Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ann Larkin Hansen: Chickens in winter

Chickens hate snow, and they aren’t too fond of cold, either, probably because their ancestors come from the Asian jungle. My current flock of laying hens is Rhode Island Reds, brown egg layers that are excellent foragers for bugs and have lots of personality. But there are no bugs around in winter, and right now the snow is way too deep for them to even consider going outside.

We have a spacious new coop we built into one corner of the old dairy barn when the original freestanding coop got too decrepit to make it worth repairing any more. But even with plenty of room, I think any coop is going to seem small if you have to stay in it for an entire season. So I open it up every morning for the hens to run around the barn.

Chickens make a lot of mess in proportion to their size — droppings and scratchings and dust, dust, dust. So the barn is going to need a complete cleaning first thing this spring, but at least the hens are getting some exercise despite the snow and not moping in the coop all day. One is laying her eggs in a nest she made in the hay bales I use to feed the donkeys.

We had jackhammered out the old milking stanchions years ago to open up the barn space, but like quite a few other low-priority projects on the farm, this one has yet to be completed: We still haven’t cemented over the trench where the stanchions were. The chickens love this! Even though everything is frozen hard outside, they still have a place to scratch and dust in the sand in the trench. A chicken with a place to dust and scratch is a happy chicken, even in winter!

Ann Larkin Hansen runs her own farm and is the author of The Organic Farming Manual; Beef Cattle: Keeping a Small-Scale Herd for Pleasure and Profit; and Popular Pet Care, a six-book children’s series. She is a past president of the Wisconsin Women’s Sustainable Farming Network and writes and farms in Wisconsin.

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