Thinking Outside the Coop: The Winter Chicken Yard

IMG_6067I should be writing Christmas cards, but I’ve decided to write about chickens instead. I have chickens on the brain because mine have been cooped up for far too many days this December. The weather has been harsh. The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s prediction that this would be a bitter and snowy winter is definitely coming to pass.

I have a oil radiator running in my coop because I have concerned neighbors and not enough birds to maintain a safe temperature in the coop during really cold weather–single and negative digits Fahrenheit. Although I call this My Little Farm in Town, no self-respecting farmer would admit to heating their coop unless they were brooding chicks. In town, however, chickens are more “pets with benefits” than livestock.

I also would not be without a heated chicken waterer. It is the best thirty bucks I’ve invested in animal care. I bring it into the house to clean and fill during the coldest periods and fill it at the outdoor spigot when temps are above freezing during the day. If I didn’t have this heated waterer, I would have to lug water once or twice a day, switching out a frozen waterer for a unfrozen one morning and evening. As a kid in northern Wisconsin, I struggled through snow drifts with pails of water during winters so cold that the water that slopped onto my chore clothing froze before it reached my long underwear. This experience taught me that there are some things worth spending money on!

IMG_6066Chickens are by nature outside foraging birds like their jungle ancestors. As jungley as it gets around here at this time of year is the low 30s F, but we are pathetically grateful for temps in the low 20s this year! When the temperature hits 20, I scoop the snow off the tarp and pull it off the yard, haul out the pitchfork to fluff and redistribute the dry hay underneath, create windbreaks with more flakes of hay in the northwest corner of the yard, and uncover the dust box. The girls are aware of what I am doing. I can hear them in the coop clamoring to be released. When I open the door and step into the coop, they crowd around the closed pop door and the most dominant stretches her neck and fixes me with a beady eye and heckles and scolds me roundly.

I have added flakes of hay to the coop so the girls have something to dig around in and to insulate the floor. They hate having cold feet. My hens won’t walk in the snow. This is wise of them. Frostbite is a real danger here. Feet and combs are very susceptible. A chicken with no feet is a very sad bird. Bedding the yard with hay and keeping the gals in when temps really drop avoids the problem. Keeping crowding to a minimum and making sure the girls can get out on warm days heads off cannibalism, as well as many diseases caused by poor ventilation and poor manure management.

IMG_6068We are headed into another cycle of snowy wet and cold weather. I’ll be covering the yard and dust box tonight. Begonia


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