Keeping Chickens in Winter
Winter is not over yet by any means but it is safe to say we have made it through the toughest and coldest months and thankfully so did all of our chickens. Although this was our second winter in Alaska it was our first time raising chickens here and keeping them through the harsh winter season.
Chickens are much hardier than folks give them credit for and perfectly capable (if the housing and breed has been taken into consideration) of surviving cold climates without supplemental heat. It's not that we are against providing heat for our chickens but we know they can live without it and the energy demands of a heat lamp is too great for our small solar system to run continuously in winter.
We gave plenty of thought to the temperatures we receive and what our limitations would be keeping chickens. We took our time researching an appropriate chicken breed and the type of coop we wanted to house them in. I learned of the Icelandic landrace during our time in Oregon and immediately fell in love with the thrifty and wild multicolored birds. It seemed like an obvious choice for us once we moved to Alaska but there were other breeds we weren't quick to rule out, including Brahmas, Marans, Americaunas, Isbars, Swedish Flowers, and the more common Buff Orpingtons.
There were a few crucial traits we were looking for in our flock, the first being excellent foraging abilities. We have personally raised near 30 different breeds of chickens and I can say most of them were very good foragers, some were notably better and consumed less grain and others were the opposite and spent more time at the feeder when we filled it up. I generally found a correlation with our larger birds needing more feed which I suppose is pretty obvious. So from our personal experience we decided against several of the larger breeds and felt a smaller bird would be more economical for us to raise. The Icelandics are well known for their ability to consume less feed and still lay a rather decent amount of eggs right at 180 to 200 eggs per year, definitely not comparable to some of the egg laying champions like Australorps or Golden Sex links, which can lay over 300 eggs annually, but that wasn't a trait we were after.
The two drawbacks with smaller birds is that they are not great meat birds because they are so petite, especially compared to Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons. Although we can say we have pleasantly found what they lack in weight they make up for in flavor. The other con is that larger chickens generally deter aerial predators better than smaller breeds or landraces however, Icelandics are notoriously excellent fliers and can escape land predators quite well.
Broodiness was the second desired trait for our hens, the term "broody" refers to a hen that wants to sit on eggs and raise chicks. This crucial instinct would help us achieve a replenishable supply of chickens for food, eggs and to replace losses. Besides it didn't make sense for us to incubate eggs or raise chicks ourselves when there are chickens that will happily hatch a clutch of eggs. I also am partial to the thought that a mama hen does a far better job than a human at raising her young.
There are a few well known breeds of chickens that will go broody including: Silkies, Cochins, Brahmas, and Buff Orpingtons. And although there are exceptions, broodiness is a trait that has largely been bred out of the modern day chicken, for one reason; when a hen sits on eggs for 21 days she stops laying eggs, and unless the chicken keeper is wanting baby chicks every year, this instinct is clearly undesirable for egg production.
We opted to go with the Icelandics who are great mamas and with a flock our size we can most likely expect a few hens to go broody every year. So far we have been thrilled with our decision but we both fully agree we really enjoy an array of chicken breeds and cherish the experiences we've had in the past.
The coop we built for the chickens was inspired by Dr. Prince T. Woods, the benefits of an open-front style chicken coop are discussed along with building plans in his book: Fresh-Air Poultry Houses. The open windows maximize air flow in the coop and decrease the moisture in the air. Low humidity minimizes the risk of frostbite and is what makes this coop type ideal for cold climates.
Once the first snow fell, our chickens didn't really know what to make of the new white stuff and as it continued to snow they roamed out less and less until that ultimately ceased. There were a few brave hens that would explore but the roosters weren't fond of the snow and the ladies generally stay close to them. We keep the immediate area around their coop clear of snow as best we can and they have the entire coop, underneath the coop and a lean-to shelter that they utilize during inclement weather.
As the temperature declined so did our light hours and this seemed to have the biggest effect on the flock. For the most part, the chickens were relatively active even when it was well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. I rarely saw them fluffed up to conserve heat and we predominately left their coop door open to allow them the choice to come and go. Even during the coldest periods they would brave the outdoors. When January came, it brought a period of sustained cold and since we were already running our generator in the early morning hours to charge our batteries we opted to simultaneously run a heat lamp in their coop and although the warmth was brief it seemed to be appreciated.
With the lack of sunlight in winter we knew supplementing the chickens with artificial light was going to be a requirement for us. We purchased a solar powered led bulb that also has the capability of being charged with a micro USB. We would place this light and a rechargeable flashlight in the coop and outside in the early morning to provide the chickens with a head start to their day. We could then charge these at night and repeat the process the next day. The chickens naturally roosted when it was dark in the afternoon even with the light on so we reserved it for the mornings only. And even though this was not egg laying season we surprisingly did receive a small amount of eggs during the month of our lowest light hours.
The only issue we ran into this winter was frostbite which was a high concern of mine going into the season. Our Icelandics are a blend of the four recognized lines within the landrace, therefore they have a variety of comb types including single, rose, and pea.
We had 16 roosters to choose from this spring and my first choice went to the best rooster for the hens regardless of comb type. One rooster stuck out like a sore thumb right from the start, not only because of his build but his demeanor too. He is remarkable with the ladies, he clucks for them to join him when he finds treats, he is always on the lookout for the flock and has never been aggressive towards us. He has remained gentle to the hens and many of the girls gravitated towards him even as a young cockerel.
Generally the rose comb type is safe from frostbite however this rooster had an impeccably large comb coupled with massive wattles. The larger combs, especially floppy or tall single combs are especially prone to frostbite and the second rooster we selected also had a larger comb.
We primarily kept him for his coloring and his likability with the main rooster and hens. Looking back I still would have chose these two for their temperament but when making our selection there were a handful of roosters with small pea combs that would have been more appropriately suited to our environment.
It wasn't until late December that we noticed evidence of slight frostbite that worsened in January when our daily high was negative 25 for two continuous weeks. We routinely applied vaseline to their combs to protect the tissue and made attempts to passively heat their coop while consciously being careful not to add moisture by doing so. We experimented with leaving the front windows in their coop open and closed to see which method helped their condition and we also practice(d) the deep litter method for their bedding. It seemed as if none of our efforts made much of a difference on the coop's humidity level.
The internet will tell you all sorts of scary things about frostbite and I personally don't really think it is a matter that should be taken lightly but the life we have chose is not one where we will have all the answers handed to us and we live far from a perfect world where everything goes as planned.
There are many people who keep chickens in unheated, uninsulated coops in Alaska and although I do look to that as an example I strive try to make my own path in life and decide what I think is right for us and our animals. At the end of the day I don't like our animals to suffer and there is no denying frostbite can be a painful condition however, in our scenario, I really believe having chickens acclimated to the temperatures they live in will help them be hardier and healthier in the long haul. That is how we raised our birds in Oregon and they were tough little chicks when they were out on pasture at just two weeks of age (protected of course). We rarely lost a chick due to illness and raised several hundred, we never once lost one to the cold.
Both roosters went on to make a full recovery and healed fairly quickly. A few hens suffered minor frostbite but for the most part they were unscathed. The frostbitten tissue turns black and eventually falls off, the tissue repairs itself at the point of loss but it doesn't regrow. We did not have any issues with infections thankfully but we were ready to treat if need be.
I would be lying if I said we weren't considering culling these roosters this year come summer and picking two with smaller combs, primarily because of the guilt I felt seeing them go through that, but I now feel fairly optimistic they will not be susceptible again due to their reduced comb and wattle size. In the future we would like to selectively choose birds with the smallest comb types and not rely on natural selection to do it for us.
Another challenge that comes with the cold is providing the chickens with access to water. We routinely filled up their watering bowls with warm water up to four times daily during the coldest temperatures. The flock was pretty good about eating snow as well, although I am not sure if this was for interest or for water intake. Since we soak their feed, it needed to be brought in every night and scooped out fresh multiple times daily. We also made sure to have plenty of dry grain available that wouldn't freeze. The feed we make them is compromised of hard red winter wheat, peas, barley, oats, sunflowers seeds, and corn (in the winter only).
The Icelandic landrace no doubt lives up to their reputation of being thrifty with feed, they eat considerably less than other breeds and still thrive. By soaking their feed (preferably for several days to ferment) the chickens consume less overall feed and the nutrients are more easily digested in comparison with dry grain. We supplement their feed with all sorts of treats in the winter. They typically have ACV added to their water as well as garlic and kefir to their feed for general health and improved immunity. We make leftover sourdough starter bread or hot oatmeal and sprinkle cayenne, cinnamon and herbs in the mixture to aid in warming the flock on extra chilly days, and are sure to feed them any carcasses for added protein, fish are a favorite treat of theirs.
When February rolled around the chickens started running around like it was summertime and began laying full speed ahead. We are thoroughly excited for the day we find a hen has gone broody this spring and we can grow the flock.
I would also like to mention we have four beautiful Jersey Giant chickens who made it though winter perfectly fine, the only difference I noticed is they do require more feed and they did puff up significantly more during the cold spells when our Icelandics did not. They are a common breed for Alaska and although I am not convinced they were as comfortable in the extreme cold temperatures as our Icelandics appeared, I wouldn't pass at the opportunity to add more to the flock since we appreciate their temperament and their small combs.
These chickens can now claim they survived their first Alaskan winter and we are optimistic that will turn into many more.