Winter is nearly here, and nighttime temperatures in Colorado are beginning to drop dramatically. It won’t be long before we see days that don’t make it above freezing for weeks on end, especially here on our mountain-top homestead. That means it's time to make a batch of chicken frostbite balm!
Luckily, chickens are perfectly designed to handle the cold. After all, they come with built-in down coats. But those delicate exposed combs, wattles, and toes are still subject to frostbite, which can be very painful for your birds and could even result in the loss of body parts. While a minor case of frostbite is easily handled, failing to recognize and treat it promptly can have other complications, including gangrene infection.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is a topical injury caused by exposure to extreme cold. It results in damaged skin, nerves, and blood vessels just below the top layer of the skin. In chickens, it most commonly occurs when fluid freezes in the cells of the wattles, comb, and feet. While frostbite isn't generally fatal to chickens, it can be incredibly painful. The good news is that it is easily prevented. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Recognizing Frostbite in Chickens
Frostbite is easily recognizable in chickens. It generally appears first as small black spots or pale, gray/white tissue around the tips and edges of the comb or wattles. In feet, it can present as redness, dullness, or whitening of the toes. There are three stages of frostbite:
First degree - minor, causes irritation of the skin
Second degree - causes blisters on the skin but no significant damage
Third degree - involves all layers of the skin and causes permanent tissue damage
What Goes In Chicken Frostbite Balm?
To make this balm, you’ll need a carrier oil such as olive, coconut, or avocado, beeswax or other wax of choice, and a few basic herbs. We like to use a combination of:
Chamomile for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and healing properties.
Lavender for its power to soothe as well as its antibacterial, anti-fungal, and pain-relieving properties.
Plantain for its ability to help skin regenerate and its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Making DIY Chicken Frostbite Balm
This all-natural, botanically infused ointment to prevent and treat frostbite in your flock this winter. It can also be used as a topical first-aid balm for any minor cuts or scrapes on your chickens (or yourself!).
½ cup of carrier oil (use - olive, coconut, or avocado oil)
½ ounce or 1 ½ tablespoons beeswax (vegan - use carnauba, paraffin, or soy wax)
Making the Oil Infusion:
There are two ways to make the oil infusion, a quick version that takes 3 hours and a slow version that takes four or more weeks.
They both start the same way:
Add your dried plantain, lavender, and chamomile in equal parts to your mason jar until it is ½ to ¾ full. Then, fill the jar with your carrier oil of choice to about 1″ from the top. Use a clean chopstick or spoon handle to gently combine the plant matter with the oil and release any air pockets in the jar.
The Three-Hour Version:
Place your glass jar in a saucepan with 2 or 3 inches of cold water. Gently bring the heat up to a low simmer and set the timer for 3 hours. Make sure that the water doesn’t boil. Don’t allow it to splash into the jar. If the pan gets low, add more water to avoid drying out and roasting your pan. Once the time goes off and the oil cools, strain the plant matter with a fine sieve or cheesecloth.
The Four (or more) Week Version:
Instead of using heat to extract the plant’s healing properties, all this method requires is time. Place a lid on your jar and set it in a cool, dark place to do its thing. Give it a nice shake every few days, and when the four-week mark is up, you can strain the plant solids or leave the whole infusion for up to 6 weeks.
Making the Balm
You’ll need an old pot or pan and a clean old jar or glass measuring cup for this part. It is unlikely you will ever get it fully clean again, so don’t use any of your everyday items.
Add 1/2 cup of infused oil and 1/2 oz (or 1 ½ Tbls) of wax to your jar or measuring cup.
Fill your pot with 1” to 2” of water and carefully lower your jar with the oil/wax mixture into the water. You are essentially creating a double boiler. Heat on low, stirring often until all of the wax has melted.
Once the wax has melted, pour your salve into clean tins, tubs, or bottles for storage and cool completely before closing them up. This recipe will make two 2 oz tins.
Using Your Chicken Frostbite Balm
To prevent frostbite before it happens, when you know a cold snap is coming, add a protective layer of the frostbite balm to combs, wattles, and feet. If you find that your flock has already suffered from frostbite, treat affected areas with a liberal coating once or twice daily until the skin has healed.
Keeping Your Flock Safe From Frostbite
Where winter weather is concerned, temperatures can be unpredictable, and while we can’t always avoid frostbite, taking a few simple measures and using this DIY balm can help to reduce its effects on our flocks and minimize the damage. Remember that the recovery time for frostbite tissue can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks, so always aim for prevention! If you’re not ready for this DIY, hop over to our shop and purchase a tin of Henrietta’s Frostbite Balm ready-made in the Byers Ranch Apothecary!
What’s your winter chicken routine? Tell us all about it in the comments below, and as always, until next time: