Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chilly Chickens

Before the hens were ever introduced to our urban backyard we have faced the question, "what are you going to do with them in the winter?". Up until a couple weeks ago my answer was consistently "I'm not to sure". The three options as I've seen it have been to send them to a friends farm, insulate the coop and see how they manage, or eat them. All three of the hens being under a year old means that they still have well over a year of consistent laying ahead of them. This makes the "eat them" option seem un-economical to me. Why kill something for 10 dollars worth of meat when there are still 200 dollars worth of eggs to be layed? Sending the hens to a friends rural farm somewhat de-legitimizes our entire urban farm experiment, so this option was abandoned. This left us with keeping the chickens in our backyard throughout the chilly winter season.

The first issue that needed rectifying was finding a friend to keep Samantha company. At this time Samantha had been sleeping in a smaller separate coop, as a result of her precarious position at the bottom of the pecking order. My original intention was to find another hen of similar colour to Samantha and then hopefully be able to house all four together. Prior to moving in a new hen I set up Hepzebah and Baylik in the smaller coop to try and reduce their ownership of the large coop. So for a week I allowed Samantha free range of the large coop and didn't allow the other two in.

One day later in the week while working on the hotbed, I absentmindedly left the large coop door open. I realized that all three hens were peacefully eating out of the large coops feeder. Surprised by this, I sneakily added the other feeder and closed the door. I had learned via a chicken forum that having multiple feeders reduces the chances of fights. But for the odd peck, the three ladies have been getting along marvelously. It has been incredibly satisfying to see all three of them eat, roost and peck together.

Common suggestions from people have been to get a heat lamp to put into the roost to keep the hens nice and toasty warm. From my research and discussions with other chicken owners this actually not the route to go. Providing heat prevents the hens from acclimatising to the cold, and so makes it more dangerous for them to venture out of the coop. All chickens require is a dry, draft free environment. Chickens provide tonnes of body heat, and through huddling together will stay warm on the coldest of days.

Maintaining a dry environment is taken care of by the structure of the coop. To ensure that there is no draft I stapled strong plastic along all the chicken wire. It is also important to make sure that there is still ventilation in the coop. Poor ventilation can result in condensation from the hens breath settling on the comb and waddle and causing frost bite. To avoid this I put in place some small steel vents.

Another important issue with having chickens in the winter is making sure that one doesn't have to continuously clean droppings out of the coop. To make sure that this isn't the case I put in place a deep litter system. This system uses a deep bed of a carbon based material, such as straw or wood shavings. This carbon based bed will absorb any nitrogen that is introduced, such as chicken poop, this mixture will compost and create a nutrient rich soil. As long as a proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen is maintained the coop wont smell and will even produce heat as the compost off gasses.

Our relationship with the chickens is a symbiotic one, I recently imposed a system that will get them to do some work for me. I put a thick layer of mulch of leaves collected from around the neighborhood over the garden bed. I have been scattering feed over the mulch to to encourage the chickens to scratch through the mulch. As they do this they are aerating the mulch and dropping their nitrogen rich manure into the garden bed. This will encourage the mulch to break down and provide a rich garden bed for next years vegetables to grow.

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