Keeping chickens is a lot of fun but as winter approaches, it's important for poultry keepers to think ahead a little. Whilst it seems a long way off yet, winter can be a very difficult time for us and for our birds. With the cold, dark mornings and dark evenings, many of us may be opening the chicken house before work in the dark and closing it when we get home in the dark. There is no better time than now to start thinking ahead and carrying out any repairs that need doing to the hen house and run to make it waterproof and predator proof for the winter.
The chicken run should be checked for wear and tear, it is important to check for gaps that a fox could squeeze through. Most fox damage I have seen to runs has been where wire is joined or runs are joined to houses. Any small hole or loose section of wire can be torn back easily by a fox. If you use an electric fence, make sure there are no short circuits to ground (branches, grass or anything else touching) because during the winter, you are more likely to have hungry foxes about that may be more willing to attempt to get into your chicken run. An electric fence tester is a good investment. Take regular measurements, recording the 'normal' voltage your fence produces and investigate causes of dips in voltage.
When inspecting the chicken house, check for signs of water leaking into the house. Birds cannot stand draughts or being wet. Inspect the roof to make sure that it is waterproof. Avoid using felt on the roof if you can as this provides the ideal environment for red mite during the summer months. These ectoparasites multiply very quickly and it is almost impossible to get rid of mites once they are under the roof felt. Onduline roofing material is ideal as a replacement and is available in most DIY stores. It is light weight and easy to use. If you are planning on treating or painting your chicken house then do check that the product you are using is safe for birds (if you are unsure, call the helpline number on the back of the tin and ask if it's safe for animals) and under no circumstances allow birds back into the house until it is completely dry.
If you are working like me and unlikely to be around when it gets dark in the winter, an automatic pop hole opener / closer (follow the link to see our review and some pictures) is well worth the investment. This will open and close the pop hole when it gets light / dark and you won't have the worry of Mr Fox beating you home for dinner time!
If your chickens are kept on the same patch of ground, once the grass stops growing in October (well once the temperature is below 7 degrees C) you will find it will soon turn to mud. It is worth rotating their grazing ground if you can. Some runs and houses can be moved but if you have a fixed run in a corner of the garden, you might consider dividing it to allow one half to recover before the grass stops growing. I keep my chickens on a strip of land and I have crudely divided this into several sections. As one area gets worn, I move their house along or open up a picket gate to allow them onto fresh ground. I mix some of my smaller flocks after the breeding season - so as many runs get a rest and get to recover before the grass stops growing. Rotating your poultry's grazing will also avoid a build up of endo-parasites (worms) on the ground (and therefore a build up in your birds).
It is important to worm your chickens regularly. Currently, the only licensed in feed wormer for chickens is the Poultry Wormer Flubenvet. Most poultry keepers will worm their birds every 6 months - once in March and once in September / October as most birds are coming into and out of lay. If your stocking density is high, your birds are kept on the same piece of ground, or you suspect a worm problem, you will need to worm more frequently.
Feeders and water containers should of course be cleaned regularly but now is a good time to ensure they are in good working order and order a spare to keep indoors. Why keep a spare indoors? Well when you go out one morning in a hurry to find there's been a hard frost and your birds are looking for water, hopefully you will thank me ;-)
There are a number of different water containers available. Don't be tempted to buy a huge water container for a few birds since they need fresh water daily (or at least every other day). During the colder winter months, I only half fill my water containers. The chickens drink less in the cold and I empty the containers out every night and take them inside so they don't freeze. An alternative to this if you want to keep water containers out is to use an electronic heat pad that keeps the water container heated from underneath to stop it freezing. These work very well but can be expensive if you have more than one or two water containers to consider.
You can read about Keeping Chickens in Cold Weather here.