I just love Amy from VomitingChicken.com. She always shares such a wealth of information, and her posts always make me laugh along with her fun sense of humor. Today I asked her to share her best tips for preparing chickens for winter. So get out your pen and paper and let’s learn!
During the bright sparkling golden fall months, as the days get shorter and the temperatures tread inexorably downward, and as you do your fall cleaning and sock away your harvest, don’t forget that your chickens need a bit of special preparation for winter, too.
Here in Nebraska (zone 5) it gets quite cold and we have frequent storms with ice, snow, and bitterly cold winds. Our winters, on average, last roughly 14 months. (Maybe just a tiny exaggeration. . .) We people-types–draped in wool quilts, wearing 23 layers of clothing apiece, and drinking cup after cup of steaming hot beverages–can huddle inside near our woodstoves to stay comfortable. Not so our chickens. Well. Not in my house, anyway.
Chickens are fairly tough critters as long as they have shelter, but there are a few very simple things that you can do to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible through your long winter.
And you know that poem . . . the one that goes . . . “A comfortable chicken is a joy forever,” right? Isn’t that it . . . ?
7 Ways to Keep Chickens Warm this Winter
#1: Add cozy to the coop. I replace storm windows and repair any problems which have cropped up over the summer. If the roof leaks, we fix it. If I’ve had trouble with varmints digging in, I fix that, too. And so on.
By the way: it’s not necessary to have an airtight coop, even in very cold climates, so resist the urge to fill every crack and cranny with that cool puffy stuff in a can. Chickens produce gobs of moisture and if you trap it all inside the coop, you’ll create damp conditions that increase the likelihood of molds and respiratory diseases in your flock. Who knew, eh? So if your windows don’t fit so well, all the better. Your flock needs that air exchange.
And you know what they say . . . “A freely-breathing chicken is a . . . um . . . joy forever . . .” Wait. Is that it?
#2: Try deep litter! Have you heard of the deep litter method of chicken coop management? I’m a big fan. Huge fan. If it’s new to you, you might want to read this excellent article by Harold Ussery in Backyard Poultry magazine. One reason I admire this method is that I like to put the microorganisms in the chicken coop to work. I am a big fan of delegating, you see, when I can. Ask my kids. Huge fan. The nitrogen in the chicken droppings feeds these bitty bugs, breaking down the carbon and creating compost for your spring garden. Also, deep litter is cozy. And we all like a bit of coze when it’s nasty outside, right?
Plus, it’s so easy to do. And easy, in my book, is always good.
Here’s how I do it: I pile straw, hay, woodchips, and/or dry leaves (whatever is available that’s cheap, or better yet, free) in the coop. I like a nice mixture, and the chickens seem to, also. (Hey–it’s aesthetically pleasing!) Once a week I turn the bedding with a pitchfork, paying special attention to the areas beneath the roosts. I add to the bedding occasionally, keeping it about a foot thick.
“Honey, would you take care of washing those dishes/vacuuming the floor/whatnot? I’ve got to go turn the chickens’ bedding—“
I scoop out wet areas and I also throw a couple of handfuls of cracked corn in the coop when I shut the chickens in every evening. My flock then turns the bedding in the early morning hours, as they scratch around for that bit of corn. (I believe in putting my chickens to work, also!)
#3: Culling: It’s not fun, but it’s gotta be done. When my Cornish Cross chickens are ready to go to the butcher in the summer, I round up all the older and non-productive hens (there are ways to discern which ones are laying) and take them, too. Feed is expensive and space is tight at our place. In the fall, I cull out any others that I might have missed.
For example: I took advantage of a special at the feed store this spring. (Beware, Gentle Readers, beware the amiable feed store clerk named Randy with the Dollar Special who says that he’s not sure if the chicks are pullets or cockerels . . . they will always be cockerels, trust me). Instead of ending up with three bargain pullets, I ended with three bargain roosters. And if there’s one thing I don’t need in large quantities, it’s roosters. (Jill: Here’s a post to help you decide if YOU need roosters on your homestead or not!)
So I’ll cull these fellows. I’ll either butcher them and put them into the freezer, or I’ll sell them. They would make excellent soup, but they are so beautiful . . . I’m leaning toward selling them . . .
#4: A Winter Yard. I do a fun thing to prepare my chickens’ yard for the winter, basically taking the deep litter method outside. First, I make the chickens’ yard as diverse as I can, to encourage them to spend plenty of time outside. It’s easy. As we do our fall clean-up, I pile cornstalks, tomato vines, bark from our summer wood-cutting, and coarse brush into the chicken yard. I also add fall grass clippings, wood chips, and any other organic matter that I run across, until there’s a thick pile for them to pick through. If it’s thick enough–isn’t this exciting?–there’ll be bugs and worms and soil-line critters at the bottom for them to discover all winter long, and they’ll delight in the organic matter to pick through.
And you know what they say about a delighted chicken, don’t you?
The chickens spend all but the nastiest winter days in their yard, happily employed and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, thereby staying much healthier than their pitiable couch-potato friends. A lesson for us all, eh?
#5: Let there be Light . . or not? This is a controversial issue, so I will skip it. Not really. It’s a conundrum: do you supplement light during the darker months, or let nature take its course and allow your hens to molt? There are decent arguments on both sides.
That said. This is what I do: I hang a 60-watt bulb over the main roost, attached to a timer, which I set so the chickens have a 14-hour day. The light keeps my hens from going into a full molt. In especially cold weather (when the temps are in the teens, down to below-zero) I’ll put in a heat bulb and this makes my chickens very happy.
(Jill: Here are my thoughts on supplemental lighting for the coop!)
#6: Feed strategies and Special Treats. Except in the harshest weather, I keep the feeder out in the yard. This keeps the rodent population from growing inside the coop, and encourages the chickens to eat–and poop–outside. I also put a 5-gallon bucket over the top of the feeder to keep ‘coons and rats and other nighttime marauders from cleaning out whatever feed the chickens might leave.
Now and then a winter storm will clamp down and flail away at us for days. Days. My chickens will not go outside the coop then (not that I blame them), so I move their feeder inside, and toss a few treats into the coop, as well. I save sunflower seed heads, overlarge squash, zucchini, pumpkins, forage radishes and whatnot for these times. Your chickens will stay busy, and less prone to destructive habits, like feather picking or eating each other. (Gak. By the way.)
You know what they say, “Idle claws are the devil’s workshop.” Hmm . . .
#7: The Best Thing in the World. For years, for reasons of economy, I didn’t buy one of these heated buckets. Instead, I had two regular rubber buckets. Pity me, Gentle Reader. Or rather, think dark thoughts about my tightwaddery. I lugged those frozen buckets to the house to thaw every stinkin’ day, for years. Brutal, right? Then a friend gave me That Look (you know the one) and said “Amy–buy an electric bucket. Today. Now. Yesterday. Do it.”
And I did. And I’ve never, ever, not-in-a-million-years-ever regretted it.
(If you keep smaller chickens, like bantams, be sure to put a small piece of hailscreen in the bucket, though, to prevent the bitty chooks from falling into the water. And please don’t ask me how I know this. 🙁 )
That’s it, Gentle Reader! A good couple hours spent out in the deliciousness of a fall afternoon, and you can make sure your chickens are as happy and comfortable as possible through the winter. It’s worth it to take these extra measures. You’ll have peace during winter storms, and your chickens will be assured of your love for them.
And you know what they say about a well-loved chicken, do you not?
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
(With sheepish apologies to John Keats.)
Amy Young Miller is an artist, a writer, a mama of six and grandma of two (so far!) and wife of Bryan and child of a merciful and loving God, who has showered her with more abundance than she deserves, and certainly more than she can handle. She lives in Nebraska and writes a blog about her family and her country life at http://vomitingchicken.com. – See more at: http://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2013/07/my-five-best-new-garden-tools-and-one-secret-weapon-shhh.html#sthash.3M6YAnFB.dpuf
Amy Young Miller is Mama to six, Amma to two, wife of Bryan, and grateful child of a loving Father who has showered on her more than she deserves. She’s an artist and a writer and writes a blog at http://vomitingchicken.com.Amy Young Miller is an artist, a writer, a mama of six and grandma of two (so far!) and wife of Bryan and child of a merciful and loving God, who has showered her with more abundance than she deserves, and certainly more than she can handle. She lives in Nebraska and writes a blog about her family and her country life at http://vomitingchicken.com. – See more at: http://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2013/07/my-five-best-new-garden-tools-and-one-secret-weapon-shhh.html#sthash.3M6YAnFB.dpuf