Thursday, October 15, 2009

Snow Birds

The weather is turning and we’re heading into a new stage with the chickens – keeping them safe and sufficiently warm in winter. I know they don’t have to be “toasty” warm, and that, in fact, it’s not good for them. They generate a lot of moisture, and keeping them too warm in an enclosed place promotes disease. But it can get pretty cold here in Wisconsin, and we don’t want to freeze the poor birds. So, what do we do?

I thought I had this all worked out when we started the chicken project. We chose Dennis Harrison-Noonan’s playhouse coop design, in part, because we heard that small numbers of chickens can best keep warm in a small coop. My neighbor, Jill, who got her chickens a year before I got mine, said the breeder told her essentially the same thing: that it’s best to keep small numbers of birds in a small coop because they will generate enough body heat to keep a small space sufficiently warm.

With this design, we hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to heat the coop. Heat is problematic because, in addition to disease, chickens are more vulnerable to frostbite in humid air (warm air holds more moisture) than with cold dry air. I talked to an experienced chicken keeper from Mad City Chickens who advised against ever heating a coop in winter. Both she, and our poultry extension specialist, stressed that the birds are a lot hardier than people think.

I also deliberately selected breeds that I thought would be able to handle cold weather. Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are large breeds that were developed in the mid-19th century in New England. If they could tolerate a New England winter in the days before electricity, surely they could tolerate a Wisconsin winter, I reasoned.

However, the more I read and talked to people, the more doubt began to creep in. My neighbor from Oaxaca, Mexico, whose family kept chickens when she was growing up, inquired about my plans for the chickens in winter; would I bring them into the house? She stared at me in horror when I told her they should be fine in their coop. My sister Sandy, who has lived in southern California for nearly three decades, had a similar reaction. I told Sandy that another chicken keeper in Madison told me the most her chickens required was a 60 watt bulb on the very coldest nights. “Those poor chickens!” she exclaimed. “Huddled around just a light bulb for heat!” Clearly this bordered on animal cruelty, in her mind.

My dad’s partner, Wilda, whose mother raised chickens when Wilda was growing up in Arkansas, was also skeptical that chickens could survive a Wisconsin winter outside with little or no heat. I pointed out that 19th century farmers didn’t have electricity to heat their coops and somehow seemed to manage. Wilda claimed that was because the chickens were kept in barns in winter, with other large animals that generated heat. Wilda also observed that a smaller box, like our coop, would freeze faster than a larger building.

I had to admit that Wilda made some good points. Then our friends John and Barb stopped by. They are Wilda’s age, and they, too, grew up in families that raised chickens. However, they grew up in Wisconsin. “Aaah, they’ll be fine!” John said reassuringly, when I fretted about protecting my chickens in winter. The chickens on their parents’ farms managed to survive in unheated coops (not barns with other animals). They don’t recall it ever being a problem.

I started to detect a pattern here. Many people from warmer climates find it hard to imagine themselves tolerating a Wisconsin winter, let alone chickens in outside coops, with little or no heat. The pattern is even more obvious on the Backyard Chickens message board. Some posters from southern climes think they need to heat their coops when temperatures barely get down to freezing, while posters from Canada and Alaska insist that chickens can healthfully tolerate far colder temperatures than one might believe.

These northern posters calmed my fears considerably. My only remaining concern is the size of our coop. A poster from Ontario, “PatAndChickens,”
argues persuasively that in colder climates, larger, not smaller coops are preferable. The reason is that chickens will spend more time indoors during winter, and you want to provide them enough space to move around and not get into fights. She advises sectioning off a smaller area within the large coop, where the chickens can warm up.

So, what did we finally decide to do?

* Coop Size. We can’t rebuild the coop now, so instead we’ll treat the fenced area as “coop.” After some research, posting with Pat, and talking to our extension agent, we decided to put plastic over the north and west sides of the pen. This will provide a windbreak and keep most of the snow out of the pen. In addition to protected space in their pen to move around, Rick expanded the roost box one foot into the pen.

* Heat. Rick insulated the coop (with "stupervision" from the chickens - see photo above). The original design didn’t call for insulation but both Pat on BYC and our poultry extension agent advised it. (After we’ve been through a year with the chickens, I’m writing a post on “lessons learned” in coop design!) We’ve also oriented the coop so that the largest window faces south. Hopefully, the coop will gain some heat from the sun in winter. The most electric heat we plan to use is a 60 watt bulb, but we’ll monitor the girls and hope we don’t have to resort to that.

* Ventilation. I’ve learned that ventilation is crucial to protecting poultry in winter. Luckily, our coop design provided for ventilation holes at the top of the roost box. The poultry extension specialist advised leaving the pop door partway open in winter for additional ventilation. (We left it wide open, day and night, during summer, but had recently been closing it.)

It’s been our practice to daily remove droppings beneath the roost bar. In summer, they were right on top of the bedding because the chickens went out into their pen in the morning, and never returned until dark. That made it easy to remove this source of moisture in the air. They’re in and out more often now, kicking the droppings under the bedding, so we’re going to install a droppings board beneath the roost bar.

Tracy inspects the remodeling.

* Roost bar. Some sources advise a 2x4, rounded at the edges, rather than a round bar, for chickens in winter climates. The wide bar allows the chickens to sit on their feet and helps to prevent frostbitten toes.

* Diet. Finally, our poultry extension specialist advises giving the chickens scratch before bedtime in winter. Apparently, it helps to warm them because it gets them moving and scratching to look for it, and provides something substantial for them to digest overnight.

Hopefully, all these strategies will help to keep our birdies healthy in the cold days ahead.

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