The day I dread every single fall finally arrived this week. Peeking through the blinds a few days ago, I saw a field full crystalline glimmers sparkling in the morning sun. Oh, sure, it looked very pretty. Pretty frosty!
My dramatic groan woke my husband, Jae. He turned away and pulled the covers over his head when he heard why I was upset. “This happens every year!” he grumpily reminded me from beneath the blankets.
Autumn may be my favorite season. But as a Michigan poultry farmer, I can’t say that the sub-zero temperatures, bone-chilling winds and drifting snow it heralds are favorites of mine.
As much as I’m averse to winter, our chickens dislike it even more. During the winter months, our chickens rarely leave the comfort of their coops—I can’t blame them!—unless we physically take them out and plunk them down on paths we’ve snowblown for them. The ducks will venture out of their house, only to spend the day hunkered down in the snow.
Over the years, I’ve had to defrost duck wings, treat frostbitten chicken combs, and revive a seemingly frozen-to-death hen. Our family has learned that proper preparation at the first sign of frost paves the way for an easier winter for humans and birds alike.
This past weekend, the kids joined Jae and me in prepping our poultry farm for the weather to come. If you live in the northern United States and/or have a small or backyard flock, perhaps the steps we take can help prepare your birds—and you—for the months to come.
Set Up the Winter Brooder
Our pole barn is home to a large wooden brooder that we use during the spring and summer for broody hens, baby chicks and injured birds. During the winter months, however, it is home to our more delicate breeds, the chickens we feel or know wouldn’t survive our severe winters.
In years past, the brooder has housed our Seramas and Japanese Bantams. For the past 10 years, however, it’s been winter quarters for our Silkies.
We adore our sweet-natured fluffballs. Their loose feather structure, however, does not help these bantams retain their body heat when faced with freezing temps. When frost arrives, our Silkies become snowbirds and move to the warm, cozy brooder. There they’ll stay until the temperature consistently stays above 40 degrees overnight, with occasional excursions to their run on those rare warm-weather days.
To prepare the brooder for winter, we completely scrub out the interior and line it with a heavy-duty tarp. Then we add 2 to 3 inches of flaked shavings.
Next come the freshly sanitized feeder and waterer, elevated on stands that Jae built to keep the chickens from kicking shavings onto their water and rations. We check that the ceramic heating panel we installed on the brooder wall directly behind the birds’ perch is functioning correctly, to keep the Silkies warm at night.
Finally, we hang a caged heat lamp with a fresh bulb over the brooder’s hardware-mesh food panel. We use this on those nights when the temperature plummets below -10 degrees.
Our Silkie flock spends a great deal of time in the brooder during the summer, hatching and raising chicks. So moving in for the winter is like coming home for these chickens.
Put up the Winter Panels
Jae designed our smaller coops with hardware-mesh wall panels to allow for maximum ventilation during the spring and summer months. If we left these mesh walls uncovered during the winter, our birds would become chicksicles in no time.
Instead, when the frost arrives we cover the hardware mesh panels with exterior siding panels. These keep the inclement weather out and the birds’ body heat in.
The coops still have long mesh strips along the tops of the opposing side walls to allow for cross ventilation. This prevents the build-up of moisture within the coop during the colder months.
Once the danger of frost is gone in the spring, the panels come off and get stored until falls rolls around again.
Install the Electric Waterer Bases
None of our henhouses are equipped with electricity. During the summer, electricity is unnecessary. The coops’ vents keep the fresh air circulating and the birds spend most of their time outside.
During the chillier months, however, our coops need electricity to power the heated waterer bases we use to keep the chickens’ waters from freezing solid. We learned early in our poultry-rearing careers that we truly despised hauling five-gallon buckets of hot water out to our coops every winter morning to thaw out the waterers.
Our electric base heaters were a solid investment that keep the birds’ water from freezing. They also keep me and my son Jaeson from having to play the haul-and-thaw game every day.
The catch is that the waterer bases require power. When the frost hits, Jae runs heavy-duty outdoor-gauge extension cabling from our house out to the coops. The cables are woven through the run fencing to keep them off the ground and away from the coming snow.
Their connections illuminate at night so we can tell at a glance that the power is indeed on.
Bring on the Shavings
Because the birds spend so much time indoors during winter, their litter becomes soiled much more quickly than during the summer months. We use the deep-litter method to help heat our coops naturally. So an important part of our winter prep is to stockpile sacks of flaked shavings.
We also put down more litter—about 3 inches instead of 1—to help insulate the coop floor against the chill. We used to carefully spread the shavings out in each coop, creating an even floor surface to help prevent bumblefoot. (This occurs more frequently during the winter.)
However, we stopped doing this after our second winter, when we discovered that the chickens would scratch and dig up the entire layer of shavings the moment we finished and left them alone. Now we’re not so exact with how we put down the shavings. And we sprinkle some scratch grains in so the chooks have something to find after all that scratching.
None of these preparatory steps would amount to much if we didn’t make the basic repairs necessary to get our coops through the winter. We check each structure for drafts, putting down fresh caulk as needed.
The lids to our nest boxes take a beating from constant use throughout the year and are often ragged around the edges by fall. Jae replaces these battered lids with newly cut panels. He also cuts fresh perches if we discover that any are splintered.
The pop and human-access doors to each coop are also inspected to see how tightly they shut, since the last thing we want is a gappy door that for allow the cold, snow and predators access.
Last but not least, we check our feed storage containers. These are kept inside our pole barn. We’d rather not feed the chipmunks and other furries that bunk down in there for the winter.