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Protecting combs/wattles in winter

 
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So, this is our first winter with chickens. We’ve got 7 buff orpingtons (about 20 weeks old, 6 hens and a rooster) and live in upper Michigan. We regularly get below zero and gusty high winds throughout winter.

I’m not too concerned with frostbite happening in the coop as we have ventilation and it’s pretty draft free. Im more concerned with wet wattles freezing in cold temps. We have a heated dog dish for water, and I’ve noticed the rooster dunks his wattles under water every time he drinks. Id hate for them to freeze up later this week when we have highs in the single digits and wind. I read vaseline is a bad idea and can make things worse. I was considering rubbing coconut oil or rendered lard on him but want to know if any of you have ideas or have tried these things.

I need a more permanent solution. I dont want to put a heated dog dish of water inside the coop. Im considering buying a hanging, heated waterer with a nipple system soon, to prevent the wattles from getting wet, but that wont do me any good right now. We’re leaving town for a few days during this cold weather, so im hoping there’s something i can put on him temporarily before we get a better water system worked out.

Any advice or opinions are appreciated!
 
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The hanging nipple waterer should fix all your problems.  In the short term can you cover some of the bowl so that he can only get his beak in and not his waddle?  Likely not without the water level getting too low and out of reach.  
 
Brody Ekberg
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Mike Haasl wrote:The hanging nipple waterer should fix all your problems.  In the short term can you cover some of the bowl so that he can only get his beak in and not his waddle?  Likely not without the water level getting too low and out of reach.  



I thought about that... That might work as long as the water dish is mostly full. But while we’re gone and the neighbor is taking care of them, I doubt he will be able to keep it that full. Although, with it partially covered, maybe less water would evaporate keeping it fuller longer.

As far as the hanging nipple waterer goes, I’m wondering if I should hang it in or outside of the coop. As of now, their food and water all stays outside to try to keep them from sitting around in the little coop all day. Plus, I didn’t want extra moisture in the coop. The nipple waterer probably wouldn’t give off extra moisture though.
 
Mike Haasl
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My food and water is in the coop but they have a covered hoop house to play in during winter.  So they spend their days out there in the sun.  They do drip a bit (drink a drop, spill a drop) but with wood shavings as our deep litter bedding, it's never been a problem.

I took a Tractor Supply heated water bucket and added nipples to the sides near the bottom.  I also fashioned a wooden lid for the bucket to hold in the heat.  It's never froze (yet) and it's been out there in -29F before.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Mike Haasl wrote:My food and water is in the coop but they have a covered hoop house to play in during winter.  So they spend their days out there in the sun.  They do drip a bit (drink a drop, spill a drop) but with wood shavings as our deep litter bedding, it's never been a problem.

I took a Tractor Supply heated water bucket and added nipples to the sides near the bottom.  I also fashioned a wooden lid for the bucket to hold in the heat.  It's never froze (yet) and it's been out there in -29F before.



I think a heated nipple water system will be my next project. That should solve my issues. It just doesn’t help me between now and whenever I get it set up! I may try some coconut oil or lard on his wattles, although after seeing some peoples failures with vaseline, I’m skeptical.
 
Mike Haasl
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Ok, here's an idea out of left field...  Likely a dumb idea...  Could you put something in the water bowl that keeps his waddle from getting down into the water but still lets them get their beaks in?  I'm imagining something like those plastic spikey things they put in vases for flower arranging.  Or the spikes to keep pigeons from landing on signs.  But not pokey.  Just something that they can still reach their beaks down through but his waddle will stay supported by it and not get down into the water.  

 
Brody Ekberg
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Mike Haasl wrote:Ok, here's an idea out of left field...  Likely a dumb idea...  Could you put something in the water bowl that keeps his waddle from getting down into the water but still lets them get their beaks in?  I'm imagining something like those plastic spikey things they put in vases for flower arranging.  Or the spikes to keep pigeons from landing on signs.  But not pokey.  Just something that they can still reach their beaks down through but his waddle will stay supported by it and not get down into the water.  



I dont think that’s a dumb idea... I’ll stew on it a bit and see if I can come up with anything.
 
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Decades ago when I lived where it got cold, they specifically said that Vaseline would not protect your lips from freezing, but there were specific lip-balms that were freeze-resistant. The trouble would be that if you're going to be gone several days, the neighbor would likely have to re-apply it every two days.
Here were two recipes that I found with a quick search:
https://www.popsci.com/story/diy/make-lip-balm/
https://joybileefarm.com/how-to-make-lip-balm-for-winter/

Although different, both of them call for shea butter (which I've never used myself) and beeswax and some other oil such as olive or coconut. I see no reason for humans or chickens to *need* essential oils - I suspect it's mostly for flavor and we don't want the chickens to think this is food. I suspect that you could get away with gently warming beeswax with any oil that's handy and non-toxic (remember - many chemicals absorb through skin, so you aren't just worried about the hens "tasting" the comb and wattles) until you have a product that will be soft enough to apply easily.

Good luck!
 
Mike Haasl
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Another silly idea would be a turtle neck for him.  
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:Another silly idea would be a turtle neck for him.  



Haha, I thought about a little neoprene headgear set. It would have to be waterproof otherwise it would get wet and be just as bad. I dont really think it’s practical, but it did cross my mind.
 
Brody Ekberg
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Jay Angler wrote:Decades ago when I lived where it got cold, they specifically said that Vaseline would not protect your lips from freezing, but there were specific lip-balms that were freeze-resistant. The trouble would be that if you're going to be gone several days, the neighbor would likely have to re-apply it every two days.
Here were two recipes that I found with a quick search:
https://www.popsci.com/story/diy/make-lip-balm/
https://joybileefarm.com/how-to-make-lip-balm-for-winter/

Although different, both of them call for shea butter (which I've never used myself) and beeswax and some other oil such as olive or coconut. I see no reason for humans or chickens to *need* essential oils - I suspect it's mostly for flavor and we don't want the chickens to think this is food. I suspect that you could get away with gently warming beeswax with any oil that's handy and non-toxic (remember - many chemicals absorb through skin, so you aren't just worried about the hens "tasting" the comb and wattles) until you have a product that will be soft enough to apply easily.

Good luck!



I dont have Shea butter handy, but I do have coconut oil (refined and unrefined), rendered lard and beeswax. I’ll do some experiments smearing some on paper towels and putting them in the freezer to see what happens. Theoretically, if they don’t freeze solid and still repel water, I think thats as good as it will get. Maybe a combination of them would be best. I’ll try to remember to post back with my results.
 
Mike Haasl
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Yet another silly idea would be to somehow heat the coop during your absence so that it isn't as cold and dangerous for his wet waddles.  
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:Yet another silly idea would be to somehow heat the coop during your absence so that it isn't as cold and dangerous for his wet waddles.  



That’s definitely not a silly idea. I’ve considered that. There’s already a 40w light bulb in there for light and a tiny amount of heat. The issues are that putting the dog dish of water in there would add humidity/moisture to the air in the coop, which contributes to frostbite. Also, just the logistics of it would be challenging, but doable. Ill see how my frozen fats experiment goes. If thats not promising, I’ll probably try to get the water into the coop.

Although, the first day we will be gone is forecast to be windy, cold and snowy. A perfect power outage scenario. And a heated coop with warm chickens plus a sudden power outage in really cold weather is exactly why many people advise against heating their coops in winter...
 
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Brody Ekberg wrote:

I dont have Shea butter handy, but I do have coconut oil (refined and unrefined), rendered lard and beeswax. I’ll do some experiments smearing some on paper towels and putting them in the freezer to see what happens. Theoretically, if they don’t freeze solid and still repel water, I think thats as good as it will get. Maybe a combination of them would be best. I’ll try to remember to post back with my results.

The trick I expect is to get the ratio of the fat and beeswax correct for a flexible product in the temperatures your expecting. If you think back to the popular cross-country ski period, they had different ski waxes for different temperatures and the whole point of that was that you needed flexible for the temperature. Beeswax on its own would probably do the job, but you would need it too warm to apply easily. The bird's body temp would keep it warm so I expect it wouldn't crack, just wear off gradually. The idea of adding the fat is to thin the wax enough that it will smear on easily, so poor rooster doesn't think you're trying to hurt him.

But, yes, it would be really nice if you reported back as to the ratio you used and the response of the rooster. We don't often get that cold here, but the humidity is *always* high in winter and we have had the odd winter when this has been a problem.
 
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The trick I expect is to get the ratio of the fat and beeswax correct for a flexible product in the temperatures your expecting.


Spot on. I've made several tries at a lip balm and hand cream for winter. Too little wax and/or solid fat and it wears off quickly, too much and you need a chisel to get it out of the jar! I've found this to be a really helpful guide for getting oil to wax ratios right.
Quick guide to beeswax and liquid oil ratios
Here's one for cocoa butter to oil ratios. I believe cocoa butter is harder than some of the other solid fats mentioned, though. But perhaps gives some ideas?
Quick guide to cocoa butter to liquid oil ratios
 
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You have some good suggestions already.

Most wattle/comb frostbite happens at night.

Buff Orpingtons actually do pretty well in freezing temps. Their larger bodies and smaller combs mean more body fat for keeping warm and less exposed skin vulnerable to frostbite. A way to keep their body fat up in the cold weather is to give them a fatty seed treat each day like black oil sunflower seeds.

Controlling humidity within the coop is an important frostbite prevention measure. While winter air is usually less humid, in the coop the humidity can be high due to respiration, droppings and damp liter. The coop should still be well ventilated to decrease humidity, keeping in mind that the roosting area should not be in a direct draft.

Providing an outdoor area out of the wind and blowing snow so they can go outside during the day will help keep the night time coop less humid.

You might also want to consider a flat panel radiant heater attached above the roost. You are NOT trying to heat the coop, but just keep a gentle heat at night. In very cold times, I have removed the sides of the radiant heater I used when my chickens were chicks and suspended it above the roost, but there are also other radiant heaters that you can rig up. They even make heater roost bars to prevent cold toes!


brinsea-ecoglow-20-brooder__58333-(1).jpg
Chick heater I use above roost
Chick heater I use above roost
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[Thumbnail for 519IxsmGTWL.jpg]
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[Thumbnail for 41BQIJkTQ4L.jpg]
 
Brody Ekberg
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Heather Olivia wrote:

The trick I expect is to get the ratio of the fat and beeswax correct for a flexible product in the temperatures your expecting.


Spot on. I've made several tries at a lip balm and hand cream for winter. Too little wax and/or solid fat and it wears off quickly, too much and you need a chisel to get it out of the jar! I've found this to be a really helpful guide for getting oil to wax ratios right.
Quick guide to beeswax and liquid oil ratios
Here's one for cocoa butter to oil ratios. I believe cocoa butter is harder than some of the other solid fats mentioned, though. But perhaps gives some ideas?
Quick guide to cocoa butter to liquid oil ratios



Thanks for those links, that definitely gave me a starting point! Here’s my logic: rendered lard is refined pig fat. Pig fat keeps pigs warm in winter. My objective is to keep the wattles warm and dry. A beeswax and lard combination may be the best route since the fat’s job is to insulate meat and wax is waterproof. Maybe I’ll try something around 1:4 ratio. I’ll mix some up, smudge it on a paper towel and put it in the freezer for a while. If it’s pliable and repels water afterwards I’m calling it good!
 
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[quote=Jim Guinn]You have some good suggestions already.

Most wattle/comb frostbite happens at night.

Buff Orpingtons actually do pretty well in freezing temps. Their larger bodies and smaller combs mean more body fat for keeping warm and less exposed skin vulnerable to frostbite. A way to keep their body fat up in the cold weather is to give them a fatty seed treat each day like black oil sunflower seeds.

Controlling humidity within the coop is an important frostbite prevention measure. While winter air is usually less humid, in the coop the humidity can be high due to respiration, droppings and damp liter. The coop should still be well ventilated to decrease humidity, keeping in mind that the roosting area should not be in a direct draft.

Providing an outdoor area out of the wind and blowing snow so they can go outside during the day will help keep the night time coop less humid.

You might also want to consider a flat panel radiant heater attached above the roost. You are NOT trying to heat the coop, but just keep a gentle heat at night. In very cold times, I have removed the sides of the radiant heater I used when my chickens were chicks and suspended it above the roost, but there are also other radiant heaters that you can rig up. They even make heater roost bars to prevent cold toes!


[/quote]

Thanks for the input! They have been doing quite well in the cold so far, but this is going to be a nasty couple days. So far, here’s what is forecast:
Freezing rain Wednesday afternoon, turning to snow at night. A low of 7. At night the wind switches and ramps up. Thursday a high of 11, gusty north winds and a low of 5 at night... they will go to bed damp Wednesday and be exposed to single digits at night and most likely a below zero wind chill all day Thursday. Not a good combination!

I may leave the light in the coop on Wednesday night since it throws a few degrees of heat. I dont want to since I dont keep food and water in the coop and our rooster has been a little aggressive. Lights out means bedtime, lights on means who knows what all night long!

They do have a wind free area outside near and under the coop, and I’ll move the food and water close so they dont have to travel to get to it. Hopefully between that and whatever wattle salve I whip up, they will be fine.
 
Mike Haasl
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Keep in mind that if the wax/oil/fat ratio is perfect on a paper towel in the freezer it could be significantly different conditions from a warm chicken waddle in the same temps.  
 
Jim Guinn
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[quote]Thanks for the input! They have been doing quite well in the cold so far, but this is going to be a nasty couple days. So far, here’s what is forecast:
Freezing rain Wednesday afternoon, turning to snow at night. A low of 7. At night the wind switches and ramps up. Thursday a high of 11, gusty north winds and a low of 5 at night... they will go to bed damp Wednesday and be exposed to single digits at night and most likely a below zero wind chill all day Thursday. Not a good combination!

I may leave the light in the coop on Wednesday night since it throws a few degrees of heat. I dont want to since I dont keep food and water in the coop and our rooster has been a little aggressive. Lights out means bedtime, lights on means who knows what all night long!

They do have a wind free area outside near and under the coop, and I’ll move the food and water close so they dont have to travel to get to it. Hopefully between that and whatever wattle salve I whip up, they will be fine. [/quote]

Most welcomed, but the methods I mentioned in my post will work in very nasty weather without having to coat wattles and combs which is often very minimally effective. I know this from years of experience. Best of luck with your chickens. Let us know what you decide to do and how they do. I am always interested in learning.
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:Keep in mind that if the wax/oil/fat ratio is perfect on a paper towel in the freezer it could be significantly different conditions from a warm chicken waddle in the same temps.  



Right... It got a sort of brittle on the paper towel, but stayed water proof. I smudged some on my hand and stuck my hand in the ice maker in our freezer for a couple minutes. The thermometer read -7 but it was probably warmer with the door part open. It stayed pretty much the same consistency on my hand in the freezer as it is at room temperature. Not really sure how to get a more accurate experiment.

I think I’ll put some on the wattles twice tomorrow to get a good layer on and hope for the best.

Ill post back after Christmas when I see how they look.
 
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I figured I should give an update since we’re back home now. It seems that the coconut oil and beeswax salve must have helped. None of them had any signs of frostbite on their combs or wattles, not to mention they all looked much more healthy (not so pale and dry) after applying the salve.

Unfortunately, the rooster got frostbite on his comb last night. I hadn’t put any more salve on since the first time. Last night was forecast to be -2, but was actually -15 when I woke up... Some of the girls had frost on their backs but the rooster got it much worse. That salve must have saved them the last time, or something different happened with the dew point last night. Ventilation in the coop has been the same throughout. I will see if I can rearrange things to give them a bit more ventilation above the roost, and add more sand under for their poops.

Anyone think I should do something about the frostbitten comb, or is it just dead at this point and needs to fall off in time? It’s black on the tips.
 
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Wow, it was cold this morning but I didn't realize it got that cold.  -10 by me.  I love it when the forecast is that far off...

My rooster got frostbite on his comb tips the first winter (three years ago) and the black bits fell off over time.  His new comb is much more rounded but has stayed healthy through the ensuing winters.  So I'd say to let it be and his comb will "adjust" to the climate.
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:Wow, it was cold this morning but I didn't realize it got that cold.  -10 by me.  I love it when the forecast is that far off...

My rooster got frostbite on his comb tips the first winter (three years ago) and the black bits fell off over time.  His new comb is much more rounded but has stayed healthy through the ensuing winters.  So I'd say to let it be and his comb will "adjust" to the climate.



If you do this, watch for signs of infection. One of my hens had to go on antibiotics for a week after her frostbitten comb got infected.
 
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I figured I should give an update since we’re back home now. It seems that the coconut oil and beeswax salve must have helped. None of them had any signs of frostbite on their combs or wattles, not to mention they all looked much more healthy (not so pale and dry) after applying the salve.
....
Anyone think I should do something about the frostbitten comb, or is it just dead at this point and needs to fall off in time? It’s black on the tips.



Thanks for the update. That's great the salve worked!
I wonder if a salve with plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata, not the banana looking fruit) would help speed healing of the comb and ward off any potential infection? It's what I use for all injuries and is remarkable in its ability to draw out and prevent infection. You'd just need to infuse the plantain into your oil before doing the rest of the salve making process. You can speed the infusion up by using gentle heat (not above 120ish) on the stove top.
 
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:

Mike Haasl wrote:Wow, it was cold this morning but I didn't realize it got that cold.  -10 by me.  I love it when the forecast is that far off...

My rooster got frostbite on his comb tips the first winter (three years ago) and the black bits fell off over time.  His new comb is much more rounded but has stayed healthy through the ensuing winters.  So I'd say to let it be and his comb will "adjust" to the climate.



If you do this, watch for signs of infection. One of my hens had to go on antibiotics for a week after her frostbitten comb got infected.



Would it get puss and colored stuff if it gets infected?
 
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Heather Olivia wrote:

I figured I should give an update since we’re back home now. It seems that the coconut oil and beeswax salve must have helped. None of them had any signs of frostbite on their combs or wattles, not to mention they all looked much more healthy (not so pale and dry) after applying the salve.
....
Anyone think I should do something about the frostbitten comb, or is it just dead at this point and needs to fall off in time? It’s black on the tips.



Thanks for the update. That's great the salve worked!
I wonder if a salve with plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata, not the banana looking fruit) would help speed healing of the comb and ward off any potential infection? It's what I use for all injuries and is remarkable in its ability to draw out and prevent infection. You'd just need to infuse the plantain into your oil before doing the rest of the salve making process. You can speed the infusion up by using gentle heat (not above 120ish) on the stove top.



Ive got a really great comfrey salve that we got from a friend. We use on ourselves and the chickens once in a while. It really helps with healing and i think it may be coconut oil based. Id love to help the poor guy out (noticed some black on his wattles this morning too) but am worried that me messing with it at this point may further damage it or cause significant pain for him. I’ve never had to deal with frostbite before, but it doesn’t look like it would feel good!
 
Heather Sharpe
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Ive got a really great comfrey salve that we got from a friend. We use on ourselves and the chickens once in a while. It really helps with healing and i think it may be coconut oil based. Id love to help the poor guy out (noticed some black on his wattles this morning too) but am worried that me messing with it at this point may further damage it or cause significant pain for him. I’ve never had to deal with frostbite before, but it doesn’t look like it would feel good!



Ouch! Poor rooster. Hope he heals up with no issues. I'd be very cautious about the comfrey salve. It is great stuff, but does encourage rapid healing from the outside in, which can be really bad and lead to abscesses and such. I know it's a no-no for wounds with any depth to them, not sure about frostbite.  
 
Ellendra Nauriel
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Brody Ekberg wrote:

Ellendra Nauriel wrote:

Mike Haasl wrote:Wow, it was cold this morning but I didn't realize it got that cold.  -10 by me.  I love it when the forecast is that far off...

My rooster got frostbite on his comb tips the first winter (three years ago) and the black bits fell off over time.  His new comb is much more rounded but has stayed healthy through the ensuing winters.  So I'd say to let it be and his comb will "adjust" to the climate.



If you do this, watch for signs of infection. One of my hens had to go on antibiotics for a week after her frostbitten comb got infected.



Would it get puss and colored stuff if it gets infected?



Possibly. With mine, there was no puss, but parts of the comb turned a weird shade of orange, and it was hot to the touch. The vet I consulted with said I caught it really early, so that might explain the lack of puss.
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