Chickens and Winter

Winter came. And stayed. After nearly 2 weeks of mostly sunny and fairly warm temperatures following Thanksgiving, the first snow came and the temperatures dropped below freezing and have stayed there for several days, day and night.

The chickens were very hesitant to step out of the coop onto the snow. Inside the coop, their water was frozen. I tried to entice them with fresh feed and flat bowls of warm water. They went straight to the warm water and all of them seemed to appreciate that more than food. Is this the equivalent of a hot cup of coffee for a chicken on a cold winter morning? Maybe. But I know they don’t like snow. After quaffing the full flat bowl of warm water set on a snowless patch of ground, they all went back into the coop where I had filled their hanging feeder with a fresh, hanging dispenser of unfrozen water and had a solid breakfast from the in-coop feeder. It took the better part of a day before any of the chickens walked on the snow for more than a few steps.

I had leaned a few pieces of metal roofing (reclaimed from the demolished old barn) against the fence for them the day before the snow came. The older, Barred Rocked hens seemed to like that sheltered area, but had to traverse some snow to get to it, so it was a marginal success. I don’t blame them. They have no feathers to insulate their feet, so I suppose it would be a bit like a person walking barefoot in the frozen snow.

The coop itself is secure and as warm as it’s going to be this winter. I don’t have electricity in the coop, don’t want to run long extension cords out to it all winter, and, above all, don’t want to risk the fire hazard of heaters or lamps. I spread a bale of fresh straw over the 4-6 inches of oak leaves to help with warmth, bringing the total thickness of bedding to about 10 inches. I also don’t want to “baby” farm animals and chickens are much more cold hardy than a lot of people (like urban “chicken keepers” and sundry sensitives) give them credit for. I chose heritage breeds (Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Australorps) because their species have dealt with winter weather and made their contributions to farms before electricity was invented or made available in rural areas.

Water is a problem. The waterer (the green and white one hanging in the picture) freezes hard in 5-6 hours. Before the snow and cold hit, the chickens preferred to drink from flat bowls set outside the coop, which also freeze hard during the day, even when I put a ping pong on the bowl. (Ping pong balls are supposed to help water from freezing by adding movement, but that hasn’t worked at all.) So, my morning chores consist of going out with an old plastic gallon milk jug of hot tap water, a fresh hanging waterer and 2 flat rubber dishes. My morning highlight is the chickens clucking behind their coop door in anticipation of their human keeper and they make a bee line to their warm water and whatever else is new on the other side of the door.

One thing I’ve learned so far: Chickens drink a LOT of water, much more than I was led to believe (from “expert” internet blogs and such).

And, yes, they poop a LOT. Anywhere they want. Any time they want. I’ll be cleaning up chicken poop more than I expected. I want to keep their coop bedding somewhat clean without changing it out completely until Spring. As such, I’m using a cat litter scoop/shovel, leaf rake and pitchfork to gather and sift the poopiest parts of the bedding, put the manure in a 5 gallon bucket, and fluff the straw/oak leaf bedding.

Only the 3 young Barred Plymouth Rock hens were old enough to lay eggs before winter hit. I had been collecting 1-2 eggs per day from them before the cold and snow hit. I’ve only collected 2 eggs from the 3 laying hens in 4 days since the snow and cold. The other young pullets (3 Australorps and 3 Rhode Island Reds) aren’t due to hit egg-laying age for another 5-8 weeks.

I don’t blame them. I’m not as productive in winter. I barely want to go out when it’s below freezing. I miss my outside building and fencing projects. I don’t know what to do with myself in winter. It’s boring.

And there’s the cockerel (young rooster). He would follow me around like a puppy dog, even through the snow, as long as I had a feeder or treat in my hand. He’s now named Roger, the Rhode Island Red, entertaining leader of the little brood. I haven’t heard him crow once yet, but maybe crowing doesn’t happen until he’s reached full adulthood. I look forward to his first morning crow.

I haven’t named the pullets or young hens yet. I can’t tell them apart enough to distinguish them with names.

As always, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Every post should begin or end with that statement.

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Published by joesmithreally

Slipped away from increasingly stressful, disordered, random, and violent urban life after 3 decades to live in peace and attempt to start and steward a small farm.

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