You know spring is here when you see the heat lamps turn on over the large metal tubs at the hardware and feed stores. Before the snow even melts, its time to get some chicks started under a heat lamp in your own home.
Or, if you are a DIYer, then its time to hatch your own.
But not matter the source, its important to choose your breed wisely by understanding why you want chickens and what you want them for.
If you are like many backyard poultry owners–especially those just getting started or those in the city–it’s eggs you want. Right?
Like dogs, chickens have been bred to offer specific traits.
Some of the newer “breeds” that have become popular over the past several years include the Red Star and Black Star, which are sex-link hybrids that were bred specifically to lay lots and lots of large brown eggs. The chicks are different colors depending on whether they are male or female, so you’ll have less chance of getting the wrong sex when you make a trip to the farm store.
If you are interested in maintaining a heritage breed, the Rhode Island Red or Black Australorp are good choices for lots of eggs and easy keepers.
The Livestock Conservancy offers a chart that gives you some comparison between breeds to help you make that all-important choice.
Here’s what else you need to think about:
Depending on the breed of chicken, their combs and wattles can become frostbitten. Birds with large combs (usually breeds originating from a warmer place, such as Leghorns) are more susceptible to frostbitten combs and wattles, which can be quite painful. Birds with smaller combs and wattles usually sail through most weather just fine. Dampness is the real culprit in causing frostbite, so keep things dry. Some folks try spreading Vaseline or other oil on the comb to prevent frostbite, but it has never worked for me.
If you keep your water inside the coop during the cold months, pay extra attention to this area and keep any damp shavings cleaned up. If your birds are outside during the day–especially in the snow–they will most likely track snow back into the coop, so watch for wet or muddy shavings that might contribute to dampness in the coop.
And don’t forget to keep an eye on their feet and toes, which also can become frostbitten. This isn’t as common, but does happen.
I remember the very first winter I had chickens: I had to cancel a dinner party one freezing cold Sunday evening after going out in the afternoon and noticing that two of the hens, who had had long, thin red combs, were flinging blood from the frozen tips of their comb. I panicked and ran immediately to the hardware store for a heat lamp.
Some say never heat the coop. Others heat at the slightest edge of cold. I fall somewhere in the less-heat side, tending toward only heating if it gets REALLY cold. The cut-off point for me is 10 above zero and colder, because I do have chickens that are not super cold-hardy and have large combs that can get frostbitten fairly easily. If I had a larger breed with small combs, I’d probably never heat at all.
So if you have a large, cold-hardy breed of chicken, they usually are just fine as long as they have a dry, draft-free coop to get out of the wind and snow. If you really want to use a heating device, such as a heat lamp, be sure to tie it securely to prevent it falling and causing a fire. Because, it can cause a fire if it falls into shavings or touches any burnable surface. Sadly, I’ve seen stories in the news all too many times of families losing their entire flock because of a fire caused by a heat lamp. Also, place it somewhere above your birds so they cannot “snuggle” into the light bulb. I’ve had birds with singed feathers more than once.
A safer alternative might be a oil-filled enclosed radiator, the kind that turns off if tipped over. I’ve also seen ceramic radiant heaters that don’t involve light and can work well without a fire hazard.
Chickens also need plenty of clean, fresh water at all times in the winter as well as the summer. I use two different methods of keeping the water clean and unfrozen. In some of my pens, I use a plug-in heated dog dishes, which saves a lot of time instead of cracking the ice and adding warm water to the buckets twice a day in the coldest weather. In other pens, I use a stock-tank heater that I put directly into a black rubber pan of water.
The heated dog dishes do fine for a year or two, but I’ve found they stop working after a while. And, I have to store them over the summer, which takes up extra space. So as they break, I buy the small tank heaters that you simply drop in a bowl to replace them. I like the thick-rubber black pans that you’ll find at a farm store, as they don’t crack in the cold and you can easily turn them upside down and push out the ice in case they do freeze over.
Make sure your chickens have plenty of food to maintain their body weight in the cold. Extra feed, some cakes of suet filled with nuts or fruit, or even plain cracked corn can give your birds a much-needed caloric boost. I throw a handful of corn in the coop in the evening, which helps turn over the bedding and gives the birds a carb-filled snack before hitting the roost.
When December rolls around, I have begun to think about–and take action–to winterize my coop to make like easier for the birds and for me.
There are a few simple things you need to know, some basic things to do, and you’ll be ready for the worst weather. I like to be prepared for the worst weather, whether or not it happens.
First of all, let’s get something right out there: chickens can deal with cold weather very well. They can handle cold far better than they are able to handle hot weather, in fact. Think of it this way–they are wearing down coats with several layers of feathers that trap heat and keep them warm. While this can spell trouble during the dog days of August, its fantastic right now when the temperatures are dropping.
So as winter comes on, keep this thought in mind.
However, even with the chickens’ ability to maintain body heat, there are a number of things you can do to make sure they get through the cold weather as comfortable as possible. Some of these precautions will also make your life easier as well.
Dampness, not cold, is the enemy most of the time in your coop. Dampness can come from several different sources and you will have to be a detective and try to figure out where, in your coop, it will come from.
For example, you still have to have fresh air circulate in your coop even after you seal up all those cracks and places where the winter wind can creep in. If you insulate your coop, don’t overdo it and block off all fresh air. Its worth a small amount of heat loss to ensure that there is an exchange of air. A small wire-covered opening near the ceiling will do the trick while keeping predators out at night.
Remember, the birds have all those downy layers of feathers to trap heat in, but trapping the ammonia fumes from the droppings can hurt their lungs or even cause them to get sick.
I’ll talk in a future post about some other things you need to think about as winter creeps in. And keep an eye on the EarthEats website…I have a post coming up with some totally new information about feeding your chickens in the winter.
What do you do for feeding in the winter? I’d love to hear!
In his book, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers” (Chelsea Green), Harvey Ussery outlines how to use your chickens to help you with work on the land while giving them extra food that result in less manufactured feed being eaten
It’s a great concept, though it might seem a little daunting to those who have their farm in a city or suburban backyard. The kind of feed you need differs depending on what kind of chickens you are raising. Some are raised for broilers, others for egg layers. And, some people have large amounts of pasture, some just have a backyard. But there are many places to start, depending on your own situation and what your motives are. Some want want to improve their yards and gardens and some just want to let their chickens do what they were meant to do: peck and scratch for a good part of their nutrition.
And will you save money? Possibly. If you have enough land, your birds can forage around for food, which can lower the amount of chicken feed they will eat. But that this doesn’t mean you should use cheap food. In fact, the opposite is true, according to Ussery’s advice. Sure, eggs at the grocery store will be cheaper than what it will cost you to get them from your backyard birds, but remember the commercial egg industry–like so much of commercial agriculture–is subsidized.
So how do you go about getting started with adding new foods to your chickens’ diet? Here are a few suggestions from Ussery’s book.
Get them out of the pen when you can
Letting your chickens forage around outside the pen gives them added nutrition in the form of greens and insects. Ussery suggests letting them out for a few hours just before sunset so they won’t tear up your yard or garden. But what they will do is eat worms and other insects. By the time they are ready to tear into the lettuce or kale, it will be dark and they will be off to the coop.
Let them do some of the work for you
Using your chickens as fellow composters is another easy way to provide feed while letting them do a fair amount of work in scratching and turning over the decomposing material.
After reading Ussery’s book, I realize we need to look for creative ways to set up the compost operation. He suggests changing the way most people compost–that is, setting up a compost pile far away from where the chickens are. So instead of doing the composting far away from the chickens, set it up next to the chicken run and make a little door with access to the compost pile.
There is a lot of nutrition and protein in the crickets and worms that your birds will go after.
On top of that, the chickens can do what they do most naturally–scratch and turn earth over. This can save you the trouble of turning the compost heap on a regular basis as well as add additional chicken droppings for further breakdown before being used in the garden.
Waste not, want not
Chickens can be the perfect way to use up extra greens, pasta or fruit that you may have grown or purchased but couldn’t eat. For example, you can let your chickens out in the fall to clean up any extra vegetables that may not have been harvested. But even in the spring you can let the birds finish up any lettuce, kale, spinach or other cold-weather crops before starting in with the summer garden.
After reading this book, I’m convinced we should all look at our own situation and try to figure out ways to let your chickens eat more naturally, something farmers and other poultry raisers have done for hundreds of years.
When the leaves start to fall and temperatures cool off, I start thinking about the long winter months ahead and what I need to do before the snow really does fly! I’ve read that in some parts of the country, the Polar Vortex will make its return as early as this month. I live in the Midwest and have learned one thing about the weather here…you never know about the weather here!
A little preparation now will make your winter chicken-keeping a lot easier when the temperature is below freezing and daylight hours are precious.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Now is the time to clean and disinfect your coops. Get your gloves, face mask (to avoid inhaling too much dust of all kinds) and a good scraper. Scrape the roosts, the floor under the litter, the walls–wherever any dried droppings are adhering to the surface. You can use soap and water, or bleach, but make sure you can keep the coop open on a sunny day to let it dry.
Lay down the law on bugs
Winter is one of the worst times for bugs in the coop, so now is the time to be more vigilant than ever. Sprinkle the floors with an insecticide of some kind, natural or otherwise, depending on your methods. I usually coat my roosts with mineral oil to smother any mites or lice hiding in the wood. One really pesky bug that hides on roosts is the scaly leg mite, which gets under the scales of your birds legs and can cause disfigurement and even potential lameness.
Heat naturally with deep litter
A time-honored tradition by early poultry keepers was to start with about six inches of bedding and continue adding through the winter, a method called “deep litter.” The key is to turn the litter over and keep it dry while allowing the litter on the bottom to begin composting slightly. That decomposition puts off heat, which keeps the birds a little warmer. I tried it last year and had good results, so I’ll do it again this year. One tip I got was that if you throw a little corn on the litter in the evenings, the birds will scratch through it and do all the turning over themselves. I like the idea of the birds doing some of the work around here! If you want to find out more about how to let the birds do some of the work around your place, check out Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock.
Take a walk around.
Its a good idea to look for unwanted cracks or openings that might turn into potential leaks.
Yes, you want –really need–ventilation, but you don’t want rain or snow to get into your coop. A damp coop makes for an unhappy and unhealthy flock.
Make sure you have a constant water source for sub-zero weather
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time and am far too lazy to be out checking my birds’ water bowl three or four times a day. So I run an outdoor electric source to my coop and plug in a small stock tank heater from a farm store in a rubber water pan. I use one of those to keep my ducks’ pool liquid all winter. I think they really appreciate it, as I often see the ducks splashing around in sub-zero temps. Of course, make sure you are using appropriate cords for outdoor electrical use and never plug too many items into one plug. If you can, keep the cord off of the ground where it can get wet and dirty. This will cause wear faster than normal.
Another thing that makes my winter chicken-keeping more pleasant is the right winter gear for myself. Some good insulated books and a pair of insulated overalls were one of the best presents I ever got.
You’ve got a few months until the cold gets serious, but its really best to start thinking about your winterizing activities now so you can do a thorough job and not be rushed.
And then, let the snow fly.
Chickens can live up to 8 or 9 years or beyond–I just had a wonderful old Buff Orpington die at the age of 13 ½. She hadn’t laid an egg in years, but was a wonderful broody mother to many hatches of my Sicilian Buttercups. Birds at my house seem to live forever and yours will also live longer if you take very good care of them. But the hens don’t lay eggs as bountifully as they will their first and second year.
Depending on the breed you have acquired, the hens will keep laying eggs for some years, though it won’t be as often. Remember when you were thinking about what breed of chicken to get? If eggs are important to you, the egg-laying breeds will lay more eggs for a longer period of time.
Will you butcher the older ones and replace with younger birds? Some people with limited space find having egg layers are important to them and they will do this. You can make some wonderful chicken soup with the older hens!
You can also try to sell or give away the older birds and replace them with pullets every couple of years. You may be able to find folks who are interested in taking on your older hens, though it’s doubtful you will make much money from them.
Will you keep them no matter what? If you don’t care about the egg-laying capacity and just find enjoyment from having some chickens in your backyard, you should have years of fun watching your birds, gathering some eggs and using their droppings in your compost pile.