Thursday, February 28, 2013

Observations & Lessons Learned from My First Winter with Chickens

I live on the corner of my neighborhood -- as a result, everyone in said neighborhood can see what's happening in my yard. As you can imagine, I get a lot of questions about raising chickens. One question I got a lot in the late summer and fall was, "What are you going to do with them this winter?"  I would just give them a non-committal, "Oh, I'm still doing some reading about that. We'll see."

Truth was, I was feeling pretty nervous about the whole wintertime chicken keeping thing. What was I going to do with them?  I couldn't move the tractor around in the wintertime, so I'd have to figure out some sort of way to keep things clean and un-muddy. My usual method of dealing with chicken poop (move the tractor, rake it up, put it in compost pile, repeat) wouldn't work during the winter months. Then there was the question of using heat lamps and artificial lighting. I asked some of my chicken keeper friends on Facebook what they thought I should do in that regard: half said yes to lamps, half said no. Even my chicken book I'd consulted for months and months didn't really have much information about keeping chickens in the winter.

So, with a little extra research, some prowling around in forums, with the help of a couple of great chicken blogs (I particularly like this one), I trusted my gut and hoped I wouldn't kill my three chickens this winter. Tomorrow is the first day of March and I'm happy to report that all three of my ladies are alive, well, and laying.

Here are some of the observations I made and some lessons I learned through these past cold and snowy months:

1. Chickens are tough.  
So after I put the whole "heat lamp or no?" question out to my Facebook friends and got mixed answers, I went searching around online. Again, mixed. I asked a couple people at the local feed store. They said to go with the lamp. I even had a kid from my church ask (when I told him that my girls weren't laying as much at the time), "You got a light on your chickens?" And to be honest, I felt bad about the ladies being out in the cold.

But I couldn't shake the arguments from the "no heat lamp" camp and the testimonials from chicken keepers in the Northern states like Michigan and Minnesota. I also couldn't help but think, "How did the pioneers take care of chickens before electricity?" It finally came down to what I read in an issue of Backyard Poultry magazine: I learned that chickens can survive in temperatures as low as -20°F, as long as they are sheltered from drafts. Chickens have over 8000 feathers which they fluff out and trap air with; their body heat warms the air and they stay surprisingly warm.  Plus, it's better to have them get used to cold temperatures instead of relying on a heat lamp -- if chickens that are used to having heat lamp lose that source of heat (like, say, in a power outage or if a bulb burns out), you could lose your whole flock.

So the girls didn't get a heat lamp this winter (though I still put in there -- hence the yellow cord in the picture -- just in case I changed my mind). Even in January, when we went through a stretch when the high daytime temperatures were in the low teens and the nights got as low as -10°F, they were fine. On those super-cold days I took extra care of them, which I will explain later in this post (see #5).

2. I miss the "chipple".
This past June, I learned about the chicken nipple (or as my husband and I call it, the chipple) watering system. Instead of having water dishes that get poop, food, and bedding kicked into them, you can hang the water containers and the chickens drink from the red nipple on the bottom of the container. The water stays totally clean and you don't have to change it numerous times a day. It's the best way to water chickens, in my humble opinon.

The downside to the chipple: it doesn't work in the wintertime (at least not in my experience).  The metal part  that the birds tap with their beak to release the water gets frozen and stuck in place. So even with my attempts to keep changing it and filling it with water, the first thing to freeze was that metal part. Knowing that I would eventually have to give up the chipple for the season, I ordered a heated water bowl (there are lots of great DIY ways to make heated waterers but with the limited space in the chicken tractor, I just went with the bowl).

The bowl works really well at keeping the water from freezing (it didn't even freeze when the temperatures hovered below, at, or barely above 0°F), but I forgot how messy chickens can be with their water. That bowl gets full of straw, poop, and food in no time. Sigh. I'm partly excited for spring just so I can go back to using the chipple and not have to deal with poopy water several times a day.

3. Chickens do lay eggs in the winter, even without artificial light.
I had lots of people tell me that they wouldn't lay in the winter if I didn't have a lamp on them. False. Granted, they definitely slowed down in their egg production, but they still laid eggs. I figured that chickens slow down in the winter for a reason, so I decided to let nature take its course. One of my neighbors told me that his hens have never had artificial light in their coop and the same hens have been laying for nearly four years!

My Rhode Island Red, Princess Leia, has been reliably laying for the entire winter season. My Black Sex-link, Foxy Cleopatra, has been off and on, though she pretty much stopped in January. My Ameraucana, Lenore, actually started laying her first eggs (I was so excited to finally see those blue-green eggs!) when the temperatures were coldest in early January.

At one point during the winter, I was only collecting getting one egg a day. This wasn't enough to keep up with my family's egg consumption, so I ended up buying some from one of my neighbors (her eggs are not only pastured but fertile, too). Most of time, though, this season I've collected 1-2 eggs a day; it'll be nice when I'm collecting three daily.

(Sidenote: If you do use lamps in your chicken coop, that's great -- I know lots of people who do and they did get more eggs from their chickens than I did this winter. I'm definitely not trying to stir any sort of debate up, I promise.)

4. Chickens can get bored and turn into jerks.

Since my hens have always been on the grass in the chicken tractor, they've never seemed bored. In the warmer months, they loved pecking and scratching around in the grass, digging little holes, taking dust baths, and eating all the worms and grasshoppers my boys could find. Then winter came and kept their chicken tractor in one spot. Some days it got so cold that they'd stay in the henhouse for a good part of the day. There was not a whole lot for them to do.

I had read about chicken boredom and tried to help them out by giving them treats (dried mealworms are their favorite). I'd sometimes toss a head of cabbage or lettuce into the tractor for them to peck at and eat. They liked pecking around for scratch, but I could tell that they were still feeling a little restless.

Then one morning as I was changing their water yet again, I noticed that my Black Sex-link was missing a lot of feathers on her neck. My first thought was, "Oh great, she's sick". So I took a picture with my phone (the picture you see in this paragraph) and sent it to my brother-in-law, my go-to chicken expert. His answer? Since it was only in that spot, it looked like she was at the receiving end of some pecking. I did some reading and found out that chickens are more prone to do this kind of thing in the winter. The feathers grew back on Foxy, but Lenore soon followed as the next victim with a section next to her tail plucked away. I'm suspecting it's Princess Leia who's the bully, especially since she pecked at me the other day as I was feeding them some kitchen scraps (and she's usually quite docile.).  I guess even chickens start to feel crabby when winter has worn on too long.

(I actually just found this blog post about keeping chickens occupied -- it's a little late for my ladies now, seeing as winter is almost over and they'll be back to the grass and bugs they love, but I'll still implement a few ideas.)

5. My chickens are spoiled.

Behold -- hot breakfast for hens.

On those below-zero mornings especially, I just felt bad for the girls in the backyard. They were fine but I still felt for them. So whenever it got really cold, I'd whip up nice steaming bowl of oatmeal for the ladies. I sprinkle in some scratch, a few tablespoons chicken treat mix, and some raisins. I always tried to do this on the sly in the mornings, a bit worried about the looks or teasing I might get from my husband (he finds it funny how I spoil our chickens). The ladies loved getting hot breakfast -- at least, they seemed liked they loved it, the way they would gobble it up.

That was just one thing I did for the ladies when it got super-cold this winter. I also paid attention to their combs, coating the combs of two of them with Vaseline so as to avoid frostbite (our Ameraucana has a short pea-comb, so the risk of frostbite is far less). I swear, my Black Sex-link liked getting picked up and having her comb rubbed with Vaseline; I could feel her body relax under my arm and she would sort of close her eyes as I took care of her comb.

So, yes, my chickens are bit spoiled (though still not as spoiled as some others I've read about, where people decorate their coops, knit them sweaters, and put diapers on them so they can roam the house). My husband finds it amusing the way I research and read about keeping chickens, the way I get all concerned over them. My rationale: healthy and happy chickens produce the best eggs -- and I'm pleased to report that my hens, considering the freezing temperatures and the many feet of snow we've gotten this winter, seem as healthy and happy as can be expected.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

{This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday,  Little House Friday and Your Green Resource}


Colleen said...

Visiting from Little House in the Suburbs.

Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed reading this. Living in Phoenix, I tend to deal more with the opposite end of the weather spectrum :) Same idea, though.

Heather said...

You know, I wonder sometimes which is harder on the birds, the cold or the the heat? I think I worry just as much in the summertime about keeping them cool. I'll bet it's an extra challenge with those Arizona temps in the summer!

Thanks for the nice words and for stopping by! :)

Melissa Walker said...

What a great post ... we just went through our second winter with chickens ... and are finally getting our egg production back up (we choose not to use a heat lamp also!).

smidgen nuggets said...

You are absolutely an animal lover -- hot breakfast for "the ladies"... I bet all chickens wished they lived with you!

Kim said...

We live in the Northeast and have never heated. Same reasons you gave. We lost power for a week one winter and I was so glad the chickens never knew the difference!

Kelsey Gray said...

2013/14 was our first winter with 8 hens. We had let them roam all over our country place all summer and Fall, so when winter came, they went crazy being cooped up. If it wasn't snowing, we let them out. But, alas, when we were not looking, the hens were picked off one by one by coyotes. We are starting over this year and plan to always keep the chicks in a run, year round, a mobile one. But we have to make it mobile very soon. The house we had for them is too heavy to attach to the run so we have to build a house on to the run. OY! We also have the dirty water problem and struggled with water freezing all winter. We'll have to fork over the money for one of those big metal waterers with a heated base next winter.

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