I saw on Chi Chi's blog that she is wondering about how to take care of her hens when the cold weather hits, so lets talk about it before the snow flies.
The best thing to do for your hens in cold weather is.... nothing. Really. Chickens are remarkably hardy, that is, most of them can take the cold better than we can. Just give them the tools they need and let them deal with it. Don't make the mistake of over-managing them. I did this the first winter we had our older momma goose, Penny. I called Bourbon Red up all in a panic and wondering if I should try and warm poor old Penny up??
Nope. Actually the worst thing you can do for stock is subject them to warming and cooling. Really - its us that can't deal with the cold not them. The process of heating and cooling is hard of them. Think of getting in and out of your car on a hot day - going between air conditioning and oppressive heat is just draining. Same with cold weather care. Give them the tools to deal with it, steel yourself, and then let them deal with it. After some initial complaining about how the service is so bad and some murderous looks they will find their routine and adapt.
The key tools your stock - especially hens - need for cold weather are:
1. Get them out of the wind. You don't want to seal up your hen house so its air tight because they need good ventilation, but you don't want their feathers blowing in the breeze either. Hens will fluff up and sit on their feet to keep warm. And they will snuggle together especially at night.
2. Feed little and often. Not only does this give them something to do, but it will keep their metabolism going which will keep them warm. Whole ears of corn, a flake of hay, pumpkins or squash, or a head of lettuce or cabbage will keep them entertained and fed throughout the day. Some folks say to increase the amount of corn as its a "hot" food and will help keep them warm. We do this for all our stock - even the goaties - but not too much and make sure they get enough protein. I like to feed smaller meals 3 or 4 times a day.
3. Make sure they get warmish, not hot, water at least twice a day. In the coldest weather the water in our turkey house will freeze so we have to keep up with this. You'll be surprised at how much water your poultry need during the cold weather. Tromping out there with buckets of water can be a pain but you just need to bundle up, cowboy up, and trudge out there. Make sure the water isn't too hot. You don't want their waddles to burn, or worse, scald their crops. For us, its easiest to use buckets and not drinkers. Its easier for us to fill them and also to break the ice out of them.
4. Bed everyone down so they are dry. Some folks use the "deep litter" method of just piling on the straw and letting the droppings create compost. This compost will generate its own heat and provide lots of crawly bugs and such to keep the hens feed and entertained. Just throw in a handful of scratch and the hens will keep everything mixed up. In the spring you'll have fantastic compost for the garden. We have wood floors so this doesn't work out so great for us as the floors may rot. So we clean out the hen house often and keep piling on the straw.
On our coldest nights we leave a 75 watt light bulb or one of those red heat lamp bulbs on in the hen house. This will keep the water from freezing solid and to keep the frostbite off the chickens with the longest combs.
The first year we got here we were sitting inside and enjoying the news when they said that a Saskatchewan Screamer was bearing down on us and our windchills would be -30* that night. Before they finished the report we were in the truck and headed off to the nearest straw place. Straw (not hay) is an amazing insulator, is readily available, cheap, and can be used in the garden after the cold weather lifts.
We piled the straw bales up to create an outside wall on the windward side of the hen house, around the foundation, and also a few on the inside of the hen house. We also hung heavy towels over the glass windows and made sure everything was locked up tight. It worked great.
Other than that, we let the hens out during the day unless there is freezing rain, sleet, or on the absolutely coldest days. Keep an eye on everyone's feet for frostbite. I have a few hens that want to be outside even in the snow, but most will want to keep their feet dry. You can sprinkle some hay just outside the hen house door to get some of the snow to melt and to give them a chance to pop around outside. I also make a path of straw from the hen house door to the goat house door so they hens can go and scratch around in the goat's bedding.
A few random thoughts:
Is your hen house facing south? That will catch the most amount of sun and warm up so they are comfortable. My hens like to lay just inside the door and let the sun shine on them. If you are starting from scratch plant deciduous trees so they shade the hen house in the summer and let the sun shine in the winter.
Keeping your waterfowl dry is the most important thing you can do in cold weather. It can be challenging because they need to splash around in a water source (a bucket for instance) and it gets the bedding all wet. Keep piling on the straw, keep it cleaned out, and consider putting a straw bale for them to roost on at night.
Remember that your poultry are going to be as bored as you are being cooped up on the cold days. You may have never considered yourself as a 'poultry cruise director' but its part of your job description now! Give them something to do. This will keep them busy, warm, and from picking fights.
Make sure everyone gets into shelter at night. One of my silly hens got left outside one snowy night. I went out to turn off the lights and make sure everyone was OK and she was huddled by the hen house covered in snow. To tell the truth, I didn't find her - one of the dogs did. She probably would have lived, but wow I was glad to put her inside with the others.
We have lots of hens, so we don't think about it, but if you only have a few hens they may not have enough body mass to keep warm on the really cold nights. I think they say at least 3 hens are enough to snuggle together to stay warm. But you'd be surprised how much heat that little hen will create.
If you notice frost on the INSIDE of your hen house you may not have enough ventilation. Also make sure the water you bring isn't too warm, the steam will create condensation which may freeze.
That's pretty much it. I don't know about you but I'm not looking forward to bundling up like the Abominable Snow Dork... but its coming.