by Jenny Brown
“How do you keep your chickens in winter?”
That is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked about raising poultry. Several years ago, when I first began teaching ‘Raising Chickens 101‘, I taught my students to do what I did. At the time, I pretty much did everything by the book. I still follow some of those guidelines today because it’s just good common winter sense.
Make sure they have enough floor space in the coop when it’s too cold or wet to venture outside.
The rule of thumb is to provide 4 square feet of floor space per bird. I say with personal experience that this is a good rule to follow. You will enjoy going out to your coop to feed and gather eggs most of the winter. Putting a knee down in the straw to reach in the nests won’t mean a change of clothes when you go inside. The bedding will stay clean longer, your nose will be at ease (which is also important for your bird’s sensitive respiratory systems), and your chickens will be less restless and less likely to pick on (and at) each other. Even in winter they can be outside with room to forage around but it’s those extremely wet or snowy spells you need to be prepared for when they could be confined to the coop for days…or weeks.
A crowded bird is a grumpy bird
And this, my friends, is where our story today begins……
I learned this lesson three winters ago when I went into winter with more birds than I had planned on. Forty-five hens in a coop with a 9′ x 12′ floor. That’s 2.4 square feet per bird. I knew I was stretching it a bit…quite a bit, but I figured they’d be fine since they had three plus acres to spread out on. What I didn’t anticipate was the harsh weather that was approaching.
That year we had the heaviest snow storm since 1991. Our winter-resilient town that never seems to slow down for snow, was stopped in it’s tracks for a few days. The wind that accompanied the storm created deep drifts in areas. One of which was my chicken coop. One morning I had to dig my way out to the coop door to feed and water my birds; they were literally snowed in.
Large snow drifts blocked my access to the coop. The chicken door was almost buried.
I could see from the outside that the windows were steamed up. As I stepped inside, the snow- insulated coop felt like a closed-up bathroom after a hot shower. The dampened bedding from the moisture brought out a nostril stinging smell of ammonia. (Did you know chickens have the highest respiratory rate of any animal for their size? That’s why they can steam up a coop so easily.)
I spent the rest of the morning shoveling out a chicken yard so my birds could get out into the fresh air and have a little more space to move around.
After two hours of using muscles I forgot I had (but would be reminded of for the next couple days), I opened the door expecting a wave of happy Rhody’s to come pouring out and I would experience that satisfying feeling of knowing I did something good for my feathered friends.
They all stood in the doorway staring at the snow and cackling at me ” Do you expect us to WALK on this stuff?”
I spent the next half hour figuring out how to coax them out of the coop. After laying down straw (to disguise the snow) and throwing kale leaves around, I finally got those funny bird brains outside.
Tossing kale around the entry was what finally convinced them to step outside.
A shoveled out yard with yellow carpet rolled out for the royal flock.
(Royal pain in the butt, that is. )
I vowed I would NEVER go into winter without adequate floor space again. I love my chickens, but that amount of slaving for them, especially when it could have been avoided, is just not my cup of tea. In weather like this, this is more like it…
So, if you want to keep your birds happy and healthy, and your coop cleaner longer during the cold winter months, then make sure they have enough space on those cold and wet winter days. Otherwise you too might be out cleaning a coop in the dead of winter, shoveling out an entire yard, and laying down yellow carpet for your birds.
In the next few posts, I will be discussing some issues that are definitely NOT ‘by the book’, they have been learned through experience, trial and error…and yes, success.
To heat or not to heat…that is our next post.