Once I made a New Year’s resolution to never make a resolution I could not keep. I didn’t keep that one either, but I did cut down. This year I resolved to write one blog post each month. This is my first of 2018. It’s almost March.
My friend Tim asked me how my winter was going. “Fast,” I replied. He looked at me as if I had manure on my face. (To my knowledge, I did not.) Nobody who lives in the north says that. I do remember how winters used to drag on. That was before the farm. Now winter, once imagined to be a time for rest and reflection, is a time for work and preparation. With little to plant or harvest, the pace was certainly slower than in mid-growing season, but it was not slow. You know the saying: Time flies when you’re having farm. Winter flew like a barn swallow chasing mosquitoes.
This is our first year with chickens. Come to think of it, it's our chickens’ first year with humans. No meat birds in the winter, except a couple left in our freezer. Ten hens and Grayson, the still-civil rooster, comprise our flock. I think both species did pretty well. We don’t know if Grayson is civil because he is too young to be mean, or because he is just good natured, but so far so good.
Impending snow forced us to adapt our mobile coop in late November. We picked a spot near the greenhouse and put it in park. There is no winter forage for chickens to graze on anyway, so there was no point in mobility. We parked the idle chicken tractor--a 5x10 tarped shelter--about ten feet away, facing the coop so the birds could scoot between the two shelters. We put snacks--fruit, vegetables, clippings from winter rye and dandelions greenhouse-grown in containers, crushed acorns and walnuts--in the tractor. The lure of food enticed them to get some exercise going back and forth. Kelly got the idea of building a temporary run (fenced area) so we pounded in T-posts into almost-frozen ground and pulled some 3-foot fencing around a 12 x 45 perimeter. The birds can fly out of a 3-foot-high enclosure, but they rarely do.
The routine: Open the coop door first thing in the morning. Give them organic grain and fresh water. Even on the coldest days a dog-dish-sized bucket of warm water would stay thawed for an hour or so. On very cold days we change the water three or four times. We feed grain again in the evening. Snacks are offered in between grain feedings. We try to give greens whenever we have them. Next year we will maintain more containers of grasses, dandelions and clover to serve to the birds.
We read and heard that the hens, without artificial light, would stop laying in winter. We would have been fine with this, but didn’t have to be because even through the darkest days of winter we averaged six eggs a day. In the past week we had two days on which all ten hens laid, and the math indicates that many must be laying on consecutive days.
We use the deep litter method for their bedding rather than clean the coop out completely. That means we put more bedding material on top of existing material. Pine shavings, poop, pine shavings, poop, and so on in the coop. On the ground layer of leaves, wood chips and pine needles. Regardless of the materials, the base of these bioactive layers eventually turns to a compost, not only valuable for fertilizer, but also for a diversity of beneficial organisms. Some authorities believe the chickens are healthier in such environments.
It amuses us that a year and a month ago we were second guessing our plan to get chickens. Not long after that we came to the conclusion that farms need animals and that chickens were the ones to start with. We just needed to do it. No regrets now. The plan for this season is to double our laying flock and at least double our production of pastured meat birds. We don’t yet have the details worked out, but surely the plan will force us into solutions.
Bonus material: Two frequently asked questions.
Do you have to heat the coop in the winter? Nope. Turns out that chickens can be cold as long as they are dry. The coop must be well ventilated. We were surprised how well they did even at 16 degrees below zero.
Do you have to have a rooster to get eggs? Nope. But some say egg production is better if there is a rooster. Without a rooster they still lay, but the eggs will not be fertile--no possibility of a chick developing. Fertilized eggs won't hatch a chick unless they are kept warm.