Winter can be tough on everyone. The bitter cold bites at your lungs while the howling wind cracks your hands. Frozen tears cry for warmer weather while layers and layers of bundling limit your mobility to a stay puft marshmallow man. I am not a fan of winter.
The elements of the winter season are embraced by many I’m sure. While I certainly enjoy a good Winter Olympics, sled riding with the kids and of course that white Christmas that Crosby sings about every year, I would much rather have a limited exposure to it. When it comes to our animals outside, limiting their exposure is exactly what we need to do. We certainly learned a few lessons this past winter in caring for our chickens. Some things, quite frankly, I took for granted during the warmer days and others we were lucky enough to learn or be told about that we will incorporate into next season’s preparation.
Water: Oh how I longed to be able to turn on the hose outside at 5:00 am to fill the waterers in the coops. With six or more inches of snow on the ground and negative temperatures for days, the spigot unfortunately was not going to spew. A three foot long icicle hanging from the spigot quickly told me I should have done something differently. Watering the chickens now consisted of filling several pitchers of water to fill the three gallon waters in the coops. I had to do this in the dark on most days as I dare not wake up the little ones who needed several more hours of sleep. I learned quickly to pay attention to not spill any water on my hands as I turned the filled waterers upright in the coop. The first time I reached for the door knob to the garage with wet hands I found myself breathing as much hot air as I could on my hand that was now frozen to the door knob. Several times my index finger would freeze to the metal latch of the coop door and I kept thinking about how this just happened the day before – how can I keep making the same mistakes? I chalked it up to early morning delirium.
Coops: Kim at the hatchery here was wowing me with her stories of her glorious coops she had in the past. She told me about the shutters on the windows and the curtains she sewed for them. She also talked about how she built the coop with insulation. I thought she was getting a little extreme with the insulation until I moved to Iowa and felt the cold hard truth of the winters. As winter came in, I thought my chickens would be okay. I have hardy breeds such as Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks and the like. Chickens have been around long before insulation I reasoned, surely they will be fine. Hold that thought.
During a visit to Joel Salatin’s place he showed us his deep bedding philosophy in action and I quickly got an appreciation for this as I watched the chickens scratch and bed down in the thick bedding. Joel mentioned that while he loved the egg production of the Red Star’s, he preferred the hardiness of the large breeds like the Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. He had found that the Red Star’s just didn’t take the winter as well as these other breeds. A week after our trip to Joel’s, there in my coop was my Red Star, Ester, lifeless. I was devastated. My kids were devastated. And it was my fault. My mind flashed back to Kim talking about insulating her coops, it flashed to Joel talking about deep bedding. For my small coops in the backyard, I needed to do something different. I quickly added a lot more bedding, put heat lamps in each coop and put thick plastic around all exposed windows of the coop and the runs. I should have done this already – I’m not sure what I was (or wasn’t) thinking but I know now – unfortunately this was a costly lesson to learn.
Feed – I was in the habit of feeding the chickens in the morning but with the cold weather, the chickens will need to eat more to maintain their body weight. I switched to feeding them twice a day (or at least ensuring they had food in the feeders in the evening.). I learned again that walking to the coops in the yard was something I took for granted. With a few warm days periodically throughout the season, it was just enough to melt some snow and then refreeze it into this uneven treacherous frozen tundra. One day in particular I was walking a loaded feeder back to the coop when I found myself gliding down the yard like a downhill skier! Panic set it quickly as I tried to maintain the fully filled feeder while riding the roller coaster of this ice path. The trip came to an abrupt end with the feeder in the air, my tush landing hard on the ice, my eyes glaring up at the starry night sky and the chickens squacking at me as I lay there doing a quick limb check. Feeding in the winter can be dangerous. Next year, I’m keep a nice, clear patch shoveled to the coop.
I always tell new chickens owners that chickens need three basic things: Food, Water and Shelter. Unfortunately for me, even with having owned chickens and working at a hatchery, I let winter come in like a lion and chase my common sense away this time. Winter can be tough on everyone, and it was especially for me this winter. As I proved, exposing our chickens to the elements can be deadly if we are not prepared. While I know we are getting to the end of winter now, later this week I’m going to share a quick list of some winter tips that Kim put together for us. One of the best ways to prepare for exposing our chickens to winter, is getting ourselves exposed to the hard lessons learned by others.
With Spring upon us now, I look forward to the warm weather and look for ice only to be my tea.