Most of us folks in northern regions go to great lengths to ensure our flocks can survive the winter. We select cold-hardy breeds. We build insulated coops. We provide them with heaters, petroleum jelly and even amusements to alleviate boredom. In short, we do everything possible to guarantee that our girls get to spring safe and sound.
The same can’t be said, however, for ourselves. The slippery ice, the blowing snow, the pre-dawn/early-evening darkness—those are just a start. I’m sure I’m not the only flock owner who has to thaw frozen locks, wade through snowdrifts and battle the bitter cold. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who prefers a nice, warm bed to the frozen outdoors.
My family and I made a deal with our birds when we agreed to raise them, however: They’d entertain us with their antics and provide us with eggs in exchange for room, board and TLC. No one mentioned a seasonal suspension of care because of winter weather. To make the best of things until the warmth and sunshine return, try one (or more) of these ways to make winter chicken care more (humanly) bearable.
1. Clear Pathways
Use a shovel to clear the way from your house to your henhouse. Scatter sand (not salt) over the whole path, particularly each endpoint, to promote traction and inhibit ice buildup. A snow-free walkway takes the drudgery out of reaching your chickens, especially when the rest of your yard is under three-foot drifts. An added bonus: on sunny days, your birds can get some much-needed exercise on the path. My husband, Jae, uses our snowblower to create a loop leading from our deck out to and between each of our coops. This pathway makes hauling feed and water much easier for me, and going for winter strolls much easier for our girls.
2. Clear the Coop Entrance
The continual cycle of snow/ice-melt-repeat can turn a chicken run into a field of mud, especially at the coop entrance. Thanks to plummeting overnight temperatures, the muck in this heavily trafficked area frequently freezes solid, effectively blocking any pop door that swings out to open. Even though the chickens trapped within most likely wouldn’t set a toe outside, they still want their door open. To avoid spending additional time in the freezing cold chopping away at the blockage, take some precautions to prevent the buildup in the first place. Use a shovel or hard-toothed rake to clear away the soft mud, slush and snow that accumulate directly in front of the coop door. You can also create “welcome mats” from cardboard cartons to catch the snow and mud. Just dispose of them (or compost them) once they’re coated, then replace.
3. Keep Supplies Close at Hand
Refilling empty feeders is a daily task poultry farmers know well. During winter, it seems more tedious, traveling back and forth in the bitter cold between your coops and the place you store your poultry rations. Minimize your exposure and your mileage by keeping a supply of feed near your coop. Because our layers are in winter hiatus, we converted several nestboxes into temporary storage cubbies that hold tightly lidded buckets of feed, oyster shell, grit and scratch. When we need to refill a feeder or hopper, everything is close at hand, not all the way in the pole barn.
4. Double Up on Water
One of Maybelline Lawson’s most dreaded winter chicken chores involves maintaining her birds’ waterer. “I dislike that I have to constantly change their water,” the Virginia chicken-keeper noted. “It freezes before they even finish drinking. I change their water three times a day.”
Todd Gillihan concurs. “Dragging a five-gallon bucket of water across a yard that hopefully has a path shoveled is probably the worst thing,” the Michigan poultry farmer stated.
I definitely agree. I dislike the heft of that brimming bucket, the potential to slosh water all over myself, the battle to defrost the waterer lid and thaw the ice within. This is why, about four years ago, we invested in a second set of waterers. Every morning, we swap out the frozen waterers for freshly filled ones. We set the frozen ones inside the garage to thaw. The fresh ones we set on base heaters inside the coops. The heaters activate when the outdoor temperature drops below a preset degree, heating the metal waterers to keep the water in a liquid state. Unfortunately, we have yet to find a base heater that holds its own against Michigan’s overnight temps, which can exceed minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why we do the switcheroo in the morning.
5. Front-load as Much as Possible
Leaving my nice warm bed to venture into the pre-dawn arctic chill is not exactly on my Top 10 Favorite Activities list. To lessen my exposure to the wintry weather, I complete as many chores as possible the previous night. I fill the feeders, refill the feed buckets, check the connections for our base heaters, add shavings as needed, clear the ground in front of each pop door and refresh the path around our coops (or ask my husband to snowblow it). In the morning, I need only to let out the birds and swap the waterers. It might be a personal preference, but I am far more tolerant of cold temperatures at dusk, after a day of activity, than I am in the early morning, fresh from my bed. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
6. Dress for Your Tolerance Level
We each have our individual tolerance level for cold. What I’d wear in 20-degree weather (Goretex jacket and fleece-lined hood) is not what my teenager and assistant poultry wrangler, Jaeson, would wear (shorts and sweatshirt).
Whatever your location and your tolerance for cold, dress warmly enough to get through the bitter morning temperatures with minimal discmofort. Indispensable to your chicken-tending attire are muck boots, waterproof knee-high work boots built to withstand harsh circumstances, and stretch-fit Goretex or Thinsulate work gloves, which protect your fingers from frostbite but give you the mobility necessary to manipulate clasp locks, bucket lids and latches. These all might cost a bit, but they make working in the bitter cold much more tolerable.
Before you head outside to release your flock and take on your morning tasks, take some time for yourself. Have your coffee maker on, put a kettle on for tea, have ingredients out for hot cereal or some other warm, comforting food or drink. It’ll warm you up from the inside, chase the chill away and fuel you for the rest of your morning, whether you’re heading back out or climbing back under the blankets for just a little longer.