Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What do chickens need in the winter?

This is my second winter having chickens in southern Michigan. Like most new chicken owners, I was very worried about keeping my chickens warm during the cold winters we have here every year. I read a lot of blogs that said heat is essential, and I read a lot of blogs that said I needed to do nothing even on the coldest of days. Still confused on the topic I decided to take each day one at a time and take cue from my chickens behavior.

My coop setup has a wide open hardware cloth run and two enclosed coop areas. On the coldest of days I assumed my chickens would be bedded deep in their enclosed coop, but time and time again I would go out there to find them huddled on a roost in the open air run. My conclusion: chickens do what chickens want to do. Give them an optional enclosed area to escape a winter blizzard, but most likely they will huddle out in the open air like many birds do all winter long.

Here is my checklist for getting the chicken coop ready for the cold days that are settling upon us:

'Draft proof' the coop

The window, roof, and one wall of my coop setup is just hardware cloth. This is excellent for keeping chickens cool and ventilated in the hot summer days, but too drafty for cold winter ones. Before the real cold days hit I attach some plexiglass to the window, tack on some plywood to the hardware cloth wall, and slide another piece of plywood over the roof. I leave about 2 inches on each side of the roof open for ventilation. I also leave the small hardware cloth windows right below the roofline open for ventilation in the pallet coop. The difference I learned between a draft and ventilation is the number of openings you have in the coop and how they are related to each. Example of a draft would be an open window opposite an opening in the roof - this senario allows air to cross the entire coop creating a breeze. Ventilation would be just an open window near the top of the coop, or a small opening in the roof - this allows ammonia and stale air to escape, but will not create a cross breeze.

Click image to enlarge

Make a water plan

Last winter I made a mistake that cost my rooster half of his comb; I forgot to give my chickens water for a day and a half. I don't exactly know what the relationship is between fresh water and keeping warm when it comes to chickens, but that was the only day my rooster's comb was frostbitten, and it was not the coldest day of the winter by far. During warm months I fill two water containers for the coop and that will last the chickens 3 or 4 days if I forget to refill them in between.  In the winter the water can freeze within an hour of placing it in the coop. The heated water containers seem overpriced so I bought 4 regular plastic ones and just switch them out in the morning and night when the temperatures are freezing. Make a plan early on, something that works with your schedule. A heated water base is probably worth the investment and I may break down and buy one this month to prepare for the cold ahead.

Deep litter clean out

I use the deep litter method and only clean the coops out once a year, usually in late fall. Deep litter allows you to build up the litter in your coop without actually deep cleaning it. It is a method of turning the droppings under and allowing natural decomposition. Good ventilation is necessary using this method, it keeps the bedding dry and allows any ammonia to escape. In the fall I like to take all of the litter out and put it in my garden beds. This is great for the garden and ensures a deep fresh layer of pine shavings for my chickens. I don't get out to check on the chickens as much when the days get dark in Michigan, starting fresh bedding at this time makes me feel less guilty for some reason when I don't get out to check on them every day.

Shovel a path

Ok, this is optional but my chickens appreciated it. When snow finally falls I like to shovel a small path outside of their coop so they have a little room to roam. My chickens tolerated light snow, but wanted nothing to do with the deep stuff. They clucked their appreciation when they were still able to find bits of frozen grass along the shoveled path.