Preparing hens for winter

Hens are naturally hardy creatures. Each wears her own personal duvet and will cuddle up in the coop with friends on cold, winter nights to keep warm. The shorter days do, however, mean that there is less time for eating. It is important that the birds are plump and in good health at the start of the winter if the cold months are not to take their toll.

I start to prepare my hens for winter from mid to late October, depending on the weather. As we have recently been experiencing a noticeable drop in temperatures here in England, I have begun my preparations.

The hens will spend more time roosting in their coops through the longer nights, so I like to ensure that these are thoroughly cleaned. As I use plastic hen houses this is easily done in a couple of hours by dismantling and power washing each section. Once cleaned and dried I move the coops to fresh ground and put down a good, thick layer of straw in each run. We have had a lot of rain recently and the straw helps to keep the hens feet off the muddy ground. The birds also like to scratch around looking for treats, thus relieving any boredom issues that may develop when the weather affects the amount of time that they can free range in the wider garden.

Before I start fattening them up for the winter (to provide them with more personal insulation) I worm them. I do this twice a year, in autumn and spring. It is possible to buy a powdered product called Flubenvet that can be mixed with their normal feed. I did this for several years but, although I followed the instructions carefully, I was never convinced that I had applied the medicated powder evenly throughout the feed sack. Each bird needs to ingest an amount suitable for their weight; by adding it to the feed, each will eat as much as is required. It is therefore important that all food offered has been suitably medicated so that each bird takes in the correct dose.

For the past couple of years I have been using Marriage’s Farmyard Layers Pellets with Flubenvet® and have been much happier with this method of worming than when I medicated my own feed. I buy one large sack and feed it exclusively for the recommended seven days. The results are gross but impressive!

When being wormed, the birds must eat nothing but the medicated feed. This means no free ranging (where they find their own tasty treats), no vegetable scraps from the kitchen and no handful of corn just before bed. They do not appreciate this change in routine and are very vocal in their complaints when I go out to check on them. They associate me with freedom and food and cannot understand why I am not providing as expected.

Because they are shut in their runs for a full seven days it is important that these are well maintained. Water must be changed each day, straw raked over and poop cleared from the coops. This is the gross bit. After a few days, any worms that the birds may have been harbouring will start being flushed out. Yesterday I was confronted with quantities of poop laced through with thread like worms, some as long as four inches in length. Better out than in though; hopefully my ladies will be feeling much better having gotten these beasties out of their systems.

During worming week I will dig over the ground that the runs have occupied through the summer. I will then leave this open to the elements for the rain and sun to air and wash through. On a dry day I will sprinkle animal friendly ground sanitiser (I use Stalosan F) and allow this to be absorbed and scratched in once the hens are free ranging again. The cleaned ground is then ready for the coops to be returned when I judge that another move is required. In wetter weather I can decide how long the runs should stay in one place based on smell. As soon as the chickeny aroma becomes noticeable, I know that it is time for a clean up.

Hens do not like the rain. To help keep their runs dry I cover them with plastic. I use whatever I have to hand at the time – a mix of cheap shower curtains, camping ground mats and plastic wrap from new furniture. Although this protects the birds, it can still be hard to stop the ground becoming boggy in periods of prolonged rain. When this happens I add a fresh layer of straw. I also ensure that there are plenty of perches inside the run for the birds to hop around on.

Once worming week is complete I turn my attention to increasing the birds general well being and weight. Treats will include vegetable greenery and an increased allocation of corn in the late afternoon. If they go to bed with full tummys then they will have an easier time keeping warm. Layers pellets are nutritionally complete and contain everything a laying hen needs. However, as my birds are used to free ranging, I like to offer them the extras on days when they must be shut in their runs due to the weather.

Throughout the winter months I will ensure that my hens are let loose in the garden whenever the sun makes an appearance. Sunshine is important for all creatures, and hens do love to stretch out their wings and sunbathe. When confined to their runs they have a constant supply of pellets, fresh water and a small tub of mixed Poultry Grit. In the coldest months the water may need to be changed several times a day to prevent it freezing over.

Egg production is likely to drop as the days shorten. As I keep mainly hybrids I should still get enough eggs for my own family but will struggle to supply as many friends as I can over the summer. My birds also have a habit of moulting at this time of year, which puts a strain on their calcium reserves. If any hen does start to look poorly then I will add a little Poultry Spice to the feed (a spoonful of cod liver oil helps to bind the powder to the pellets) and squirt some Apple Cider Vinegar in their water.

I have yet to lose a bird due to the cold weather but I do keep a close eye on their condition to ensure that any problems are dealt with quickly. Picking up a bird on a cold day to check that she is as plump and clean as she should be is a good excuse to enjoy hugging a truly excellent hand warmer.