather often means a decrease in bugs and other available food.
It’s important that you supplement your flock as the weather cools and throughout the winter. The difference will be tremendous.
Supplementing your flock during the winter will result in:
- Less frostbite damage and cold-related deaths in your flocks
- Greater egg production during the winter months
Scratch is a cheaper form of food that consists of ground corn, barley, oats, milo, sunflower seeds, and other whole grains. These grains produce more heat when they are digested.
In addition to scratch, I also recommend feeding your flock layer feed during the winter. Layer feed will have the needed protein and other nutrients to keep your hens laying.
8. Provide Warm Meals
When the coldest days occur, a warm meal will help to warm your flock up. My personal favorite is a warm bowl of oatmeal. Any warm cereal or cooked whole grain will be both healthy for your chickens and help to warm them.
You can also provide warm veggies, warm water, and other warm foods. Remember to stay away from refined foods and those high in sugars and salt.
9. Heat Coop Cautiously
I am not a fan of heating the coop. There is simply too much risk of a fire. Plus, if your flock has been accustomed to a warmed coop and the power goes out, the sudden cold can be disastrous to your flock.
Instead, if you are worried about your flock, you can add a single bulb to your coop. Make sure to place it in a place that your hens aren’t going to fly into. Put it on a timer so that your girls can still enjoy some good sleeping time.
A light in the coop will help to keep up egg production if your flock has lowered the eggs your girls lay each day. Ideally, 10-12 hours of light are best. Have the light turn on at 5 or 6 am and turn off about 8 pm.
This will help to ward off the chill as early morning just before sunrise is usually the coldest hours of the day.
10. Provide Windbreaks Outside
Some hens will stay outside no matter how cold it gets. I have talked to neighbors whose chickens stayed out in the snow so long their feet froze off.
So, it’s important to provide windbreaks outside of your coop. That’s in addition to snow-free areas. In many places, the wind causes the biggest mess of snow, piling it up everywhere.
Add stumps, perches, and other above-ground areas so your hens can get up off the snow. Place them in areas sheltered by the wind so your flock has protection.
How To Tell If Your Chickens Have Frostbite
Frostbite occurs when a portion of your chicken’s body gets so cold that the tissue actually freezes. It usually happens in areas with less blood flow such as the wattles, combs, or feet.
The first sign of frostbite is a change of color in the tissue. White or blackened combs and wattles signal frostbite.
Depending on the breed of your chicken, you may see other color changes such as the skin turning blue, grey, or yellow.
You may also notice swelling of tissue. More severe frostbite will bring blisters. The discoloration will turn black.
If your chicken’s feet are frostbitten, you may notice limping or a reluctance to walk around.
When the wattles become frostbitten, your chicken may be more hesitant to eat, especially if their wattles brush against the dish of the feeding container.
In extreme cases, your hens may become listless or lethargic. You must act quickly to avoid death.
Hopefully, you notice the discoloration before frostbite becomes severe. This will help you to take other preventative measures to keep your chickens safe.
How To Treat Frostbite In Chickens
Roosters are at the most risk of frostbite because of their larger wattles and combs, but even hens can get frostbite.
Keep a careful watch on your flock during the coldest days. Make sure to provide them with adequate water, food, and protection.
If some of your flock still starts to show signs of frostbite, then monitor your birds. In many cases, minor frostbite will correct itself. My flock got frostbite during a week while we were gone and had others watching the flock. I suspect they didn’t have adequate water all day.
As soon as we returned and was able to monitor their watering containers to make sure they didn’t freeze during the day, the hens quickly healed from the frostbite.
If the frostbite starts to spread, then you can take the affected chickens into a warmer area. A garage, a basement, or inside your house can help to warm them up.
Severe frostbite should be allowed to heal before introducing the chickens back into the flock. Blisters and wounds will invite curious flockmates to peck at the wounds and will only increase the damage of the frostbite and keep it from healing.
Do not take off frostbitten skin or tissue. This will further increase the exposure of the other tissue and delay healing. It can also introduce infection.
Here are a few other tips for keeping your frostbitten chickens safe.
- Do NOT pop blisters. Blisters help to heal the frostbitten areas.
- Gradually warm frostbitten chickens. Don’t introduce them to heat too quickly or it can create shock.
- Do not use Vaseline or petroleum jelly for temperatures under freezing. This can freeze the jelly and cause greater damage to your flock.
- Do not rub frostbitten areas as that can tear or rip the damaged tissue.
- Do not use direct heat to thaw the frozen areas.
- Do not thaw out the chicken until they can be kept safe from freezing temperatures. Thawing and refreezing tissue will result in greater damage to the tissue.
- Do watch for swelling, redness, oozing, and foul smells from the damaged area.
- Do keep the area clean.
- Do consult a vet if you are concerned or if the damage is great.
At what temperature do chickens get frostbite? The actual temperature that chickens will get frostbite depends on the breed of your chickens, the moisture in the air, and their protection. Wet conditions increase the risk of frostbite. If you have cold-hardy chickens, then your flock will usually be ok into the teens. I have only had issues with my hens when temperatures have dropped below zero or the flock had gotten dehydrated.
Can Frostbite Kill Chickens? Most of the time frostbite is not deadly to chickens. However, combined with long exposure or lack of water, frostbite can quickly become deadly. In addition, wet-freezing temperatures are more dangerous.
Chickens that don’t have the ability to stay out of the water, find shelter or have adequate food and water are most likely to die from the cold. Extreme frostbite can also cause infection, which can increase the risk of death.
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