Saturday, February 21, 2015

Well it Worked, Anyway.

Those of you that regularly follow the blog know that this is our first year with chickens, and thus our first experience in wintering over our flock.  The fact that I grew up with chickens on the family farm didn't really provide much in the way of "how to" that applies now.  On the farm, the chicken's free range included a large barn full of all the hay required to get thirty some head of polled Hereford beef cattle through the winter.  There was lots of room for a chicken to move around, a gazillion places to nest, a little heat generated by the cattle, and plenty of cattle manure to pick through as well as cattle feed grain to mooch along their own chicken feed.  Not bad winter arrangements for a chicken.

For the last month or so, we've had 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground most of the time.  It's drifted higher in some places and there's less than that in others. In addition, we've had night time temperatures as low as -10F with most nights being right around the 0F mark, warming up to from 5F to 15F during the day. 
Taken a few days ago.  Looks the same today.  At least in NE Indiana that clear blue sky usually means a cooooold night!
On our homestead, our 14 chickens have a roughly 8' x 8' coop.  Their 25' x 25' run has about 6" of snow in it, just like the rest of the homestead, and they don't like it. The birds have largely stayed in the coop and done pretty well, but it seems sub-optimal. We open the pop hole in the morning and few brave hens wander the veranda, but don't venture into the snow.  The regular trips to the coop to feed, water, gather eggs, and check on the birds tamp down the snow in front of the coop, and the birds do venture out there some.

That area the girls are inspecting is essentially ice.  Not too much of an issue if you have clawed toes.

The astute among you, which I assume to be pretty much everyone, will know that when all that snow get tamped down it does not remain as simple "tamped down snow".  No, no, no - It becomes ice.  This means we now have our very own gently sloping ice shelf about 8 foot wide and 6 feet out from the coop, reaching around to the front of the nest boxes.  This is bad news, especially for De who handles most of the chicken chores during the week.  It was time for me to do something.

My first 'something' involved taking the brute force approach with the pick-axe.  It quickly became clear I'm not that much of a brute and that my goal of chipping my way down to the ground was not going to be realized.  The best I could do before exhausting myself was to generate some divots in the ice and rough up the surface at bit.  I didn't really need the workout (I probably shouldn't have been doing it in the first place) so we'll call that attempt an abject failure. Lessons learned: 1) Mark at 54 is a far, far cry from the lean, mean brute-force machine he was as a 21 year old USMC Sergeant. (I can still hear the words of Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Schultz from Boot Camp "You privates may not be smart, but you're gonna be strong!")   2) In light of lesson #1, I need to be using my noggin far more than my back in solving this kind of problem. 

After pondering other options like ice melt (gotta be bad for the birds), kitty litter (ditto, in spades), sand (didn't have any), I landed on something I did have - hay.  I broke out part of a bale of hay and scattered it several inches deep around all the icy spots and, just for good measure, in front of the chicken veranda in the run.

Hey! (or Hay!) That works pretty well!
Oddly enough, this worked out far better than I expected.  It covered the slippery shelf in way that makes it safe and easy to get to the coop and nest boxes: Mission accomplished there.  As a huge added bonus, the chickens loved it.  As soon as I got it down they were all out scratching and finding lots of things to eat out of the hay.  With the addition of a few cups of black oil sunflower seed thrown in so they have something else to find as they scratch we had some very happy chickens.

I have to ask myself,  "Is that really the best use a partial bale of hay?"  I dunno.  Maybe not, but I didn't have better use for it.  A more excellent solution may come to me some time in the future, but this is one I'm going to remember.  Safe and happy wife, happy chickens, happy Mark.  Best use or not, I'm good with it.

Col. 1: 9-12,



  1. As all wise men know--HAPPY WIFE is THEEEE most important thing.
    Good job!
    I think 10 bales of hay is worth a happy wife.!

  2. We have a slightly sloping path down to the chicken house. (No, not the best terrain to have to navigate in the winter.) Our chickens don't like snow and refuse to venture out on it. Of course, they do have their (sun) heated solarium(!) so they spend their days in there for the most part. But we have put straw on the path going to the chicken house so we don't slip.

    Your idea of sprinkling sunflower seeds in the area covered in hay around your chicken house is a good one. Daily we toss scratch feed (whole grains) onto the floor of the solarium (which is covered with straw, more added now and then) and the chickens search for the scratch while at the same time keeping the material loose. I think this is called the deep bedding method sometimes. When the solarium gets cleaned out in the spring, it's remarkable the fine compost the chickens have made.

  3. Great post, Mark, and wonderful solution. Now, once you get your goats, you can simply use the hay that the goats waste. It will have the added bonus of goat berries, which chickens love to peck through. There is never truly waste on the homestead!

  4. Sue - You know it! The thought of her taking a tumble in the morning when there's no one around but the dog and the chickens is not appealing to either of us, so getting it safe make everyone happy.

    Mama Pea - I may have to look into the sun heated solarium idea for next winter. It sounds like a great way to get the birds a little sun and a way to spread out a bit even when the weather is cold and snowy. I'm going to be interested in seeing what we end up with when we clean our coop this spring. We've used a sort of deep bedding method, but our primary bedding is wood chips. Not sure what we'll end up with up.

    Leigh - Thanks! "Even a blind hog...", as the saying goes. When I went down to check on everyone early this afternoon they were still enjoying being out in the hay and just acting like chickens. One of them had snuggled in under the step all nestled in hay with just her head poking out. I'll get that pic up in a bit.

  5. I am so glad we didn't attempt chickens this fall! I would have had the same problem as you. But I will remember the hay for future references! Hope this white stuff melts soon! I am sure the chickens do to!

    1. We were a little hesitant going into winter too, wondering how the birds would do. It turns out they did fine even in the very cold weather. We learned they go through a lot of feed on cold days - We expected that. We also learned they drank a LOT of water, which we didn't expect.

      There's nothing like having to get your birds through the winter to get you motivated to do what it takes to get your birds through the winter.