Winter health check
Winter health and care for chickens
Whilst many of us are still wondering where this years summer has got to, the nights are drawing in and there is a definite autumnal nip in the air, winter will soon be upon us!
Although most poultry keepers do not relish the long, cold, dark months now ahead of us, for the majority of chicken breeds a typical British winter does not pose a significant problem providing high standards of husbandry are maintained and owners are vigilant to their flocks health and welfare requirements.
As with keeping any livestock it is essential for chicken owners to know their birds, how they normally look, feed and behave are all perfect indicators of good health, any deviations from normal will require immediate action. When assessing chickens general condition there is nothing better than a spot of hands on attention, getting to know your individual birds and the visual characteristics that can be used to indicate their health:
Healthy birds should have:
• bright, clear eyes;
• red combs and wattles which are free from scabs and discolouration;
• clean, dry nostrils;
• complete plumage (other than when going through an annual moult), with shiny feathers;
• a generally bright and active demeanour as they go about their business;
• normal food and water consumption;
• normal growth and / or egg production;
• no evidence of parasite infestations, such as red mite.
Some of the most common symptoms of disease to look out for in your flock are:
• dull eyes and a generally depressed appearance;
• sneezing, couching and discharges from the nostrils and beak;
• bare patches and poor feather condition;
• loss of weight;
• paralysis or lameness;
• swollen legs with scales standing up;
• egg production stopped or declined;
• reduction in egg quality, with more misshapen eggs and poor shells;
• sitting hunched up with ruffled feathers and drooping wings;
• droppings of an abnormal colour and / or consistency;
• reduced appetite;
• reduced or excessive water consumption
Just like us, our chickens can suffer from winter colds, in fact respiratory infections are among some of the most common ailments to affect poultry and include diseases such as Infectious Bronchitis, Mycoplasma, Fowl Pest, Newcastle Disease and of course the infamous Avian Influenza. Environmental factors can predispose chickens to these ailments and therefore your hens housing should be the first area to be addressed in the prevention of respiratory problems. Appropriate ventilation of the hen house is of paramount importance, chickens need dry and draught free accommodation, but at the same time need airflow through the house so that a continuous supply of fresh air is available. If you have a purpose built hen house this should have all the design features necessary to provide the ventilation required. For more home made type constructions it is essential that windows or vents can be opened to provide airflow through the house. Poultry do not like getting wet, therefore you could consider covering a section of their run which will allow the birds access outside whilst protecting them from the elements.
Poultry keepers should continue to be vigilant for year round problems such as red mite, lice and internal parasites. A continuing programme of prevention and if necessary, treatments, should be maintained to prevent infestations compromising the health and welfare of your flock.
When dealing with birds that are off colour the decision about when to contact the vet is down to the individual and will depend on your level of experience and that of any close friends and associates you may have. Veterinary surgeons have the necessary knowledge and experience to make accurate diagnoses and the ability to prescribe appropriate medication. Early treatment is usually vital if a happy outcome is to be achieved, so if in doubt do not hesitate to at least pick up the telephone and give the vet a call, even if it’s just to put your mind at rest, you never know, there might be nothing to worry about. However, Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease are both notifiable diseases which means that if you suspect your birds are suffering from either of the conditions you must, by law, contact your vet and DEFRA.
If a visit to the veterinary surgeon is called for always follow their advice and administer any medication prescribed according to their recommendations. It is also essential to carefully read all medication labels to ensure that you are administering the correct dosage and are aware of any withdrawal periods that should be adhered to. These withdrawal periods are the length of time that eggs or meat from birds being treated must not be consumed. Some routine treatments for common ailments carry no withdrawal periods, which means you can continue to safely eat the eggs from your hens without risk to yourselves. However some medications stipulate that eggs from treated birds should not be eaten for the duration of the course of treatment and for a period after the treatment has finished to allow all traces of the drugs to pass thorough the hens system.
If you are unlucky enough to suffer the loss of one of your flock it is essential to remove the body from the hen house immediately, if left for even a short while the natural curiosity of the other hens may lead to cannibalism. Safe disposal of any fallen livestock is covered by stringent government regulations and any carcasses should be disposed of at a DEFRA approved incinerator.
Although it may be an ailment more associated with climbers and adventurers, frostbite can affect your chickens too. Most breeds of poultry will have some fleshy areas on their heads, such as combs, wattles and ear lobes, which are particularly exposed to the elements. Although frostbite isn’t a serious problem it can leave unsightly blackened areas that can spoil the look of your chickens. Prevention of frostbite is easy and requires the application of Vaseline to the fleshy parts of your birds’ heads, this forms a protective barrier against the elements. The process of you rubbing it in also helps to stimulate the area, increasing the blood flow and thus making it less susceptible to the cold.
As the shorter days of winter will mean your chickens are going up to roost earlier they will be spending significantly more time housed than during the summer months, this will obviously increase the need for sufficient ventilation and thorough, regular cleaning. Removal of droppings is essential to prevent the build up of ammonia, if birds are kept in dirty houses they are more likely to suffer from respiratory problems. A layer of soft wood shavings on the floor of the house makes an ideal litter system, straw should be avoided as it does not have the same high absorbency properties of shavings and can lead to fungal growth and respiratory infections.
Wet weather often means water logged ground that together with the trampling of birds feet can quickly result in muddy, poached land. Not only does mud cake on the birds feet and feathers it is also a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive in. and so houses should be sited on well drained land and moved regularly if space allows or positioned on a hard standing to prevent welfare problems occurring. If moving the house is impossible then a layer of bark chipings in the run will help provide better ground conditions for your birds.
Winter feeding of your chickens need not change from the rest of the year. Even if they stop laying due to the reduction in daylight hours they should still continue to be fed their normal layers ration on a free-access basis as this will help to keep them in tip-top condition and may aid their return to lay earlier in the spring. A little mixed corn or maize can be fed as an afternoon treat just before you shut your hens up for the night, this extra feed will increase the birds calorie intake and thus provide them with more energy to keep themselves warm on a cold winters night. Corn should only be fed in small amounts and not in place of a specially formulated layers pellet or meal which have all the necessary nutrients needed for healthy birds and good quality eggs. Water drinkers are likely to freeze in particularly cold weather and should be defrosted or have the ice broken as soon as you let your birds out in the morning. If we are unlucky enough to experience a prolonged cold snap you will need to defrost the drinkers at regular intervals during the day to provide your chickens with the water they need. Do not be tempted to put the drinker inside the hen house at night in the hope of preventing it from freezing, this will increase the moisture level which will in turn lead to damp and predispose the birds to respiratory problems.
You should always ensure your chickens are shut away safely in their house before dusk, winter comes hard to predators such as foxes and badgers who will be quick to strike if given the opportunity. Rats and mice can also rapidly become a problem if their populations are not controlled. Not only will these vermin help themselves to your chicken’s food, they may also take eggs from the nest boxes and along with wild birds, can spread diseases to your flock, therefore it is essential that bio-security measures are in place to minimise your chickens exposure to these potential sources of infection.
So, all things considered, winter chicken keeping isn’t without its problems, but with a bit of extra time, a good pair of wellies and a whole heap of common sense you’ll hopefully make it through to spring with your feathers unscathed!