~ January 7, 2018 ~

How to Manage Cold Stress Effects on Poultry

Extreme temperatures in a bird’s environment, whether hot or cold, needs special attention to keep our flock well. A lot of focus is typically made during extreme and prolonged heat in the environment. The main reason is because poultry do not have a great way of dispersing heat from their body like mammals, due to the inability to sweat. Poultry disperse heat mainly through respiration. It just takes longer. Conversely, (and I think unwisely), the same attention is not really focused on that of the effects of extreme cold stress can have on a birds health. Many poultry keepers won’t even acknowledge their birds get cold during winter, as if they are invincible because they possess feathers. Which is quite surprising to me, since my observation of my own flock through almost two decades has told me a different story.

Cold stress can have some profound effects on the health of your bird. Cold stress can compromise the immune system to be more easily invaded by bacterial or virus-related illness, trigger parasite overload, create nutritional deficiencies and weight loss, and even cause death in some circumstances. Due to scientists now studying the effects of climate change, they are looking toward the effects of extreme cold temperatures of growing animals as this could have huge economic impact and is a rising concern of food producers. Cold stress has been found to cause death and early research has shown “acute cold stress has shown a clear suppression in development, survival and egg production (1)”. In other words, birds can and do suffer from the cold and it does have an impact on the lifecycle.

Micro-Climate Strategies

The climate within a poultry house, or the sum of the environment, is measured in many ways. For example temperature, relative humidity, air composition, air speed/movement, and light. We address these factors with providing a coop or pen with insulated walls, roof and floor. We insure proper ventilation and maximize light through windows or electrical means. We make sure there are no drafts. We may also offer heating devices. The climate in a coop can have direct effect on respiratory, digestive and behavior issues! A lot of attention is paid to all these factors in winter, but in fact the only thing of real importance to the bird itself, is the micro-climate.

A micro-climate means the climate directly surrounding the bird. This is why huddling together is an effective way birds minimize heat loss while roosting at night. It is a good idea to have a number of roosts in various lengths so they can choose to huddle effectively of their own choosing. I have noticed that much of my flock likes a long roost with a lot of birds together in a long line. You can see that outside with wild birds on a branch or on a power line. I might also note here that because birds are trapping the heat against their body creating a natural micro-climate, they are sharing very little of that heat with the outside to heat the coop as it is so commonly reported. The heat inside a structure is directly due to the materials and insulation of the coop and where it is physically situated. For example if the building has outside wind blocks (near tress or bushes) or solar heat through the windows.I have noted the inside temps of my own coop are on average 10 degrees warmer than the outside irregardless if my birds occupy the coop or not.

Creating a micro-climate space with a single 100 watt bulb can be very effective in a wood box or a low-traffic area in the coop for birds to access, even though the rest of the coop is 20 degrees. This will have no interference with your bird’s acclimation or roosting at night. In fact, if I notice a bird staying under the bulb for long periods of time that is a signal to me they are struggling with some internal issue and not able to use food and huddling to keep warm. Something else is sapping and competing with their internal energy. It could be illness, mites or old age and a failing circulatory system. It is possible that feather loss is a factor which makes it hard for them to trap heat against their body. Usually my birds are done molting by the time winter sets in, but it does happen sometimes. A nice side benefit is the warmth triggers them to groom themselves and others under the lamp to get rid of any unwanted bugs and to clean their feathers. As a side note, if you see birds huddling on the ground in the litter in general, please pay some attention to that. Healthy birds should be able to roost and keep warm. If they are huddling that way, they are really cold. Sometimes that happens with an unexpected cold snap, especially transitioning into winter. Other issues might be the housing itself or health issues if it persists.

Maintaining Internal Temperatures is Everything

Optimal outside temperatures for poultry is between 68 – 75 degrees, and is called the comfort zone. This is the temperature in which the bird is able to keep their internal temperature constant with minimum effort. Your bird will always try to maintain a constant body temperature between 105-107 degrees. When a bird reaches the lowest critical temperature, it will start to use feed energy to warm itself. However each bird is different and that point is determined by age, body weight, feather health, housing, quality of feed, humidity and exposure to drafts and their own general health. The lower the temps, the more stress the lower temp’s puts on the body to maintain those temperatures. By the time the outside temps get at and below freezing, the body is working really hard to maintain keeping warm. This is also why your birds starts to become less active or resort to huddling. They are using more energy to stay warm, and reducing moving around to a minimum.

The important components for your bird to help keep up internal temps will be to utilize food (nutrition, fiber + high protein), fat, and unfrozen clean water. My recommendation is to skip the scraps and treats. Your birds will get the most optimal energy for internal heat with a balanced high quality food. I also feed my flock suet blocks during the entire winter, free choice. It is ready to burn energy that they can use quickly to keep warm. Herbal infused oils mixed with birdseed can also offer this same benefit, with added support from the various herbs you may use in your oil. Offered free choice, your birds will eat the right amounts they need.

Not only should your flock eat more during winter, but they should be drinking more water as well. Clean water is necessary for all the same reasons as during hot weather, including preventing dehydration. It is the companion with food in regulating internal temperature and proper organ functioning. If your birds are not drinking more, figure out the reason why. I always have unfrozen water available 24/7 because I think it is that important they have access whenever they need it. In fact, I worry more about the water than the food. At least they can temporarily use body fat for energy. This would also be a great time that highly nutritive herbs can be applied in the form of a tea to the drinking water. It will add balanced nutrition with the other qualities a particular herb might add, for example for respiratory, circulatory or immune support.

Cold Stress Zapping the Immune System

As you might imagine, constant extreme cold temperatures is a stress on the body, and this will also affect the immune system. You have to agree that cold stress is a stressor, like predator attacks, heat stress and inter-flock social stresses like adding new flock members, flock members dying and so on. What might be worse with the extreme cold than some of those other stressors, is the long continuity of exposure it can have.

The immune system is important because it is a first line of defense against fighting pathogens. Chronic stress can cause inflammation and can actually suppress the immune cells in doing their work. Over time, this weakens the immune system and your bird becomes more susceptible to more infections and illness. There are many herbal possibilities to help support this situation. An easy solution would be to add garlic to the drinking water, 6 cloves per gallon. Smash up the garlic and only refresh when you change the water. You can also feed raw free choice. During harsh and long cold snaps, I think a daily application would be reasonable and be of good use during that time.

Cold Stress Triggering Worm Imbalance

A healthy bird can manage a reasonable worm load. If your bird is chronically stressed by the cold, the body and immune system gets taxed. This gives opportunity for internal parasites to populate unchecked. Coccidiosis could even rear its ugly head, due to that extreme stress can break the immunity (something good to know generally). It might be a wise strategy to worm your birds herbally after a harsh cold spell break when the temps get back to "normal". This is the only reason why I might ever night recommend an herbal wormer preventatively during winter.

Clean Your Coop

Keeping our coops clean during winter can be a challenge due to the cold temps and generally nasty weather we might have to work in. Yet, during the winter is when we have to be even more diligent for a couple of reasons. Keeping humidity lower by removing wet droppings, (and moisture does help frostbite) but to also keep ammonia low in concentrations as possible. High ammonia comes from the bacterial processes in the manure. High ammonia concentrations will irritate the mucous membranes. Good ventilation can help with this, but at a certain point, you will need to change out the litter. The drier you can keep the litter, the better. If you are using deep litter, please maintain it properly. It needs constant work up and good ratio mix of materials to keep the composting healthy.

More Herbal Information + Recipes

I have more articles on my website describing different methods to apply garlic, infused garlic oil, herbal suet and other herbs that are power packed with nutrients and circulatory boosters.

Poultry Foods + Herbs + Recipes

(1) A New Insight into Cold Stress in Poultry Production” April 1, 2016, Dridi, S.
Original Article, Susan Burek. 2018 Moonlight Mile Herb Farm, Copyright

Moonlight Mile Herb Farm © 2018 Susan Burek