The wind has been blustery cold these last few days and nights. The kind of cold that you want to look at from your cozy living room. Maybe you have a hot cup of coffee and a blazing fire going. That is the way to enjoy the beauty that winter can bring. However, we are chicken keepers. There is no watching from the side lines. We have to don the winter weather gear and we have to trek out to the chicken coop a couple of times a day… all winter long. Our chickens depend on us.
Winter chicken keeping is not for the faint of heart. It is cold. There is ice to break from the buckets. Bedding, water and feed all need hauling out. Frozen toes and wind burned hands, though, your chickens, cold hardy breeds especially, are equipped to live through the winter without the creature comforts of running water and central heat like us, but they do require some daily assistance.
Wintering chickens over to spring requires fresh water. I choose not to have any electricity in my coop. This means I have to be committed to bringing my chickens fresh water multiple times a day. I like to make my job easier by rotating out water buckets. I take a fresh waterer out with room temperature water and I pull out the frozen one. This water brigade has served me well. I take the frozen one back into the house with me to unthaw and clean. This way, there is less time out in the cold for me. I would rather break up ice from my mud room sink than the yard.
Keeping chickens healthy also comes with the feed. Your chickens can be just fine surviving on a commercial layer feed all year long. You do need to be sure they have fresh food each day. During severe cold temperatures I supplement my chickens feed with meal worms as well as homemade suet cakes. A favorite of mine to make is one from beef tallow that I render at home. You can find the recipe here. Your chickens burn extra calories when staying warm. The suet’s extra fat and calories are not for everyday all year long feedings, but do help in my experience when the temperatures are at the coldest.
Keeping your chickens bedding dry is very important. When chickens are spending extra time inside the coop, dry bedding is essential. I prefer the deep liter method of bedding for my chickens in the winter months. I add fresh pine shavings to the bedding as needed. I start with 4-6 inches of bedding in the Fall which can grow to a foot by Spring. Your job is to work against moisture from droppings. However, nature and biology are working with you too. There is a natural process at work in your deep litter. Bacteria and other microbes are always present. These microbes will begin to break down the droppings and litter, much like the natural occurrence of decomposition of organic material on a forest floor. I also like to add a thin layer, a flake or so, of hay to the bedding. This works as a boredom buster and has my chickens scratching all about the coop floor. The scratching helps to aerate the liter much like turning compost. Keeping in mind that if ever you smell a strong ammonia odor, you need to open the doors and windows for air and clean out your coop.
I am going to be honest here, winter chicken keeping is not my favorite season. It is hard work and in my frozen Michigan winters, it is cold work. The eggs are not plentiful, but the promise of spring chicks, eggs and sunny days are enough to keep me going.