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Chickens in winter – still rewarding but so much more work

Posted by on Friday 3 December 2010 in chickens | 11 comments

Sorry if this blog as got a bit one note of late – all winter! winter! winter! It’s partly because I’m reluctant to post any recipes at the moment (I’ve got a few I want to write up but I think our oven thermostat is broken so I want to check that because saying “bake this at 230 for 30 minutes”, when really it needs 10 minutes at 180) and partly because the weather is a little … in our faces at the moment.

We’re not used to this. Even after our “once in 20 years” bad winter last year, we weren’t really ready for this – and especially not starting so early. I know a lot of people in north America and mainland Europe have it far, far worse for far longer but if I lived in Canada or Sweden, I’d expect it and be prepared for it but we’re just not used to it here. It was a balmy -6C/20F outside at noon today – it had been much, much colder overnight. I grew up on the sea-warmed coast (sunny sunny Southport) – we didn’t have either hills or snow there so trudging up and down the first in 8ins of the second is a very new experience to me.

We’re also not used to waking up to find these outside our kitchen window in the morning:

The in-need-of-filling bird feeder looks like wax has been poured on it.

It also makes me slightly regret how much I’ve been urging people to get chickens because they’re so easy to look after. My chicken-related workload has shot up over the last week – many many times more involved, although I guess that’s because they were so little effort before.

Last weekend’s big coop clean took a good three times as long – having to scrap the frozen poo off the floor – but that’s not so bad – it’s the daily tasks that are more time consuming.

In the morning, I have to defrost their drinkers as soon as I wake up. Sometimes that involves just using boiling water to melt the ice and top up the water levels (so it’s lukewarm for them to drink). Other mornings it means carrying the drinkers back up to the house (up three flights of icy steps) to defrost the solid water and refill. And some mornings, like today, it means carrying the drinkers up to the house, defrosting them, refilling them, carrying them back down, flipping them over to hang them up, the bottom coming off, the lukewarm water going everywhere over the run floor and having to start all over again, with a nice ice rink in the run to meet me when I return – and the floor of the run was already too cold for two feet as it was.

At lunchtime, I take down more warm water, more defrosting if needs be, and in addition to the extra food and corn down at all times, I make them some layers pellet & corn porridge. I have to stay down there for a good while to make sure everyone gets something to warm them up a bit instead of the bigger ones hogging it. Later in the afternoon, I go down again to make sure they’ve got liquid water before bedtime and have filled up with food, then after dark, we go down to check they’re all in and either on their perches or in the case of the non-perchers, bedded down together in a straw filled nest box.

It’s obviously not a horrendous workload but it’s considerably more than we were having to do – and I don’t know how I’d fit it in if I worked away from home. I certainly wouldn’t be able to check on them during the day or before they go to bed – I know chickens are pretty hardy creatures so they’d probably be ok, but all the same, I’d feel incredibly guilty if anything happened to them.

You know what though? It’s not really the extra workload that the problem – it’s the little annoying things that make it more difficult. Dropping that drinker of water today was annoying. This lock on the way into the run:

My fingers have stuck to that lock at least five times today and each time it stings to peel them off. And above it, this gate:

Drops a sprinkle of snow down the back of my neck every time I go in or out of the run. Brrr. (I really should clear it off but it’ll only re-settle again.)

And this gate, which is from the garden into the “air lock” – the bit where we keep the food and where the nest boxes are, so we can collect eggs without going into the run itself. This gate:

Is wedged with snow and ice so it won’t open any more than this wide, which is especially annoying when I’m carrying drinkers or anything else.

Sorry to be complaining – my goal isn’t to complain, it’s more admit my earlier “chickens are easy peasy” comments were wrong/short-sighted.

It’s certainly not all bad though. At least the chickens are in our garden so I don’t have to traipse too far to get to them. They’re also still delightful and hilarious when I’m down with them, and they’re still providing eggs (four most days but sometimes three – still none from the new ones). And our office, we’ve got the stove on and it’s a comparatively toasty 15C/60F — warm enough to steam up my glasses and the camera lens!


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  1. bookstorebabe

    I hesitate to suggest this, it’s not very frugal-but my mother has something electric she uses made for keeping the water from freezing in her birdbath. She’s quite elderly, and the birds are her real joy, so she gets a pass from carrying hot water!

    I don’t know your set up-is there a way to run an extension cord there? One light bulb can put off a fair amount of heat.
    If that’s impractical, as well as being not energy efficient, is there any way to insulate the water troughs so they don’t freeze as readily?

    Sorry I don’t have a practical solution for you. Good luck with the girls! I’ll tell you this-I had to walk 20 minutes in freezing weather to the bus last winter, then wait forever for the darn thing to arrive. I always wore an old pair of pantyhose under my slacks. (no long johns, alas!) It was surprisingly helpful, keeps you warmer than you’d imagine!

    • louisa

      I have a pair of cotton-heavy thick tights for that same purpose – it really does make a difference!

      We do have electricity down there – John’s dad installs power *everywhere* and if it stays this cold all winter, I might explore it. However, earlier in the week I was reading that chickens are generally fine and that with all the straw & wood shavings in the coop, it can be quite a fire risk to have even a bulb in there. That person – Matron of Throwback at Trapper Creek – only puts out enough water for each day so she doesn’t have to defrost frozen-solid drinkers every day. I think once I get a bit more used to how much water they’re getting through in winter, I’ll do that too.

  2. RecycleBill

    I have chicken waterers that I use most of the year but in winter I keep my chickens’ water in several black 5 gallon buckets that set out in the sun. Black heats up quicker than white. On most mornings I can break the ice with my fingers and it doesn’t refreeze until dark. On really cold nights I carry the buckets into my house and take them back out the next morning. Heavy, but still easier than thawing. When it’s really, really cold I keep 1/2 of my buckets in the house all the time, switching out buckets as they freeze.

    Most adult chickens can drink from a 5 gallon bucket while standing on the ground provided the bucket is kept full. A neighbor of mine lost a hen because the bucket was half full and she fell in head first while trying to reach the water.

    Remember, the larger the container the longer it takes to freeze.

    There are electric heating pads made to be placed under the buckets but I wouldn’t recommend them unless you use metal buckets or metal chicken waters.

    An interesting side note: Even in summer, chickens actually prefer a black bucket over a white bucket. The black bucket makes the water darker and reduces the growth of algae and germs, and the chickens taste the difference..

    • louisa

      That’s really interesting RecycleBill.

      As I said above, I’d considered the less water route so I didn’t have to spend so much time defrosting it – but the more there is, the less solidly it would freeze in the first place.

      The black bucket idea is interesting too – our drinkers are both semi-opaque white plastic – it might be worth covering them with dark fleece or something — extra insulation too.

  3. Linda

    I’m in the other hemisphere coping with water evaporating and thirsty chickens but:

    You are staying warm and exercised with the extra chicken related work!
    Could you not wrap a bit of cloth around the metal of the lock so that you don’t stick to it?
    Can you feed the chickens less (but higher calorie) food so they don’t poop so much and stay warmer for less effort i.e. some extra fat?

    I hope you are taking as much care of your own health as you are of the chickens!

    • louisa

      Hi Linda,

      Fancy a bit of a weather swap? ;)

      Yes, all the walking up and down to see the chickens is keeping me walk – it was exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote about getting my blood flowing as one of my “five frugal ways to stay warm”. Except for dropping that just-filled drinker (when I had to walk up the three flights of stairs three times in quick succession), I quite enjoy that small cardiovascular workout on my tea/lunch break – I just couldn’t do it if I worked away from home.

      I didn’t mention this in the article but I actually think I’ve bonded more with the chickens of late – spending more time visiting them and hanging out (while making sure everyone’s ok and fed/watered) than I did in the summer. So maybe the cold spell is a blessing in disguise :)

      As for me, I have an ample supply of soup, scarves and mobile heating units (the cats, dog and boyfriend) so I’ll be fine ;)

  4. Karen M

    Not so much about chickens, but just a note from Canada to let you know that right now you have a much colder snowier winter on the go that we do. Sure – I’m in a big city, but talking to my sister who is up north-she is shocked at the amount of snow and cold you are getting. I think that with global warming we also are experiencing global shifting.

    I remember chickens and other creatures in kitchens and mudrooms on some really bad nights.

    • louisa

      Hi Karen, thanks for the comment and for letting me know that we’re not whining too unjustly ;)

      I have a feeling we might end up bringing at least one of the hens into the house if it gets much colder – she’s started losing her feathers, possibly a moult, and I’m not sure how she’ll do when she loses her insulation. Not sure how the cats or dog will like that though!

  5. Karen M

    Have you thought about sweaters? I’ve read a few articles over the last couple of years about Hens in sweaters. The first place I saw it was in an issue of Vogue knitting and it was a British Trust that took care of hens that were rescued from bad situations. We had a very old cockateil who had a lot of feather loss and although he didn’t wear a sweater, he did snuggle in little flannel blankets that I made for him. Just a thought.

    • louisa

      Yes, I started looking into that yesterday and found some patterns – I might see if I have time to make one today. She was a little grumpy when I went down this morning – not her usual cheerful self – but perked up a bit after some corn. She’s always been on to snuggle in the nest box, even when she wasn’t laying, so I’ve made sure there is extra straw in there – and told the others to pull together to keep her warm too :)

  6. Nikki

    How’s she doing now? As the cold is supposed to come back in February (at least in these parts) I thought I’d send you the link to chicken sweater patterns in either fleece or knitted! http://littlehenrescue.co.uk/jumpers.aspx

    I’m also considering intalling a few chucks this year but after reading this article I think I’ll wait a few months before I do!


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