Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Quarters for the Girls

A few weeks back an ice storm and temperatures falling below freezing overnight finally gave us the nudge we needed to finish up the modifications to the shed to house the girls for the next few months. I don't like keeping them inside round the clock, but I also don't want them to get frostbite and suffer needlessly. Fortunately, we're experimenting with the deep litter method for their confinement, and they seem to like it so far.

The basic idea with deep litter is that if chickens are kept on bedding both sufficiently deep (12" is the rule of thumb), and sufficiently spacious (at least 4 square feet per chicken), and if the litter is "inoculated" with living soil organisms, the bedding will be able to absorb the manure the hens produce without ever turning foul, if you'll pardon the pun. Ideally such an arrangement would happen directly on healthy soil. Since I didn't have that option, I put a tarp down in my shed and added soil from my garden to a depth of 2". So far I've added about 9" of mulch on top of the soil. (I need to add more soon to handle the manure output and get the litter to a total of 12" of depth. I figure since my stocking density is more generous than 4 square feet per hen, I have some leeway.) Around the tarp is a 5' x 6' framework of garden caging to keep the girls confined. They each have 7.5 square feet of floor space, or exactly as much as they have in their mobile pen during the rest of the year.

They were initially quite intrigued by the looseness of the mulch, and they scratched happily at it for far longer than they do with either garden soil or lawn turf. When it's frozen, they can't scratch it, so I go in there with a pitchfork every once in a while and turn things over for them. Then they get to scratching again. I also throw some of their feed directly on the mulch from time to time so that they have additional motivation to scratch through it and keep the mulch aerated and loose.

Our shed has electricity but no heat. We rigged the fluorescent lights up on a timer, which comes on around 2 am to provide sufficient hours of light to keep the girls laying. It shuts off as the sun comes up, about the time I'm out there with their breakfast and fresh water. On really wet and miserably cold days I keep the shed doors closed and light them with a single CF bulb. If I left the shed doors open on rainy days, the rain would get in and rot the flooring. On better days I can latch the double doors in a fully open position so the girls get lots of fresh air and indirect lighting. The doors face north, so they don't get any direct sun. But when we've had snow there's lots of reflected light from all the white surfaces out there. I don't like depriving them of lots of light, but I don't like to expose them to the bitter cold either. Life is compromise.

Their water does freeze overnight if the temperatures are low enough. I've had to buy a second waterer can to have a spare one ready to go each morning. I swap them out, always keeping one in the sink in our unheated garage, which is warm enough to thaw the water overnight and have it ready for filling the next morning. Because the water needed to be shut off to the hoses and garage work sink, that means I need to make an extra trip each morning in order to clean and fill the waterer inside the house. I fill it with warm water, knowing that it'll take many hours to freeze, and that the hens will peck through thin films of ice to get at the remaining liquid. At this time of year, there's about a 50-50 chance that the water is frozen when I go out in the mornings. The girls don't seem any worse for the inconvenience, so I'm leaving it at that.

As you can see, I totally went the easy route with the nesting box, which is really a plastic bucket. I got this idea from a picture on The City Chicken. It looked great to me, since the other option was to build a wooden box with a lid sufficiently sloping that the girls wouldn't decide to perch up there and poop on it. This is a lesson learned early with chickens: give them as few surfaces as possible to poop on so there's less to clean. The bucket was simplicity itself and the girls took right to it. I cut a piece out of the bottom of the bucket, which is now the back of the nesting "box," so that I can reach in and remove the eggs without needing to get inside with the hens.

As winter deepened, the few green things that had held on through the fall chill were buried in snow. Very few fresh greens now to keep the girls happy. They really had enjoyed cuttings of the winter wheat cover crop my husband had sown along our south fence. Maybe that wheat will rebound in the spring, but right now it's not looking too good. Fortunately, I cut and dried quite a bit of comfrey during late summer, specifically for use as a winter time feed supplement. Wearing gloves to protect me from the prickles, I crush a handful or two of the dried comfrey into the sack of chicken feed every week. The girls get small bits of the comfrey with their grain feed. So far the color of the yolks still looks good. Not quite as deeply colored as when they're on grass, but still far better than store bought.

We're just about out of the acorns I collected. The girls sure did enjoy them. I was most pleased that they could eat a few acorns every other day without any noticeable change in the flavor of the eggs. Jamon Iberico, the cured Spanish ham from pigs fed entirely on acorns was not to my liking, so I was a little worried that feeding acorns to the hens might result in off flavors. But none that we can detect. Collecting a lot more acorns for wintertime feed supplementation is going to be a fall project for next year.

Keeping the girls in this way gives me more access to physical contact with them. I've started handling them every so often when I need to get into their enclosure. I'm surprised how easily they've accepted me picking them up for a few moments from time to time. Perhaps it helps that there's no urgency to me catching and holding them. I'm only trying to acclimate them to being handled, not trying to catch an escaped hen. I'm really not sure how I feel about this extra handling. It makes me a little fonder of them, and them a little more trusting of me. That may make things practically easier on me when it comes time to slaughter these girls, but emotionally harder. Though perhaps slaughter day will be less traumatic for girls used to being picked up and handled, so I suppose I could live with it being more emotionally difficult for me.

We're getting lots of eggs from our girls, and they're of a good size too. That's the benefit of having young layers, though lighting them doesn't hurt either. At three or four eggs per day from this tiny flock of four hens, we had enough eggs to give away a few dozen as Christmas gifts. Chickens are definitely the "gateway" livestock. So easy to care for, so rewarding, and yes, they'll lead you to stronger stuff. Post coming soon on the beekeeping equipment that was under the Christmas tree.


sharon parquette nimtz said...

Very interesting blog, and I loved this chicken post. I like the way you write, and how you get there. Something fascinating about it. I think I learned more about chickens and they way they should be empathied with in this post than in many long articles. You're on my list now. Connected with you from Fast Grow the Weeds, another of my favorite blogs.

Happy Hermit (happilyhiddenhermit@gmail.com) said...

I am thinking about chickens in the spring , I had not thought of acorns to sup , I although did think if broom corn and mangels to sup. As for acorn fed beef , I too did not enjoy it as people hyped it. With all that tanic acid an acorn only diet can NOT be healthy for a piggy , but I may be wrong. Just my opinion , thank you for the wonderful post.

Do the biddy's like the bucket beds ? I had never thought of bucket beds.

Tamar said...

Great idea to give the chickens acorns. We have both of them (chickens and acorns) in abundance.

I've read that one advantage of deep litter is that it begins to compost, a process which creates heat. We've got 6-8 inches of wood shavings and chicken poop on the floor of the coop, and we're hoping it's helping to keep the birds warm at night.

When I watch the sparrows and chickadees, and marvel at how good birds are at dealing with the cold, I worry less about the chickens.

Kate said...

Sharon, welcome and thanks for stopping by. Fast Grow the Weeds is a favorite of mine as well.

Happy Hermit, I have become an all around poultry pusher, so I strongly encourage you to start with chickens. They are remarkably easy to take care of. If you want to experiment with supplemental feeds, look for a breed with good eating habits. I've found some are a lot more picky than others. Our hens like the bucket nesting box just fine. Occasionally I find an egg on the mulch, but that could be because two needed to lay at the same time and there wasn't room. A deeper bucket might have solved that problem, but I used a shallow one.

Tamar, I'm wondering whether I should have gotten the girls on the mulch earlier, so as to incorporate some manure with the wood mulch. I don't think it's composting very much at the moment; too cold. But yes, you're right about birds being able to tolerate quite cold temperatures. Keeping them (their combs, really) out of the wind is my main concern.

Leigh said...

We have chickens on our 2010 goal list so I found this a very interesting post. The first thing that caught my eye was the next boxes! Very clever. Also thanks for the other info plus the link to The City Chicken.

Kate said...

Leigh, you're quite welcome. It always makes me happy to hear about someone starting with chickens. Good luck with your clucks!

Joel said...

You could try feeding them week-old (or so) fava bean plants. Dry favas are available from some bulk grocers, I paid maybe $2 per pound for mine: such big seeds mean faily large plants in a reasonable time.

The plants can handle 20 Fahrenheit without damage, so they don't necessarily need to be sprouted inside the house.

Kate said...

Joel, interesting suggestion. Thanks. I'll have to look into that.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it at least bother you a little bit that you have now gained the trust of your animals as a kindly owner, and that one day you will completely betray that trust by using it as an avenue to kill them? And you think it will be harder on you than on them?

Kate said...

Anon, nope it doesn't bother me at all that I go to lengths to make slaughter as low-stress as possible for my livestock. I never said it would be harder on me than on them. I said slaughter is harder on me when I've taken the time to handle and acclimate the animals, than it would be if I had no previous contact with them. That's something I'm willing to accept to spare them a measure of distress.

I'm a consumer of meat and animal products and I take full responsibility for that decision. This is how I handle some of the deaths that my diet requires. Mindfully, respectfully, and with full knowledge and gratitude. How do you handle the deaths concommitant with yours? Because even if you're a vegan, the cultivated foods that make up your diet entail animal deaths.