Andrew Fothergill, National Poultry Advisor at Farmgate Feeds gives his advice on caring for your flock over the colder months.
With more time being spent at home and winter poultry shows cancelled, you can try to get one step ahead by focusing on the breeding conditions of your hens as the weather starts to turn. There are a number of factors to consider for fertile eggs including maturity, health and comfort of your hens. It will undoubtedly be cold up until March so the following early preparations will stand us in good stead ahead of prime hatching time in the spring.
Once moulting season is over, the shortened daylight hours and colder months will lead to slower egg production. To encourage egg laying during these months, you can extend the daylight hours by adding an artificial lightbulb in your hen’s coop. They will need no more than 10 hours of daylight per day so, if you can, fit a timer to make sure they are not over stimulated.
Ensure your hen’s housing, including any cages, brooders and pens are cleaned and built ready for the hatching season. Whilst you are undertaking any building or maintenance, check that the hen house is warm and free from any draughts. Although it’s important to keep draughts out, try to avoid the temptation to over-insulate your hen’s living space as too much warmth can interfere with their ability to tolerate cold temperatures. You will also find that your flock are pretty good at huddling together to keep warm.
Nutrition and water
Consistency is key when it comes your hen’s diets, just like in our own, so maintaining a well-balanced approach to nutrition is vital throughout the winter. Feeding a good ration of layers’ pellets or mash, in addition to a mixed corn in the afternoon, should be a year-round feeding routine. You can always feed slightly less in the morning and more in the afternoon which will help fill your hens up before bedtime and keep them warmer at night. However, be sure not to allow your bird’s healthy appetite in the cold weather lead to overeating plain cereal, as they may overconsume easy calories – good breeders are ‘fit but not fat.’
Farmgate Feeds Layers Pellets and Mash support egg production with natural ingredients to provide the best performance and efficiency. The same well-balanced nutrition is available in these two physical forms, with optimal levels of calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin D3 that is required for bone strength and good shell quality. In addition, the Layers feeds are fortified with vitamins, minerals and trace elements to provide excellent egg quality, with natural yolk pigments, marigold and paprika, to help deliver a deep rich yolk colour.
The importance of water is often overlooked but it is imperative during the winter months to maintain the hens’ comfort and egg production. Drinkers need to be filled with fresh water daily and cleaned thoroughly to avoid any harmful bacteria building up. Electric dishes can help prevent water from freezing or you can wrap bubble wrap around the bottles to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Keep an eye on the general health and wellbeing of your hens as the weather conditions worsen, those breeds with larger combs are particularly susceptible to frostbite. If they are affected by frost you can treat their combs with an antiseptic spray or use a little petroleum jelly as a precaution at night when the temperatures are still dropping.
Collect your hen’s eggs on a regular basis and, if you are using an incubator, put them straight in as the cold can freeze them. Eggs from breeding pens will be fertile from February onwards; you can set them under a broody hen or use an incubator. If you are breeding, five hens to one cockerel is about the right ratio to ensure optimum fertility, with the male being introduced into the pen at least three weeks before the eggs need incubating, to allow for adequate fertilisation.
With any well-kept pullets close to full lay by this time of the year, November and December are the best times to review your hatching plans for the coming year.