Keeping chickens entertained and healthy over the winter is no easy task. We very much look forward to spring when all the plants and bugs are thriving again!
For now though, there are a few things that we do to keep our chickens happy and healthy, even after the bitter cold has set in.
When the weather starts cooling down and the ground cover begins to slow its growth, we set up the chicken coop and poultry netting in one spot (we rotate during the growing season). But instead of letting the birds just peck away all of the green and leaving them to hang out on bare ground, we cover the area in whatever organic debris we have on hand (usually pine needles). This is one of the most important winter management techniques that we use.
This “deep litter” is great for many reasons:
- The chickens are little compost creating machines. The nitrogen in their poo feeds the microorganisms that are naturally present and breaks down all the carbon, creating an awesome spot for the spring garden.
- The deep litter keeps the ground warmer, so some plants and bugs stay alive which allows the chickens to dig around for fresh greens and grubs for longer (even late in past winters, we have found sprouting greens at the bottom of the litter).
- Chickens LOVE to scratch around. When large piles of whatever (pine needles, grass clippings, leaves, etc.) are tossed into the chicken yard, they rush over and investigate the heap. It is fun to watch, and fun for them!
- It’s less work for us. We simply toss in fresh organic matter and don’t need to worry about shoveling out chicken poo. And, the next season, we can simply rake off any leftover debris into a border and plant.
We also try to provide our birds with some extra entertainment. It’s already cold, harsh, and relatively lifeless in the winter; we don’t want to see our birds bored too. Happy chickens means less flying over the poultry netting and less picking on one another, and maybe even more eggs for us. And, in case you couldn’t guess, the best thing for entertaining chickens is… food!
All vegetable, fruit, and raw meat scraps go to them in the afternoons, which they thoroughly enjoy (we know because they all come running to find out what we’ve brought them). Mangels or fodder beets provide some colorful entertainment and nutrition, and the birds love the large leaves (before they succumb to heavy frost), especially if we hang the veggies at pecking height.
Water’s important too, of course, which can be a bit tricky to manage in freezing temperatures. We got a heated five gallon water bucket, and it is awesome! The water does not have to be taken in each night and toted back out each morning to keep it from freezing (another common technique). And we never have to worry about the water freezing during really cold days. A piece of cinder block in the bottom of the bucket ensures that chickens can get out in case someone takes a spill.
So far, these few things have seemed to keep our chickens happy, healthy, and comfortable during cold winter weather.
Please share any other tips you have. Watching the birds have fun is just as much fun for us as it seems to be for them!
- Harvey Ussery – www.themodernhomestead.us