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Disadvantage of Outdoor Poultry – Frostbite!

January 10, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe raise our birds outside. Many defend small outdoor places like us, decrying and criticizing “factory farms” with indoor chickens. I often point out there are advantages and disadvantages to both indoor and outdoor raising. With mostly heritage breeds, outdoor raising suits us and our birds.

Most of the time. In cold weather like the last few days. there is a risk that comes from cold – frostbite! While we think of it with people, pets and others, in many parts of the country, outdoors in this kind of weather is not nearly as comfortable as “the sun on their backs” many site as reasons for outdoor production.

There is a long tradition of regional popularity of some breeds of chickens, as well as a marked difference between indoor and outdoor birds. Most popular for indoor production is the Leghorn, or Leghorn cross. They lay a large volume of eggs, are small bodied and efficient. They don’t take a lot of room and aren’t interested in setting their eggs, or being “broody”, which interferes with laying. This is a breed characteristic, not uncommon with some breeds. The Ancona, also, is pretty much a non-setter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor outdoor production, particularly in cold parts of the country, there’s a big disadvantage on the Leghorns. There are many areas that got much colder than us – some that were -50 and -70 degrees. Our low temps brought with it a case of frostbite on one bird, a Leghorn rooster we hatched here 2 years ago.

In the arrows on the photo on the left, you can see a black spot on the white bird. The tan hen on the right has a comb, but it’s *much* less pronounced than a straight comb rooster.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe discolored area is frostbite. Yes they had shelter, but it was not heated shelter (the kind so often criticized that many use in large facilities with climate control and artificial lighting). There isn’t, to some experts opinion, a great deal of discomfort associated with frostbite of combs on birds, but it’s unsightly and not something we like to see. It won’t harm him long term, and he’ll be around here for some time still. He’s alert, eating well, drinking  and getting right back to the daily task of living.

In comparison, straight comb hens that don’t have as much fleshy area did not get frostbite. The Buckeye roosters in the top photo, with a comb that is much closer to their head, did not have nearly the risk of frostbite as the large straight comb of the Leghorn. I’ve talked of comb types before, but it’s not just appearance that some birds are chosen for – function is a selection point too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA smaller comb, or different type of comb, can help reduce the chances of frostbite in cold climates or at cold times.

The Buckeye hen sports a comb that is very close to the head, and less apt to frostbite.


The only way to *insure* there’s no frostbite damage in birds is having a heated barn or coop to shut the extreme cold outside. For some customers, this can bring condemnation of confinement raising or “factory farm” labels. In my opinion, and with all due respect to food choices, the welfare of the birds needs to come before anything else. With that, be it selection of birds with smaller combs or inside part of the year, small and large poultry producers have choices in breeds and housing, as well as customer demand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf we lived in a climate that was cold on a regular winter basis, we would absolutely look at indoor, heated housing with lights during that season for the comfort of the birds. Snowbanks several feet deep, ice and bitter cold doesn’t make for bird longevity. Some of these breeder birds pictured are not youngsters, but are good, solid birds that can handle the outdoor life. Heritage breeds work well for us for that reason.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYes growing for consumer choices and demand is key to what we do, but there is definitely risks associated with outdoor raising, and too often it seems that is shoved under the rug as something not to talk about. It’s a very real thing, and I think if customers request outdoor and free range without any confinement, it pays to be aware of what they’re really asking, depending on what part of the country they’re in.

It’s also why serious thought should be given when selecting birds. Ask advice, but consider your location and plans. It makes a difference.

Added – with the ‘interruption’ of losing Blue, I pushed this post back a day. Other farmers are talking about frostbite, including my friend Ryan, in larger animals. Many people see a photo of a horse or cow with snow on them and don’t like the picture, but a healthy animal can adapt short term. Frostbite hits areas that aren’t seen by the public, but are a risk of caring for birds and animals in cold weather.

Cold weather is a concern for both large and small farms, and with any type of livestock. It’s the not fun time to be out there, but critical to animal welfare.


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