For those learning to keep chickens, it’s important to note that the winter months are a time of change for your flock, and it requires a change in diet for your feathered friends. The fact is that chickens need more protein in winter. Many factors go into it, but to start with, most chickens will molt in the late fall and early winter. Combine that with colder, darker, shorter days, and it’s easy to see how switching up your flock's feed could help support their needs during the cold months ahead.
Need help determining what your flock needs to stay healthy as the temperatures drop? This article will help you understand your chickens' winter nutritional needs and help you keep your flock healthy all season long.
Chicken Survival Tips For Winter
When you first start keeping chickens, it can be easy to let fears of your flock getting cold overtake you. But fear not. Chickens are remarkably adaptable creatures who are actually better adapted to the cold than the heat.
A chicken's natural internal body temperature is between 103-105ºF, and they are equipped with one of nature’s best insulators – feathers. Feathers insulate your birds and help them maintain proper body temperature. Though our feathered friends tolerate the cold well, there are still a few steps you’ll need to take to ensure your birds weather the winter well. For starters, the coop needs to be clean, dry, and draft-free. Preparations need to be made to ensure their water dishes don’t freeze, and you’ll need to adjust the protein level in their diets.
Why do Chickens Need More Protein in Winter?
Protein is a vital nutrient in your chicken’s winter diet. During the winter months, the additional amino acids found in proteins play a significant role in the health of your flock. Increased protein helps to:
Maintain daily egg production
Create antibodies to fight disease
Allows your birds to adapt to the colder environment
Aid in the regrowth of quality feathers during molting
Maintain healthy body functions
In short, protein in your bird's diet is continually being used up by their bodies, and therefore, it needs to be replenished constantly. Increasing the protein content in your flock’s winter diet will ensure they get the protein they need to stay warm, maintain overall health, and stay productive in the egg department.
How to Safely & Easily Increase Your Flock's Protein in Winter
When increasing the protein content in your flock’s winter diet, it’s best to focus on high-quality, natural protein sources. Before we begin, ensure that your flock eats a good quality feed with a protein content between 16-20%. Bonus points if it is enhanced with omega-3s. Extra protein sources should be considered treats, snacks, or supplements; they should not be a substantial part of your flock’s daily calorie intake. Your flock’s daily feed ration is still the most crucial part of their winter diet! Here are some safe ways to add supplemental protein sources to your flock’s diet this winter:
Poultry Scratch, Mealworms, and Black Soldier Fly Grubs
For our chickens' winter diet, we tend to add a poultry scratch mix high in corn and fly grubs or mealworms. Chickens, ducks, and most birds naturally love insects, so this is one of your flock's most popular forms of protein. We combine them with corn because the process of digesting corn, in particular, raises your chicken's body temperature naturally.
Meat Scraps or Scrambled Eggs
Contrary to the belief of some, chickens are carnivorous, not vegetarians. When we take our flock scraps from the kitchen, they go into a frenzy to get the best bits. If your birds are lacking in protein, they will resort to cannibalism to get it. You may find it odd to feed your chickens eggs, but consider this: egg is the first food source they get when they are forming in the shell before hatching.
Canned Sardines or Salmon
These little fishes pack a great protein punch and provide essential omega 3’s, so in moderation, they are a win-win. We don’t feed them to our flock because we have a bear den on our property. There’s no faster way to draw a bear than a can of sardines, and I’m afraid he wouldn’t hesitate to get out of bed for such a tasty treat, so we leave them off the menu. But if you don’t have resident bears, your chickens will love the fishy treat.
While oyster shells are given for their calcium content, they also provide trace amounts of organic matrix proteins (OMP) or skeleton/shell proteins. It’s a good idea to always have oyster shells as a free-choice item in the coop to aid in eggshell production and bone health.
Grit is crushed granite, not a protein, so you may be wondering why it’s on our list. Chickens don’t have teeth. The presence of grit is required to help them properly break down foods. Chicken feed is designed to break down, but when you begin to feed anything other than feed, you will need to provide grit to aid in their digestion and prevent impacted crops.
Other Natural Supplements For Winter Flock Health
There are other natural supplements you may want to consider incorporating into your flock’s winter diet. These supplements can be used to help prevent or treat specific issues that may arise for your birds during the winter months. The best winter supplements to focus on are ones that:
Cold temperatures suppress circulation in a chicken’s body. Supplements that stimulate circulation will ensure proper blood flow and help prevent frostbite.
Crushed red pepper
Boost the Immune System
Supplements that boost the immune system will help your flock ward off disease, parasites, and illness during chilly winter weather.
Enhance Digestive Function
During the winter months, the digestive systems of your birds can be taxed or compromised. Supplements that aid with digestion will help your flock get the maximum nutrition from what they eat, providing more energy to help them stay warm.
Apple cider vinegar
Remember that supplements that address specific issues should be offered during the time of need and should not be used to replace any portion of feed. Unless your flock has a particular need, offer them at most once or twice per week.
Feeding a Healthy Winter Flock
A chicken can produce a surprising amount of heat through metabolism activity alone. Just like in humans, metabolizing food or feed generates heat (which is why your flock typically consumes more feed in winter than in summer.) A standard-size laying hen can generate as much as 10.5 watts of heat per hour. When you factor in the heat generated by the rest of your chickens, a flock of 10 hens has the potential to produce more heat per hour than a 100-watt light bulb! That’s why it’s so important to ensure that your chicken's winter diet is up to the task of feeding these little feathered furnaces.
What are your favorite high-protein winter treats to feed your chickens? Tell us all about them in the comments below, and as always, until next time,