This winter has been a throwback to olden days (olden days is when I was a kid, according to my 7 year old). We had extended periods of cold, REAL snow (I got to expose my kids to the joys of digging tunnels in snowbanks for the first time in their lives), and all the bliss that goes with a real Canadian winter. I’m no social media guru, but I’ve noticed a lot of people from a lot of places complaining about the same thing across North America.
Your chickens have noticed it too. Trust me. They have been cooped up (pardon the pun), struggled through the snow, fought with frozen water, and risked frostbite for the past 4-5 months. They have likely slowed down in egg production, moved around less and eaten and drank less than they have in past winters. I salute all the backyard farmers who have helped their flocks get through the challenges.
But….as much as everyone involved is looking forward to a change in season, now is a very risky time for your flock. Here are some things to watch out for:
Your coop and run are likely deeper than you’d like them to be. Removing manure and litter in the winter is difficult, and a build up of litter is beneficial in keeping the coop warmer in the cold of winter. However….depending on the lay of the land, the drainage of your backyard, and your snow burden, there is a real risk of “poop soup” developing. If water can settle into your coop or run, either because of the slope of your yard, or the way snow is piled around it, the risk of disease is very significant. When manure is frozen and dry, it is not as much of a risk factor for disease…..cocci oocysts (eggs) are inert, E.coli and Salmonellas aren’t dividing and increasing in numbers, and worm eggs and fungi are less infective. Once you add water to the system, all this changes.
There is also a physical risk for your chickens from wet environments….wet feet have less integrity, and the risk of bumblefoot and ulcers goes up.
WARM IS RELATIVE
Spring is a tricky time for temperature. Damp air at 5C(42F) is more dangerous for frostbite than dry air below freezing. As the temperature goes up, and your yard gets muddier, your hens will (like your kids), run around, make a mess, and cover themselves in all kinds of goo. When they go back into the coop, the hens may be wet, which will increase humidity in the coop, and when temperature drops at night, there is a real risk of discomfort and even frostbite in your flock.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO
Clean out your coop……yesterday, if not sooner. Pick up the droppings in your run, as best you can. Reduce the source of infection, and you will go a long way to protecting your flock. Ideally, you would move both the coop and run to a fresh area of the yard as soon as the grass shows up.
Get out your shovel
Dig a moat around your coop, or dig a trench to guide the meltwater and runoff away from your hens and where they live. BUT, it is usually not a great idea to flood out your neighbour with meltwater, especially if the water is also draining from your coop. I can’t really help you specifically, since everyone’s situation is unique, but do your best to keep the water and mud away from your hens, without sacrificing neighbour relations.
Ventilate your Coop
Do what you can to keep the coop dry. Dryness is even more important than absolute temperature for hen comfort (within limits). A small, battery powered fan can make a world of difference. The other important aspect is keeping the floor dry, as this helps control bacterial load, improves foot health, and reduces humidity overnight. Clean out more often in spring….even though it is less convenient…..your hens will thank you for it.
Remember…..not only are environmental challenges higher in the spring, but your hens are quite likely coming back into production, which is also stressful and reduces their ability to fight off problems. Take the time to give them all the support you can to get through this tricky time.
Mike the Chicken Vet