It gets really cold up here in zone 5. Valentine’s Day 2020 had a Low of -9 Fahrenheit and a High of 10 Fahrenheit. Children waited for the school bus inside their homes and ran out only when the bus approached. Condensation from your own breath froze on your face. Employees would turn on their cars every few hours to keep the batteries alive. Our Northern friends laugh at how soft we are, but it was a rough day. That was before we had animals.
I’ve read a lot of advice for chicken keeping (best chicken book yet by the way), but wasn’t able to complete my vision for an all-season coop at the farm because of my broken leg. I asked my Homestead Hero for advice, and she recommended surrounding the coop with bales of hay. I got that done two days after Christmas as the forecast was calling for more nights in the teens. A few days later on New Years the ice storm hit. You can see here it was a nice thick coating of ice.
Surprising advice about chickens is that it is more important that they have ventilation than heat. They must have proper ventilation or they develop respiratory problems in warm weather. If you try to make them warm in the winter but there isn’t ventilation at the top of the coop you greatly increase their chances of getting frost-bite on their comb. That is why I made certain that this hay bale remained under the three vent holes in the front of the coop.
This all hit in January, and I’ll need even more for February when we tend to get negative temperatures. Since the coop is just in the back yard I’ve been able to change out the water twice a day to make sure it doesn’t freeze solid, but I’ve been pleased to find that adding hay bales has kept the water from freezing solid unless the temp gets below 17F.
The delicate netting held up well to the ice and was almost jewel-like. The chickens seemed to not be very bothered by the ice…although they rarely walked on it. They mostly developed their own version of ‘fly-skating’ where they flapped their wings to propel them forward to some rock, pile of leaves or crumple of frozen netting where they could stand.
As I was making plans to move the chickens from the summer shelter back to the subdivision I had to prepare for the first freezing nights. A smart solution used a free piece of plastic I got from the side of the road. The thickness was about that of the flimsy sneeze guards you saw everywhere in 2020. I was able to cut it with heavy kitchen scissors to a perfect fit and attach it with only a few screws to the inside of the ‘wire atrium’.
The higher quality plastic creates a nice window into the coop so the hens can still be watched from the house. This not only blocks winter winds, but it also protected the feed and deep litter from fall rains. I plan to leave it up permanently because the chickens will be back at the farm when the weather gets so hot that the plastic would be a problem. There was only the one sheet, so 2-liter bottles and salad lids became the plastic used on the wall away from the house. It kept the entrance to the roosting area dry, but I should have put a solid sheet across the bottom first. That will have to be a priority going into the bitter part of winter. The draft can be hard on the chickens and the windbreak makes a huge difference in how quickly ice forms in the waterer.
The first load of hay was used to try to insulate the walls from the INSIDE. I opened the bail and put “chips” as my dad called them all around the inside of the coop. It would have worked great, but chickens won’t leave anything alone. In 24 hours it was piled across the floor of the coop.
The extra hay that wasn’t placed inside was put on the roof or rested on it’s small end. Three reasons for this ‘half measure’: #1- Chickens need time to acclimate to the season changes. Imagine for yourself how cold 50 degrees feels in the fall and how warm it seems in the early spring. Do what you can within reason to allow the hens to adjust to cold weather especially in the early fall when the cold snaps are just annoying, not deadly. Adding heat lamps or heat sources too early can cause them to delay their ‘winter preps’.
#2- Electricity is fickle! As wonderful as heat lamps or warming platforms can be, the simple fact is that relying on them puts you at the mercy of ice-covered branches and power lines. A power outage could kill your whole flock while you are too snowed-in to get back-up heat sources.
#3- Mice love hiding in hay. Mice are the enemy. Putting this hay down creates the perfect home for mice living in our forest. Waiting until the last minute is one way to discourage the mice. If we get a warm break of 40 degree weather I will move the hay bales to the other side of the chicken yard to make them find a new home. The reason the plastic sheeting is a better windbreak in the fall and spring is because it doesn’t provide housing for mice and sheds moisture faster while still doing the job.
The steep hill makes adding more bales to the back of the coop very hard. The bale will just roll off into the electric fence, or a post will have to be driven through the bales to hold them in place.
In the photo above note that the roof area over the roosts shows snow melt while the roof in the foreground still has a pristine blanket of snow. This photo shows that there is enough warmth in the roosting area to melt snow…a good sign that the hay, deep litter and hens body heat is keeping them warm.
The snow fall was lovely, but very heavy. It stuck to the ice and put a strain on the fence and the hawk netting. Luckily there are a few tears in the netting that allowed me to put my arm in and shake the netting to release some of the snow weight.
The greenhouse frame had begun to bend under the weight downhill from the snow. Shaking just some of the snow off seemed to be sufficient to take that stress off the frame.
Throwing some hay under the snack holder gave the hens a place to stand without sliding back down the hill. Although it is cold outside, they seem warm enough to run around and have fun playing chicken football. If you are expecting bitter cold, visit my article for more extreme preparation titled: How Cold Is Too Cold For Chickens With No Electricity? 12 Tips.
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