Winter is ending….Uh Oh!!

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:

WET ENVIRONMENT
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

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12 responses to “Winter is ending….Uh Oh!!

  1. Great info as always, Dr. Mike! The dreaded external parasites have reared their ugly heads in my flock recently- mites in particular. Is the life-cycle of mites affected by freezing temperatures or are they dormant during winter, waiting patiently for a thaw to re-emerge?

    Yours in Poultry,
    Kathy Shea Mormino

    • I don’t think that mites survive in the freezing environment……they hang out in the warm areas where the chickens are……usually they survive in the coop or on the hens themselves.

  2. Mike would you give me permission to reprint this in our Marans club newsletter?

  3. Thank you, as always, for the informative post! Do you have recommendations on when to do a preventative treatment with a coccidiostat for a flock of hens who have had coccidiosis in the past? I’ve been trying to decide if I should wait until it has been warm for several weeks or treat now before the thaw is complete. We have also been doing what we can to keep poop soup from forming and will hopefully be adding sand to our run soon. Our Minnesota winter has been rough!

    • Hi Jen;
      The good news is that your hens will now have some immunity to cocci. If you can keep the amount of cocci to a minimum, (ie by keeping clean and dry as possible) you may be fine. My philosophy is not to treat until you need to, or can reasonably expect a problem. If you have new additions, or your flock a has broken repeatedly with cocci, I suggest that within 3-4 weeks of the thaw, you would start some kind of control program. If you might get along ok without treatment, I would try that, and keep an eye on the hens and treat as soon as you think you identify the disease.

      Hope this helps
      Mike

  4. Thank you that was a very helpful and informative post

  5. Thank you for this great information. I need your advice I had five young hen which I raised from babies and 1 older hen about 8 months older than the young hens which are about 6-7 months old and one rooster who is the same age as the young hens.They were all shipped and raised together. The young hens have been laying for about 6 months everyday. And I live in a cold area but kept the chickens in the coop with the heat lamp on but let them out to free range if they wanted but could go back in the coop if they wanted. They were given fresh water,scratch grain when they grew and could eat it,supplemented with oyster shells and grit kept in seperate dishes twice a day. I add apple cider vinegar to their drinking water.But they are bad about getting in the compost pile scratching for worms and I feed them table scraps at time and they all seem healthy and happy and are pets. A couple of days ago when I went out to put them in the coop I noticed one hen sitting in the dirt where sh takes a dirt bath and she just sat there so I picked her up. She didn’t have any drainage from the nostrils and her eyes were bright,I couldn’t see any wounds and when I sat her down in the coop she drank water and was eating.But the next morning when I went to open the coop door I discovered she had died. The other chickens seem fine are eating,drinking and running all over. My son said maybe to give the flock some Corid or feed them some medicated chicken feed. Please give mee advice about this.And if I give them the Corid or medicated feed how long should I wait before eating the eggs. Thanking you in advance for your advice as I love my chickens.

    • Arvada, I would hesitate to medicate your flock. Since it was only a single bird, and she showed no overt signs of illness, I suspect she may have been egg bound, or had some type of non-contagious disease or failure. Watch the flock carefully, and reduce as much stress as possible to help them stay healthy, but it don’t think medication is warranted yet.

      Mike

  6. Great article again, Dr. Mike. I also had a comment / question about environmental diseases poultry can contract. I recently had a gorgeous buff orpington hen die of aspergillosis pneumonia. I panicked and wanted to eliminate the source of this mold however; according to my vet (shout out to Apple Valley Animal Hospital in California) the vector is nearly always present in the environment and for various reasons individuals will occasionally come down with severe respiratory disease. Do you have any thoughts on this? Is there anything I should be doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again (no other birds in my flock of 30 have shown any symptoms whatsoever) or do you agree it was sort of a ‘freak’ incident? I live in the high desert (very arid) and my coop is generally very dry and clean and the birds are about 50/50 free ranging/ cooped. Thanks!!

    • It is true that Aspergillus is everywhere in the environment. Like many disease agents (cocci, E. coli, and Staph are some others), birds live in harmony with them most of the time and don’t get sick. If birds get stressed or run down, these opportunists can be a problem. You are probably further ahead to try to reduce stressors than to try to eradicate Aspetgillus.

      Mike

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