Producers who raise pastured poultry and want to maintain egg production this winter should keep their birds as warm and dry as possible, experts from the Purdue University College of Agriculture say.
A good first step is to provide indoor accommodations for the flock.
"Producers should insulate housing, provide heat, make sure water is kept unfrozen and keep hens inside on extremely cold days to avoid frostbitten combs and wattles," said Patricia Hester, professor of animal sciences.
Providing shelter has a number of benefits, said Delaware County Extension educator Michael O'Donnell, a pastured poultry producer.
"The most important thing for laying birds when it's cold out is to have an area where the birds can get out of the elements so they can get to dry bedding, be able to roost up and not have a draft running through their area," he said.
A small coop, shed or barn are housing options that allow birds to get out of the elements and provide space for them to move around, Hester said. According to the Humane Farm Animal Care poultry housing standards, exits to the outdoors should be placed every 50 feet in large barns and should be 18 inches high and 21 inches wide. These exits may also provide ventilation, but if condensation appears on coop windows, additional airflow is required.
Perches are also recommended to keep birds comfortable. Shelters should be kept above single-digit temperatures to avoid frostbite. To minimize the risk of accidental fires, producers should pay close attention to indoor heaters.
O'Donnell recommended using straw, wood chips or wood shavings as indoor bedding. Sand, dirt and mulch are good materials for a dust bath, which birds need to keep clean and limit pest infestations.
Poultry also need access to water at all times because they are constantly breathing out moisture, using it in egg production or passing it through waste. If the coop temperature dips below freezing but stays above single-digit temperatures, it may be necessary to heat drinking water using a base heater or an electric heater that can sit inside a water dish. O'Donnell advises checking the water often to ensure it does not run out, spill over or become contaminated.
Producers may also need to provide more feed for their poultry because birds use more energy in winter to regulate their body temperatures. If the birds don't have enough to eat, they might lack the energy needed to produce strong eggs and maintain good health. That is why feeders should be kept filled.
"Laying hens eat more feed in cold weather," Hester said. "When they are outside, they have access to roughage in the field. When they are inside, they tend to eat more feed and less roughage due to lack of availability."
It is also important to make sure the birds get enough of the calcium they need to produce strong egg shells. One solution is to provide them with a diet that includes crushed oyster shells.
O'Donnell said laying hens may not produce as many eggs as daylight dwindles.
"Laying cycles can be triggered by light exposure, so a light source on a timer may be helpful in that case – you can have a light turn on before the sun is up to mimic a longer day," he said.
For more information on poultry management practices, call the Indiana State Poultry Association at 765-494-8517, or visit their website: http://www.inpoultry.com/.