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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Chickens & Frost Bite

I’m going to be real here. We have been keeping chickens for several years.  We have been through a few challenges.  The great thing about challenges is how much you can learn from them.  Experience is the mother of all teachers.  Unfortunately.

I am not a chicken doctor.  Although, sometimes I wish I was.  We have had frost bite, infectious bronchitis, eye infections, not to mention broken legs and broody hens that would rather sit on eggs than eat.  We have had to cleanse the coop, bleach the coop, and torch the coop (think flame thrower application to all walls, ceiling, and floors to kill any bacteria, disease, or virus).  We have had to cull hens that were beyond help.    We have given medicine, shots and baths……. to chickens.  Our doctor is probably tiring of all the chicken inquisitions.  We even had to sell (or cull) our entire flock and start fresh one year.

With that said, I’ll tell you what I’ve experienced concerning frost-bite, what the experts say, and all the mistakes I’ve made here on our little farm.  I’m a work in progress, still learning, very teachable.  This post is going to be another one that falls into the “don’t take the field trip” category.  Don’t do what I do – choose life!

cold outside

Depending on the climate you live in, if there is snow on the ground, your chickens may be at risk of getting frost-bite.  Their feet and combs are the two places most often harmed.  Frostbite is most commonly found on the combs and wattles of roosters or hens with large combs.  Leghorn’s are especially at risk.

I have heard conflicting advice on how to handle the icy cold weather with chickens.  Some advise heat lamps.  Some advice smearing on petroleum jelly or bag balm.  Some advise keeping the flock locked in the coop.  Some folks put sweaters on their chickens.

Really.  They do.  No offense if your chickens wear sweaters – I’ve seen some fine looking duds on chickens.  Very cute.  Also, very unrealistic for me.  Too many chickens. Too free-range.  Additionally, the chicken sweaters I’ve seen don’t protect the combs, wattles, or feet;  which are the areas most susceptible to frost-bite.

I always like to consider what my great-great-grandmother’s did over 100 years ago.  There was no electricity, especially not in the chicken coop.  I don’t think chicken sweaters were in style yet.

Not to mention, in the 1900’s winter was a time when people had other things to worry about…..  Like:  chopping wood, keeping the inside of the house above 50 degrees, and surviving the trip to the outhouse and back.  Yikes!

Chickens have been surviving winters longer than we have had heat lamps, petroleum jelly, and chicken sweaters.

I like to consider how it’s been done in the past; at the same time, I also want to consider any new methods that can benefit my feathered, egg-laying friends. If I can improve my chickens quality of life, I’m in.  I don’t want my hens and cockerels to suffer needlessly.

Here in Kentucky, our temperatures are not usually drastic enough to get too worried.  We reached wind-chills of almost -30 (that’s negative 30 degrees) last winter and our chickens made it to spring almost unharmed.  A few roosters were down a comb and many wattles had been reduced in size – but they were healthy and recovered just fine.

Here are some tips to helping your chickens survive the cold:

  1. Provide snacks inside the coop.  This allows them to hang out indoors, if they choose.  You would think the chickens would take a peek outside, feel the negative temperatures, and decide it’s a good day to relax indoors.  Nope.  Not our chickens.  They like to run and peck and play.  Despite the arctic temperatures outside.
  2. I’ve read mixed reviews on petroleum jelly and bag balm.  If it makes you feel better, slather some on those combs and waddles.  It definitely couldn’t hurt.  I have found that most experts agree that it does not help prevent frost-bite.
  3. Check the humidity in the coop.  Make sure there is dry litter and not too much moisture.  Most of the frost-bite instances are a result from too much humidity in the coop.  The goal is a dry, well ventilated coop.
  4. If you live in an area that gets really cold in winter, consider keeping a cold-hardy breeds.
  5. If your chickens are like mine and would rather be outdoors, even when it’s freezing out, be sure your flock has access to wind breaks so they can avoid sharp gusts.
  6. Heat lamps in the coop scare me to death.  I know of fellow homesteaders who looked outside, or got a call from the neighbors and found their chicken coops on fire.  All because of a heat lamp.  I am sure there are ways to heat a coop safely but you’ll have to look that one up.  Heat-lamps effect my ability be breathe normally.  I’m fortunate to live in an area that doesn’t get horribly cold (usually).  I’ve heard enough tragic fire stories to permanently scratch this one off my list of options.
  7. Don’t clean the coop.  Keep the floor of the coop covered with dry litter, but leave all the chicken manure in the coop in winter.  The manure and the dry litter will begin to breakdown and compost.  Composting debris creates heat.  This is the perfect, all natural, organic, built-in chicken-coop heater, that is far less likely to result in a coop fire.

If, in spite of these efforts you find yourself with a frost-bitten chicken here is an excerpt from Backyard Poultry on treating frostbite:

“Frostbite is a serious condition, and can cause serious infection, leading to gangrene and loss of limbs if not treated. The area of frostbite will turn black, may swell and there will be a noticeable lameness in those chickens that are affected. If bad enough those limbs will either fall off or need to be amputated. If amputation is necessary, you will need to take the bird to a vet to perform that amputation. Even a vet that does not typically treat fowl will perform amputation and suggest follow up care.”*

frost bite

Foghorn Leghorn got a touch of frost-bite.  He needed love,  he needed attention, he needed us to care for his little, frostbitten comb and wattles.  Poor Foghorn.

frostbite 2

He was outside playing in the cold when he probably should have be inside the coop snuggling with the ladies.  You can see the areas that have been frost-bitten by the black coloring.


foghorn1

It only takes 10 minutes of exposure to below freezing temperatures to cause this.

The temperatures haven’t been too extreme here.  We think that this frost-bite is due to the humidity level in our coop.  Too damp.  We added some dry bedding and opened the window a little more to increase ventilation.

foghorn before

Here is an updated picture of Foghorn.  As you can see, he has a new slicked-back hairdo; but other than that he is doing fine.

🙂

If you have a frost-bitten chicken you are concerned about please contact your vet.   For more information about frost-bitten chickens, go here.  I am happy to report Foghorn Leghorn is doing just fine.  His comb is healing nicely.  It will probably be smaller after it finishes healing, but we will still tell him how handsome he is.

tall white & handsome

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Resources:

http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/load/farmlife/msg0214493930269.html

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-treat-frostbite-in-chickens.html

Hobby Farms:  http://www.hobbyfarms.com/livestock-and-pets/frostbite-in-chickens.aspx

*http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/treating-frostbite-chickens/

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