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When the weather is foul, the fowl need a boost to survive

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
A chicken walks around in the snow before going back into the chicken coop Monday afternoon north of Hutchinson.

Although chickens are pretty hardy, extreme cold temperatures can cause problems — especially to their combs and wattles.

When these extremities get wet and then freeze, frostbite can settle in, changing the chicken’s wattle to dark red then purple and finally black.

To prevent this, farmers Jenny and Geoff Burgess, who run Burgess Farms in Sterling, place petroleum jelly on their chickens' beaks, combs and wattles each morning during these below-10-degree temperatures.

“We started using Vaseline and it helps,” Jenny Burgess said. “It is interesting trying to put Vaseline on a chicken though.”

Others who raise poultry sometimes place coconut oil on the birds' extremities. Some producers place the oil on in the evening, while others do it in the early morning hours. However, many chicken owners do not think this is necessary until they see signs of frostbite.

Backyard chicken-keeping, the practice of urban and suburban homeowners raising chickens for food or fertilizer, has been popular for years. The American Pet Producers Association estimated 10 million U.S.  households, or about 8%, kept chickens in 2018. Interest has spiked higher during the pandemic.

“They're amazing, resilient birds,” said Collen McGee of Rowantree Farm in Abilene. “As long as they have shelter out of the wind, they're fine."

Wade Redger of Redger Farms in Plains said his chickens do just fine during these low temperatures. He said they venture outside into the snow during the day. But like with McGee, when the temperatures drop below about 8 degrees, his chickens do not want to leave the coop.

Burgess and McGee place hay on the ground outside their coop so the ground isn't too cold. In addition, both farmers put up bales of hay around the run to help control the drifting snow and harsh wind.

“Chickens are relatively safe even in the coldest weather if 1) they are protected from wind, 2) they are kept dry, and 3) they are healthy,” Scott Beyer, a professor and poultry extension faculty at Kansas State University, wrote in an email. “Most birds don’t spend much time outdoors in extreme weather, but they will still go outdoors when it’s still and crisp.” 

Many farmers also surround their coops with bales of hay to insulate the structures from the weather, which can raise the temperature inside. Roosts are also helpful for these fowl as they get their feet off the ground.

A chicken walks around in the snow Monday afternoon north of Hutchinson.

“If they are less than 12 weeks old, or without adult feathers, they should be protected from the weather by moving indoors to above freezing,” Beyer said. “This is why birds don’t naturally hatch eggs in late fall or winter.” 

And just like with cattle, goats and sheep, chickens need more feed during frigid temperatures. And of course, each farmer must make sure the animals' water is not frozen. Beyer suggests dog bowls with integrated heaters and thermostats if the coop has access to power.

If the birds are old or are health-compromised, the low temperatures will affect them.

“Good winter survival means birds older than one year of age should be allowed to molt each fall,” Beyer said. “This is around state fair time in Kansas. Molting allows the bird to rest, recover body fat and replace their feathers to help them retain warmth in the winter.” 

Chickens come out of their house into the snow to eat from their outside feeder Monday. Their water and another feeder are inside their coop.