No, during the winter period, you should not free-range your chickens unless you live in a tropical climate, where the temperatures don’t drop below freezing point. In the winter months, your free-range chickens may not have bugs to eat.
However, most free-range chickens enjoy scratching under the light snow while picking up seeds and nibbling on refuse lying around the field.
On extreme snowy days, you should not allow your birds to roam the backyard. Instead, lock them up inside their respective coops until the conditions outside improve. At the same time, help them access their usual diet through the extreme wintery conditions.
Problems of Free Range Chickens in Winter
If you are living in an area that experiences extreme winter conditions, then you should find ways to keep your chickens comfortable. To achieve this goal, you need to identify some of the common problems that poultry farmers face in winter.
Here are some of those problems and their possible solution:
1. Lack of Food
One of the hardships of raising free-range chickens in winter is the lack of food. Often, free-range chickens spend a better part of the day roaming the yard in search of food. But in winter, these chickens can’t access their usual tasty treats in the field because of snow and extreme cold.
Mostly, heavy snow covering the field where your chickens forage hinders their ability to scratch around to find worms, grubs, morsels, or other edible insects. As a result, there is usually an acute shortage of food to supplement their commercial feed.
This is also the time when your birds will spend the rest of their time in their coops. Therefore, their movement is only limited to their shelter, meaning that they can only survive on what you feed them during the wintertime. Make sure to stock enough food for your chickens just before winter starts.
Additionally, don’t ever skimp on their grit, since it aids in food digestion. Chickens are known to pick up a substantial amount of grit naturally. Normally, this grit comes in the form of small pebbles that your chickens ingest when foraging in the yard.
During the winter months, the ground becomes frozen, and hard for your chickens to dislodge pieces of pebbles. For that reason, it is a good idea to ensure that your flock of chickens has access to enough supplemental grit across the winter season.
2. Extremely Low Temperatures
Winter months are associated with extremely cold conditions with the temperature dropping below sub-zero. Since chickens and all other birds are warm-blooded animals, surviving cold conditions for them can be difficult.
The cold temperature during the winter season can also freeze water, making it difficult for your birds to drink when thirsty. Plus, wintery conditions may freeze laid eggs when you don’t collect them immediately.
All these reasons call for drastic measures to keep your birds warm, productive, and active while inside their coop. In this regard, make sure to have their coop lit, warm, and well-insulated. Provide enough natural light, especially to your flock of layers.
Typically, chickens stop laying eggs in winter due to a lack of light and cold. So, installing heat lamps and providing passive solar and heat may offer a workable solution to your birds during cold winter months.
Finally, consider providing insulation to walls or sections of the roof that are east or south-facing. All the above-mentioned suggestions can help you overcome the problem of cold temperatures inside your chickens’ coop during the cold winter season.
3. Predators during winter
During wintertime, your chickens may become an easy target for predators. Bear in mind that in winter your birds are likely to spend more hours indoors than outdoors. The little time they can spend outside is critical in the essence that predators looking for food may find them easy prey.
Some daring predators may even get into poorly guarded coops to steal your chickens. This is due to the fact that extreme cold conditions make it difficult for most wild animals to get their usual food.
Winter is the time when sources of food are scarce and the weather conditions bitterly cold. So, finding food for wild animals becomes not only difficult but also dangerous. Predators such as bears choose to hibernate, so they may not be a threat to your flock of chickens.
But raccoons, foxes, weasels, dogs, coyotes, possums, feral cats, and birds of prey will come out to hunt when the worst of the winter weather has passed. Your chicken coop may be the easiest place to find their food.
You can keep potential predators away in winter by making the coop secure. Make sure your coops and run are free of leftovers that normally attract vermin and possums. Check your coop routinely for any vulnerabilities that may expose your birds to danger.
Regulate the hours your chickens free-range to prevent coyotes from wreaking havoc to your flock. You should also invest in livestock guardian dogs to protect your birds against raccoons and foxes. Most importantly, cover your run using chicken wire to keep owls or hawks away.
4. Egg Production in Winter
Some chicken breeds are likely to continue laying even during the cold winter period. In this sense, don’t forget to collect eggs as soon as they are laid. If you delay, the eggs can freeze due to the extreme cold around them.
Even though the freezing may not hurt your chickens, you will not be able to consume their eggs in a frozen state. Frozen eggs are usually at a high risk of causing bacterial contamination on the tiny cracks created when they expand after long exposure to cold conditions.
Egg production may also fall drastically when the winter season sets in. Usually, chickens lay more eggs when they are exposed to many hours of natural light and heat in summer. To make your birds lay, as usual, provide them with a reliable source of light to compensate for the fewer hours of natural light in winter.
This trick works well, making egg production continue regardless of the prevailing cold conditions.
5. Chicken Diseases in Winter
Wintertime comes with its share of problems to free-range chickens. Apart from the low production of eggs and threats from predators, your chickens are also susceptible to diseases.
The start of winter contributes to the propagation and spread of many infectious poultry diseases. This is attributed to the improper temperature maintenance around your chickens. As a result, there is a likelihood of high economic losses due to different diseases affecting your flock.
In fact, many poultry owners report maximum mortality during the winter season. Brooding chickens are the most affected.
Common diseases that affect chickens include:
- Bacillary White Diarrhoea (Pullorum Disease)
- Fowl Cholera
- Aspergillosis or Brooder’s Pneumonia
- Bumblefoot or Ulcerative pododermatitis
- Infectious Bursal Disease (also known as Gumboro, IDB, Infectious avian nephrosis, or Infectious bursitis )
If you notice that your birds are unwell during wintertime, consult the local veterinary for further guidance.
Can Chickens Go Outside in the Snow?
Yes, but many chicken breeds are not fond of snowy conditions. Some of them may not even spend a couple of minutes on the snow while a few can spend some time outside despite the presence of snow.
How to Keep Chickens Warm in Winter?
It is easy to keep your birds warm in the wintertime. All you need is to provide them with a reliable source of heat in the form of heat lamps, passive solar and heat, and white light bulbs. Plus, use insulating materials to keep the interior of the coop warm throughout the winter period.
What to Feed Chickens in Winter?
In winter, your free-range chickens need to keep themselves warm to withstand the cold conditions. So, they need to eat regularly for their bodies to generate enough heat. Foods that you can give them include table scraps like carrot peels, lettuce, and spinach.
Pieces of pumpkin or squash can also supplement their dietary needs in winter in addition to their usual chicken feed.
Can Chickens Survive Winter Without Heat?
Your chickens can survive winter conditions without a heater in their coop. Chickens generate their own heat and the feathers serve as perfect insulators to keep them warm. So, without a source of heat, your free-range chickens can comfortably live through the winter period.
What is the Best Time to Let Chickens Free Range?
The best time to let your chickens free-range is early in the morning and late in the evening during summertime. In winter, you can allow your birds to free-range late in the morning hours when it starts to get warm with enough light to forage.
Chickens should not be allowed to free-range in wintery conditions. During this particular period, the ground is usually covered in snow, so your birds may not be able to scratch around for their tasty treats. Also, wintertime comes with extremely cold conditions which may impact the production of eggs among your layers.
These reasons should compel you to keep your flock of chickens indoor while providing them with the right conditions to help them stay comfortable throughout.Chickens