Preparing the Coop for Winter
Summer is always a blur of activity, and this time of year the activity is focused on the coming months which won't be as hospitable and warm. While we are making our home comfortable for the winer, it is also important to consider what the fowl need to stay healthy through the coming season.
Most farmyard poultry is surprisingly resilient in the cold, as long as they have adequate shelter. Chickens, geese, and ducks can survive sub-zero temperatures, they just need to have safety from wind and wet. Dry cold, while not pleasant, isn't as dangerous as damp, moist cold which can get into bird's respiratory systems or cause frostbite, and moist cold air in a barn will also start to work away at its framework. That's why a lot of older barns have purposeful air vents, such as cupolas, to let the building breathe even in winter.
All of our birds have stalls within the barn to come into at night, even in summer. It makes me feel comfortable that they're safe from predators, the threat of which increases in the lean months of winter. Shelters should be easy to close up at night, and while ventilation is important no opening should be low enough or large enough for a fox or other predator to crawl through.
When provided with shelter, chickens don't bother going outside much in winter. I open their door every day and clear an area for them to stretch their legs, but unless it is a warm and sunny day they tend to say in their coop. It's important that the coop is large enough for the number of hens you keep (four square feet per bird is a general rule) and that you clean it regularly when they are spending so much time inside. You can use the "deep litter" method to keep your coop clean in winter, which involves putting fresh bedding over the manure instead of doing a full clean out. In winter, when the chicken's manure freezes and does not smell, and added bedding will help keep them warm, the deep litter method is often the easiest way to clean your coop.
Geese are another matter. They will trundle outside in the fiercest weather, and I've heard much the same about ducks winter behavior. If it is particularly cold or stormy we may keep the waterfowl inside for their own good, otherwise they will just sit in the yard with their heads under their wings. At night, just like in the chicken coop, a dry stall with plenty of bedding will keep them warm.
Water is the biggest winter-time challenge. Chickens need fresh drinking water, ducks and geese need deep, fresh drinking water and like to have troughs to bathe in. We will set up a couple of heated dog water bowls to make sure everyone has drinking water at all times, and I use larger rubber feed troughs out in the field for the waterbirds to bathe in. Rubber will withstand freezing water well, and it's easy to get the ice out of the troughs.
It is also important to remember that the birds won't have access to all the fresh greens and grubs they forage during summer. Our grain consumption will go up, and I try to provide plenty of protein-filled mealworms for the hens, and give the geese fresh lettuce and other greens from the grocery store.
I do not give my birds supplemental lighting or heat, although many farmers do. Additional lighting and heat are said to help egg production in the winter, but also bring a risk of fire. For me, I am not worried about keeping up the egg numbers and am happy to let the hens have a little break during the off season.
Some chickens and geese need special winter care. A goose like the Sebastopol with its loose, curly feathers isn't able to snuggle into its down in the cold the way a straight-feathered bird can. For them it is especially important to make sure that their pasture space has a wind break, and they are warm and dry at night. Chickens with larger combs, especially roosters, may suffer frostbite. Frostbite can be treated with ointments, and keeping your birds inside and well bedded will help prevent it.
So, for the next few weeks we'll be tweaking our stalls to make sure there isn't too much airflow or gaps for wind to come through, and checking that all of our heated waterers are still working. It is time to stock up on bedding and feed, and start dusting off the snow shovels: winter will be here before we know it!