Keeping Healthy Chooks in Winter

Our chooks get more cosseting than all the other livestock on our farm combined. They repay us with enormous brown eggs and lots of laughs.

On the production side, we have 10 Brown Shaver hens and two pullets just coming into lay. The hens play with a handsome young Light Sussex rooster called Rocky and absolutely dote on him.

Rocky the Light Sussex rooster

Rocky the Magnificent

On the fun side, we keep a few heritage chooks:  a pair of Pekin bantams and a couple of salmon Faverolles . The latter are a French dual-purpose breed with feathered feet and feathering around their eyes. They’re very cute, very gentle and we call them the Ooh La Las.

Salmon Faverolles

Ooh La La!

Free-range Brown Shaver egg production

We’re getting eight or nine eggs a day from the Shavers at the moment, which isn’t bad for this time of year. We sell these eggs locally and we never have enough to meet demand — there’s actually a waiting list!

Production drops drastically when the hens moult but sometimes they just decide to lay somewhere other than their nesting boxes.

We’ve become quite good at tracking down these random eggs.  I’ve found them beneath shrubs, under the house and, most commonly, in the hay shed. Even then, I still miss a few. Ewan recently lifted down a bale to feed out to the cows and found a clutch of 16 eggs resting on top of it. The devious little sods had been laying one or two on other bales to fool us but had saved their best efforts for this secret one.

Heritage breed benefits

The Pekin bantam hen is currently laying one egg every other day. The eggs are small but they’re incredibly rich and they’re delicious scrambled.

The Ooh La Las seem to be putting all their energy into growing new plumage after the annual moult. We probably won’t get anything from them for another few weeks.

Apart from their cuteness, I want heritage breeds here because they go broody. This trait has been bred out of the Shavers, so even though their eggs are fertile (thanks to Rocky), they’ll never sit on them. The heritage girls, however, go broody all the time in summer, so we can pop eggs under them to hatch and expand our numbers for free.

Brown Shavers are engineered hybrids, meaning their eggs won’t produce more Brown Shavers. They’ll still hatch good laying birds, though, and with Rocky as their dad, some of the future cockerels might put on enough weight to make them suitable for eating.

Free Range Eggs

Five tips for keeping chooks healthy in winter

1. Supplement their protein

Chooks need protein to make feathers. If you’re feeding your hens pellets, make sure they contain animal proteins — vegetable proteins from peas, etc.  aren’t enough. We mix finely-ground organic blood and bone in with our pellets for an extra boost.

2. Supplement their carbs

I don’t normally give our chooks bread but I will when they’re moulting because the carbs help keep the baldies warm. I’ll sometimes give them leftover cooked rice or barley as a treat. We also throw them a few handfuls of cracked, dried maize, peas and grains every morning.

3. Make sure they have water

Even in winter, chooks need a surprising amount of drinking water. Make sure their water dispensers aren’t frozen solid.

4. Keep the chook house clean

Long winter nights mean more time spent in the hen house. Nothing will put a chook off the lay faster than a manky coop reeking of ammonia.

5. Ensure they can still dust bathe

If you’ve ever watched ecstatic chooks dust bathing in a sunny, sheltered spot, you’ll know how important this process is for their well-being. It’s not just about getting rid of parasites (although that’s important too); it’s a social thing and it makes them happy. Even if your ground freezes in winter, you can still mound up some dirt mixed with wood ash for your girls to roll around in. They need it every bit as much as they need food, water and shelter.