Harmfully Cold

Normally our December temperatures consist of 30s, 20s, and teens.  With a few nights that dip into single digits.  Then in January the real cold hits.  We have many nights that are in the negative numbers, and some days in the single digits, but most days still get into the 20s or 30s with only a few exceptions that are colder.  And when it does get very cold (as in -18 to -30 at night, with 0-8 during the day), it only lasts a couple of days and then gets back into the 20s and 30s.  It is amazing how much getting into the 20s or even 30s every few days helps sustain the animals and makes everything work better.

This last week has broken all the “rules” of our “normal” weather, and unfortunately it is beginning to cause harm.  We have not been above 8 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 days, and our nights have all been in the negative teens.  It is SO cold.  Bitterly cold.

We have worked hard to keep animals warm and safe.  We are constantly thawing water, we are feeding everyone extra feed, and we are bedding their living areas as thoroughly as possible.  Most days we have let the large animals outside for a little while and then closed up the barn when we saw them all head back in to try to keep the inside of the barn as warm as possible.  Since the chicken coop doors are so small, and thus don’t effect the inside temperature terribly, we have allowed the chickens to make the choice of being out in their pens, but have not allowed them to free range.  The pens have roofs and therefore don’t have much snow in them and are more protected.  The upper pen also has two solid wall sides, and only two open wire sides so it is more protected from breezes and such.

Unfortunately, our efforts were not good enough.

Yesterday morning at chore time we noticed several combs with frostbite.  This is why we are trying to breed these combs out of our stock and get rid of the ones that have it asap.  Hopefully by next winter we wont have any more large single combs left.  So we put salve on all the big combs with frostbite.  Then, at about 4:30, husband went out to do evening barn chores and to close the chickens into the coops.  We have been surprised that the chickens have decided to spend a lot of the daytime out in the pen, not inside the coop, but we figured they had enough instincts to make life preserving choices for themselves.  He noticed that one of the chickens wasn’t moving around at all like the rest of them as he herded them inside.  She was fully standing, but not moving.  Once the rest were inside he went to examine her.  She was moving her head and eyes and upper body, but her lower body, legs and feet weren’t moving at all.  It was eerie.  And then he realized, her legs and feet were frozen.  As in, frozen stiff.  He picked her up and felt them and they felt like lifeless frozen dead chicken legs.  She couldn’t bend at the hocks, nor could she bend her feet in any way.

So he took her into the coop and set up the heat lamp.  We had not been using a heat lamp in the upper coop, only the lower one because of the barn fire scare last winter, plus the fact that with that many birds in the coop the temperature in there at night had not been that low (until the frostbite night).  He put her directly under it with some fresh bedding.  The rest of the birds were already taking their places on the roosts and ignoring her completely.  He figured the heat lamp would be plenty to thaw her out.

After about an hour he went to see how she was doing.  She was still where he left her, and her legs were still frozen.  😦

So he brought her inside and we immersed her legs in luke-warm water (I knew that with frostbite in humans you don’t put the appendage right into hot water, but instead slowly increase the water temp as you heat them up).  After about two minutes her feet started to curl a bit, a good sign.  We slowly increased the water temperature, refilling the tub every 5 minutes or so with warmer and warmer water.  We were very careful to not get her feathers wet because we wanted to be able to put her back in the coop that night so that we wouldn’t have the stress of trying to introduce her back into the flock later and possibly cause her more trouble.  She is one of the younger pullets who just joined the flock and so we knew her position wasn’t very secure.  Her feet and legs slowly pinked up and became soft and bendable.  Most of the time she was very calm and just let us hold her in the water.  At one point during the process she became very distressed, I think it was the time when she was regaining feeling in her legs and feet and that feeling was painful.

Once we had her legs and feet completely thawed and warmed up we dried them off and then put them up against her belly, wrapped her in a towel, and cuddled her on our lap.  We wanted to be sure she was completely warmed, through and through, before we put her back out – to give her the best chance possible to pull through this.  She was shivering a lot at first, and we waited until the shivering stopped and she was completely relaxed.  She even started to doze in my husband’s lap.

Finally, we took her up to the coop.  We carefully set her on the roost near the heat lamp, steadying her and waiting to see if she could actually grasp it with her feet or not.  She did!  She grasped it and held on tightly and we let go of her.  She immediately started preening herself and seemed completely fine!  We were SO relieved.

We have never had anything like this happen before.  And really, we don’t understand it either.  It seems like the limbs should have turned black and died if they were completely frozen solid – which they were.  Anyone know anything about this?

We are anxiously waiting for some warmer temps.  They are supposed to be coming this week, with highs in the 30s and lows in the teens.  It is amazing to think that that will feel like a heat wave around here.  I hope that this is not an indication of the winter to come.  If January and February are usually our coldest months, and it is already this cold in December, what does that mean is going to happen in Jan-Feb?

7 thoughts on “Harmfully Cold

  1. Wow. This is my first time overwintering chickens, and I’m glad I don’t have to deal with temperatures as low as yours. I’m amazed, like you, that your chicken with the frozen legs doesn’t seem to have any lasting damage. What a miraculous recovery you managed!


  2. So scary! I’m glad you were able to save her. And I hope it doesn’t get much colder for you and warms up soon! It’s been in the 20s here, which is cold for us, and I’ve been worried about my chickens too… but you have it much worse!


  3. Oh dear, how very scary to have frozen legs and not be able to move. I am so glad you were able to revive her and that she seems fine now. You have certainly had more than your share of difficulties with weather. It is changing everywhere it seems. I hope you get warmer temps soon. I know I worry about my girls when it is below 10 degrees..that is just TOO cold. Sending warm thoughts and hoping the weather cooperates.


  4. I’m so glad she made it. That’s incredible. This weather is certainly different. No telling what the rest of the winter will be like. Zero degrees here this morning…23 degrees now at 5:30 and I’m going out to close up the coops. Even though these temperatures are warmer than yours, my chickens are staying in the stalls and in the barns. And I think my rooster may have some frostbite on his beautiful comb. 😦


  5. I’ve not read of that happening, but it doesn’t surprise me. Puts me in mind of that one Little House book where the cattles’ heads had frozen to the ground while they were eating hay because the moisture from the air that they breathed out froze.

    We are having very cold weather here, too. Not as cold as you, but cold enough to do some harm.


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