More and more of our friends and neighbors are raising chickens. What a great way to get your own fresh, pastured eggs!
We’ve gone from never even considering raising our own backyard chickens to believing that even we might be able to do it. I get a frisson of excitement every time I picture saying hello to our own girls each morning, thanking them for their beautiful eggs.
Then I remember winter.
We live in New England, where winters get pretty cold, snowy, and icy. How can chickens survive such conditions? What if the “pasture” is covered in snow?
I decided to ask our friends, Mimi Kaplan and Tom Benjamin, how they manage. I’ll paraphrase their answers:
How much does egg production drop in the winter?
Chickens lay fewer eggs in the winter, since egg production is cold- and light-dependent. Tom and Mimi gather fewer than one egg per day from their four chickens in the winter. In warmer months, they can expect each chicken to lay an egg a day. They’re still getting eggs, just not as many as in the warmer months. The day I visited, they collected three eggs.
Are there particular challenges to keeping chickens in the winter?
Yes. Chickens require a good deal of water, which freezes in this neck of the woods! One trick is to rotate water containers, filling them with warm water each time. Chickens don’t drink much at night, so getting new water to them first thing in the morning works fine. The warm water helps to heat their space, too.
If you go out of town for a day or two, someone will definitely need to look in on your chickens to give them water.
Also, while some breeds of chicken are pretty hardy, the cold can affect them. You want to be sure they aren’t exposed to drafts in the in chicken coop. Tom and Mimi covered drafty spots with bedding.
What do you do when it’s very cold outside?
When the temperature drops below five degrees Fahrenheit, Tom and Mimi bring their chickens into their basement at night. They aren’t sure the chickens can’t take the cold; they just don’t want to risk it. The chickens get up when it’s light outside and it’s time to put them back in their own house.
It helps to use hay or straw for insulation in the chicken coop. You can make a nice thick bottom cushion and then place new layers of hay over the soiled stuff about once a week. The poop gives off heat as it decays, helping to warm the house. In the spring, the hay and decomposed poop make a fantastic compost for their garden — full of nitrogen.
It seems that summer heat is actually to be feared more than winter cold. Good ventilation is a must for summer.
What advice would you give someone starting out with backyard chickens?
Chickens need to be protected from predators at all times. One way to help secure their coop is to make sure your chicken wire has small holes. Also, try to bury fencing at least six inches because there are digging predators like skunks, raccoons, and possums.
It’s also a good idea to research chicken breeds: Some are better layers and some are more cold-tolerant. Tom and Mimi’s Golden Comets (a sex-linked cross breed) are both.
You might also want to consider building a chicken coop that’s big enough to stand inside. Tom says they are easier to maintain.
What do the chickens do when the ground is frozen or covered in snow?
Chickens still like to scratch around outside in the winter, even when there is no “pasture.” They might choose a spot with less snow to stand on, but they’re hearty gals! They won’t be able to find the bugs and plants they do in the warmer months, so you can supplement their feed with kitchen scraps for extra nutrients.
Another friend, Sienna Wildfield, says:
Our chickens don’t like to stand in the snow either. Because our coop is located near our paved driveway, the girls spend a lot of time on the driveway and front porch. They also skirt around the edge of the house where there isn’t any snow.
Sometimes Sienna shovels a path to her compost pile so the chickens can scratch there. She says the edge of the house is “a good place for them to get their dirt baths.” However, her chickens tend to peck at the insulation around the edge of the house and poop on her driveway and front porch!
Starting this spring I will be putting up a simple fencing to try to keep them and their poop more contained and out of the garden.
Despite the challenges of keeping your own chickens in the winter, the eggs are a wonderful reason to do it. Eggs from backyard chickens are a nutritionally dense food. Mother Earth News compared the nutritional value of pastured eggs with commercially raised factory farm (“supermarket”) eggs. They found that eggs from pastured chickens can have:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene and
- 4-6 times more vitamin D
(Now, I’m not opposed to saturated fat or cholesterol, but I would prefer to eat them in my eggs as they were intended by nature — from chickens roaming outdoors in the sunshine, eating what they are supposed to eat.)
For those of us who don’t have our own chickens, farmers’ markets are an excellent source of pastured eggs.
Many thanks to Tom, Mimi and Sienna for their help with my winter chicken questions.
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Eggciting News! by Tabitha Alterman. Mother Earth News, 10/15/08.