It’s the middle of winter. You’re getting very few eggs from your flock, if any at all. They’re still in the stages of molting, or they’re just finishing up their last molt.
With their reproductive systems taking a rest and your chickens shedding their coats, winter is an important time for them to rebuild their nutrient reserves and renew their feathers for the year. Many chickens cease laying during molting as they need to channel all that energy — and all available protein — into growing out their feathers, which are almost purely protein (keratin fiber, to be exact).
Combine that with dormant winter gardens, which leave fewer opportunities for them to forage, and you often need to augment their diet with extra goodies to keep them healthy through the season.
As well, don’t underestimate the power of playtime: A lazy chicken equals a fat chicken. And a fat chicken equals a sick chicken. Make sure your chickens don’t end up with coop fever (the feathery equivalent of cabin fever) by giving them something to do and something to eat during the wintry weather.
For happy hens, try a few of these tips and come spring, you’ll have a flock that’s fully coiffed and back on track.
1. Supplement your chickens’ diet with store-bought greens.
Fresh greens in the garden are usually hard to come by in the winter, so you should supplement your chickens’ diet with store-bought salads (or strike a deal with your favorite farmers’ market merchant to buy all their leftover greens). Choose nutritionally dense, dark greens like kale, collards, chard and spinach; stay away from the cheap stuff like iceberg lettuce, which is basically just green-tinged water. Greens (including those lowly weeds) are an important source of vitamins and minerals for chickens, just as they are for humans.
2. Hang a green piñata in the chicken run.
Turn feeding time into a little game for chickens who might be cooped up and restless when it’s grim outside. I like to hang a head of cabbage inside the run and let the ladies bop it around like a tether ball. By the end of the day, all I’m left with is a half-eaten stalk and a piece of string. You can also stuff greens into a suet cage or a treat ball and make them work for their food. Keeping them busy and curious is key to preventing bored behavior like egg-eating and feather-pecking.
3. Let grains and seeds sprout naturally in the run.
I discovered this little trick by accident one day. Many people sprout grains for their chickens to take advantage of all the vitamins and minerals made available. But if you feed your flock a whole grain diet, there are likely quite a few grains flung about in their run which they never get around to eating. Instead of cleaning up the mess, let Mother Nature do the work: A few days after a rain, all those grains and seeds will sprout themselves — et voilà, instant pasture!
4. Alfalfa is your friend.
If your chickens don’t have access to pasture, up their protein intake by buying a bale of alfalfa (found at your local feed store) for them to scratch. Your chickens will be busy pecking at the alfalfa all winter long, while also getting an excellent fill of protein and fiber. If you can’t find a mini bale like this and you can’t haul an entire bale home, you can reap the same benefits by adding alfalfa pellets (usually sold as rabbit food) to their regular feed.
5. Bring on the bugs.
Release your chickens right after a rain, as all the moisture in the ground brings out a buffet of protein-filled worms, grubs, and other delectable bugs that they love to scratch and peck. If your winter has been dry or your chickens don’t get many opportunities to graze on pasture, toss them a small handful of dried mealworms once a day for their protein fix. (Quick tip: Buy dried mealworms that are marketed for wild bird feeders, which often come in economical bags by the pound; the ones marketed toward chicken-keepers are usually twice the price in much smaller quantities.)
6. Cook up a hot treat.
I do this often in winter, mainly because my picky chickens won’t eat dried legumes… but give them a steaming hot bowl of cooked lentils or split peas on a cold dreary day, and they’re all over it! Legumes offer some of the highest sources of protein (up to 35 percent for lentils) and they’re inexpensive. You can also cook up the more expensive — but very protein-rich — grains like kamut and quinoa, and serve them as a special treat. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll even share my nine-grain oatmeal with the girls: a feast of triticale, rye, wheat, oats, barley, flax and spelt. Have you ever seen a chicken move so fast? Ohhh yeah… It’s chow time.