Archive for the ‘Advice’ Category

The Recurring Winter and Chickens Question

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Did you know that winter happens every year? There’s a fun science fact for you. I’ll even throw in a bonus fact. Every year when winter comes, people start asking me what I do with my chickens in the wintertime. It’s as dependable as the seasons themselves, but requires less snow shoveling to deal with. (Some of you may accuse me of shoveling other things, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time). I’m not annoyed by this, as clearly I enjoy talking about chickens, and I’m happy to share my tricks with people who show an interest.

chicken trick

Not actual chicken trick. Do not attempt without cape.

So then, what are these tricks I speak of? Well, there really aren’t any to speak of. For the most part, keeping chickens in the winter isn’t a whole lot different than keeping them the rest of the year. You feed them, make sure they have water and shelter, and try to keep varmints from eating them. A key thing is to have made sure that the chickens you got were a good match for the climate you live in. There are breeds that can deal with the cold, and breeds that can’t. Likewise, there are ones that can deal with heat, and ones that can’t. So, if anything, if you’ve done your research before you got your chickens, you’re most of the way there.

california chicken

I wish they all could be California birds (provided I lived in California).

Where it gets a little confusing is the need in the winter to keep the birds out of drafts, but to make sure the coop has adequate ventilation. Moisture in the coop is bad at any time of year. It can cause respiratory issues, but when it gets below freezing, that moisture in the air is what’s going to freeze to the exposed parts of the chicken, like their combs. When I built my coop, I read a helpful bit of advice. It said “consider how much ventilation you think your coop needs, and then double that.” What I’ve done is to put vents in each upper corner of two sides of the coop, using heating vent covers to try to minimize drafts. I then made sure the roost sat directly between these, so no one would be right in front of the air flow. I’m sure there are windy nights where a breeze can still get in there, but if they’re not directly in it, they should be good. Also, given my skills at building things, there are spots where parts of the coop come together that are less than airtight. I originally was going to seal them, until I learned about the ventilation rule, and suddenly, my flaws as a craftsman became strengths. These gaps are near the ceiling, so again, nothing will be hitting them directly, but air can move in and out. People sometimes ask if on cold mornings I see steam coming out of the coop. If I did, I would panic. That would be a sign that there is way too much moisture in there. I haven’t ever seen this in my coop, so I think I’ve done ventilation right.

steamed chickens

No steamed chickens.

A different moisture issue is what to do about their water when it’s below freezing. You can get all sorts of electric water warming devices, but there’s no electricity near my coop, and running an extension cord from the house out to there is generally considered a bad idea. I have seen people who’ve made battery powered heaters using cookie tins and car headlamps, but I’m not sure I’m quite that skilled. I can eat the cookies in the tin, but my electronics abilities might make this more frustrating than useful. I’ve ended up doing two things. One is to put apple cider vinegar in the water. I do this anyway, since it’s good for them, but it also lowers the freezing point of the water a little bit. Then I bought a device that’s meant to keep pet beds warm, but is easily adapted to chickens by just putting it under the water. It looks like a fat frisbee, and it’s as wide as the base of my small waterer. Each morning I microwave it, and then I supposedly get up to 8 hours of warmth. I’m sure it’s somewhat less when you place it out in the elements, but it keeps the water unfrozen for long enough. If it’s extremely cold out, chances are they won’t even leave the coop for water anyway. Last year during the polar vortices they didn’t, and still lived to tell the tale. If they do end up getting thirsty because the water froze, they’ve learned to come right out and drink up first thing in the morning before it happens again.


disk o' heat

Not to be confused with Disco Heat, which is a surprisingly good record.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before in various posts, I just make sure they’re getting enough protein when it’s cold. Keeping warm takes energy, so they can load up on scratch or black oil sunflower seeds, and burn it off just by staying warm. It’s a pretty good workout routine.

chicken workout

Molting To The Oldies

You have to remember that these are animals that are basically wearing down coats. They are probably much warmer than I am when I go out in my pajamas every morning to let them out. That’s no excuse to slack, but keeping a few key points in mind, winter can be pretty manageable for chickens. For me, not so much. I’m still not over last year.


(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: That Moaning Saxophone Rag by Six Brown Brothers)

My advice to chicken beginners

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I’m no expert, but since I tend to be vocal about how much I like keeping chickens, people sometimes ask me questions. A friend of mine’s neighbor is interested in getting chickens, and wanted to know how much it cost, how much space they might need, and how much of a time commitment it was. This was my response. He was so happy with it he suggested I post it somewhere, so here it is. You may disagree with me, as this is the internet, that’s what people do. Have fun with that. Anyway, here’s my first advice column.

dear chickie

Dear Chickie,

A few days ago, our neighbors proposed the idea of raising chickens in our yard. As our town allows such a thing, we want to figure out what it takes to do this, so I’m asking you, our resident poultry farming expert, for any advice you may have. We want to find out how much space we need for say 3-4 hens (we don’t want to keep them constantly “cooped” up), how much effort is required to feed/clean/etc., and a rough ballpark of cost.

 Your friend,

Bawking in Belmont


Dear Bawking in Belmont,

On days I don’t let them out, I spend maybe 10-15 minutes in the morning with the chickens, and then maybe another 5-10 in the evening. Mornings I open the coop door to let them out into the enclosed run attached to the coop, fill their food and water if they need it, and then throw fresh pine shavings on the night’s poops. (On Saturday I scoop all that out, which takes another 10 minutes. Some coops have a removable board under the roosts, so you can scrape that off instead of adding more bedding. There are multiple ways to do it). At night I collect the eggs and then close up the door to the coop. I really only need to do that in the winter to keep them out of a draft. My coop and run are fairly secure. Chickens generally require less time than a dog, maybe about the same as a cat. When I let them out I prefer to be out there with them to keep an eye on them, but it’s usually when I’d be out in the yard anyway. Yardwork, AMIRITE?
The main cost is really the initial cost of the coop. If 3-4 is the amount you’re going for, you’re in luck, because the cut off between “kind of expensive” and “wicked expensive” coops is at 5 chickens. Under 5 you have cheaper options, over 5, it gets pricey, due to the size coop you need. I started with 6, not realizing this, which is why I built my own coop, which was a bit of an ordeal. You could get something like this for less than mine cost to build. (The hardware cloth you need to keep out predators is expensive. Chicken wire keeps chickens in, but it is really easy for varmints to chew through, so you need hardware cloth.) That website has a lot of options. I would suggest something with a built in run so they can get outside of the coop whether you’re around or not. The rest of the costs aren’t so bad. Food is like $15 for 50 pounds, and that lasts me over a month. Bedding is $7 a bale, and that also lasts over a month. You might need other things here and there, but they aren’t too bad. Scratch lasts a long time because you don’t give them that much. Oyster shells to give them calcium are expensive up front (I think like $25 for a big bag) but they last a really long time because you only give them a little bit. Then a feeder and a waterer are maybe $10-20 depending on what you get. I would recommend a plastic waterer so you can put unfiltered apple cider vinegar in the water to ward off vent gleet, among other things. It’s good for them, but the metal waterers are bad to mix with vinegar. You’ll need a different feeder & waterer for chicks (smaller ones) and a heat lamp, but that all comes out to under $25, if I remember right.
How much space do you have? My friend in Brooklyn has 3 chickens in a coop like the one in the link above, and they never leave it and are perfectly happy. A yard for them to run around in is good, but mine often stay in the same general area that’s not very large, so they don’t need a ton of room, depending on the chickens. I recommend not letting them out unsupervised for too long because of predators. Hawks especially, but also dogs. Dogs kill more chickens than anything else, because no one suspects them. If you have a fenced yard, that’s good, though it doesn’t save you from hawks, but it limits roaming.
Does this help? I also recommend this site.
They’re who I go to when I have questions. They have forums that are helpful, but the learning center spells a lot out for you. You can also research breeds there, which is helpful, since it gets both cold and hot in MA, so you want hardy ones.
Bawk and roll,
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