December came in like a lamb but went out like a lion. We had mild temps and a whole lot of rain for the first couple weeks. The last couple weeks of December, the temps went down (you do get a little spoiled when you are having 50 degree days in December in Western Pa!) and the snow came right after Christmas. We got over 12 inches of snow. What that meant for me was diligence about keeping the birds with water and feed, as well as making sure their run stayed dry. AND let’s not forget shoveling a path AROUND the outside of their fenced in run. Partly for me to make it easy when caring for them, mostly for the birds so that they could venture out of the run and get a little more exercise. Did you know chickens are snow blind? They also don’t like how the snow feels on their feet. I can’t say I blame them.
Hmm….I guess the driveway ends here. I have no idea how to get back!
I had preplanned what I was going to do to keep the birds comfortable, well fed, exercised and happy. The true test for me, I feel, was when we got that first 8 degree morning, with temps at zero with the wind chill. I got up and went out to check on the ladies. They were all alive, and came out of the coop to have their morning feeding. Yay! I felt like a super hero.
Now, what follows is how I prepped for the birds in the winter months. I’m no expert – I have read, researched, and tested out some things and this is what works for ME. Use it as a guideline. Find what works for you. Don’t take everything you read as law. You want to research and do what’s best for your flock. The main goal is to keep them well fed, watered, and able to go somewhere dry and draft free.
Late Fall – I did a total coop/run cleansing
Run: I start by raking out any debris in the fenced in run. This gets the run cleared of all the poop, fallen litter, poop, old dropped feed, poop, corn cobs and random buildup – wait, did I say poop? – that comes from chickens. This all gets dumped straight onto our garden patch, where it can continue to break down. The chickens help me out working it in by scratching at it for bugs and tomato seeds left behind from that years garden. I then fill in any holes the birds made while they take dust baths. They’ll take a dust bath anywhere – we have trenches dug from them right up against the house in the front yard flower bed. They dug a hole alongside the shed ramp big enough to bury two of them. They dug holes in the run, right up against the foot deep chicken wire like they want to make it easier for a predator to get in and eat them. Those in the run holes need filled. Especially before the ground freezes. Once that is done, I toss in half a bale of hay and let the hens spread it around. I try not to have too much in the run since if it sits on the wood and gets wet, it will rot the wood. No good.
We don’t want to come out!
Coop: This is a little more in-depth task. I start by removing all of the pine shavings – and poop – all while wearing a bandana over my mouth and nose since there can be a lot of dust created. Sometimes a quick spray with the hose helps keep the dust at a minimum.
Once all the litter is removed, I wipe down the flooring with a wet rag that is dipped in a bucket of warm water with a splash of apple cider vinegar. Once that is all wiped, I spray down the roosts, floor, walls and nesting boxes with a homemade citrus vinegar cleaner and wipe everything down again with a fresh rag. (Chickens respiratory systems are very sensitive, so I use vinegar instead of bleach or other household cleaners since it doesn’t leave behind any chemical smell) I leave the back of the coop open to let the breeze in and dry it out. Once the coop is completely dry, I sprinkle some Diatomaceous Earth (DE) on the flooring, in the nesting boxes and focus on the corners. This helps keep lice and mites out of the coop. On top of this goes 2 bags of fine pine shavings, and another sprinkling of the DE. It’s ready for the birds now!
I follow the deep litter method for my coop because it works for me. The deep litter method is 6 inches of shavings, stirred daily (I do every other day, sometimes every 2 days depending on how much poop is sitting on top of the litter). I add fresh pine shavings and a sprinkling of DE as well as some Sweet PDZ – a horse stall freshener that cuts down ammonia and keeps the coop smelling fresh(those sensitive chicken respiratory systems again!). Click the link for directions on using it for chickens. I chose the deep litter method because it’s essentially a working compost pile. When I clean out the litter, it’s broken down and I can either add it to the garden, or toss it on the big compost pile. In the winter, because it IS composting, it helps to create additional heat in the coop without hurting the birds.
Diet & Exercise: Once the snow hits, the birds are pretty much cut off from free ranging. The grass is dormant and covered in snow & the bugs are nowhere to be found. They have the fenced in run, which is spacious and roomy, but it’s not the same as having free run of a whole acre of land. To help substitute the greens, I fill a chicken treat toy with greens – lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, kale, spinach and carrot shavings. I will also give them a head of cabbage once per week where they basically play cabbage tether ball until nothing but a nub of the cabbage stem is left. To secure it I use a threaded eye hook, screwing it directly into the cabbage and hang it from a rope secured to the roof support. They love it. Sometimes it takes them a few days to finish it. Other times the cabbage is gone the same day.
For protein, I give them leftover roast chicken, fish, or beans (don’t cringe. they don’t know they are eating their kin!). There are chicken treats – dried mealworms – that I’ll toss around the coop for a special treat. On the cold mornings, which it seems that ALL of them are any more, I give them a bowl of hot oats, grains or plain cereal. This seems to get them going and active, and it’s amazing how quickly they’ve adapted to getting this morning time treat. All it is about 2 cups of quick cooking oatmeal, and enough hot tap water to cover it. I let it sit for a few minutes to soften and expand and then take it out to them to devour. The first time I gave it to them they stared at if for about 5 minutes before digging in. For water, I purchased a heated dog bowl to keep it from freezing. It kicks on only when temps reach a certain level, and I can set their waterer directly on it. It has worked wonderfully so far. Only had one day where there was a thin layer of ice, and that was the 8 degree day. The hens poked right through with no problem.
Enjoying some hot oats on a chilly morning
Additional light/heat lamps: I opted to go the first year of chicken keeping without adding any light to extend my ladies egg laying period. We get 1-3 eggs per day still, with a couple days of no eggs, and that is fine for me and the hubs. I have read too much information on how heat lamps are bad for birds because it causes too much of a temp change when they go away from it and could kill them. I have larger, cold hardy birds – Golden Laced Wyandotte & Barred Plymouth Rocks – so I’m not too worried about them being cold. The Barred Rocks are all in various stages of molt, so I know they are not currently laying because they are focusing their protein reserves on replacing those lost feathers.
Grazing on some scratch grains
The main things you want to remember for your back yard chicken keeping is that your birds should be able to access food, fresh unfrozen water, and have space to move around. They should have a dry coop to go to for warmth and to get out of the wind. Give them greens (lettuce, cabbage, kale, cucumbers) to supplement their diets from lack of free range availability. If you are an awesome pet parent like me, you’ll give them a cabbage tether ball. And you’ll give them some hot grains to get them moving in the mornings. I think we are doing