chickens in snow

Winter Wonderland = Winter Woes

It’s January 31, 2019, which may be known in history as the tail end of the “Polar Vortex” that has wreaked havoc on North American weather, causing record low temperatures across the Midwest United States and Canada. Here in Southern Ontario, we are experiencing lows of -25 degrees Celsius (-13 F), with windchill making it feel another 10-15 degrees colder.

Winter, even without this incomparable frigidity, brings some unique challenges for homesteaders. If you’re doing this part time, like us, you’ll find yourself doing chores in pitch darkness before and after work. Things that were so easy in spring and summer take longer or become downright impossible due to snow, ice, wind and cold.

For example, one of Y’s brilliant (not sarcasm, it’s genuinely awesome) projects this year was to get water running from our workshop building to a spigot in the barn. This made it easy to fill animal buckets on site. When temperatures started to dip, we shut that water off so it wouldn’t freeze and crack the pipes, and went back to lugging buckets to and from the workshop. Well, as temperatures dipped even further, the pipes in the workshop became frozen too. This means we now lug water from the house, leaving frozen buckets to thaw in the mud room and switching out for fresh, hot water at least once a day (twice when it is below -10).

Chickens

People have asked, with these temperatures, how the animals have managed to stay warm. In the case of the chickens, they continued to go outside, wandering in the snow, perching in the trees, until about -10 C, always wondering back inside at night. Below -10, we have been keeping the coop door closed (though, honestly, they’d still like to leave, and I had to climb on top of the run to rescue one in -20 winds, but that’s not the norm).

Our chicken coop is an old playhouse/dog kennel that we converted for their use. It was solidly built, with a shingled roof and insulation piped into the walls. It sits a bit off the ground and has windows for ventilation. Though it gets below freezing, it is noticeably warmer inside than out.

Generally speaking, chickens are fine in winter when the following conditions are met:

  • They have deep, dry straw bedding. If you are using a deep bedding method, turn the straw weekly to keep it clean, and remove any large frozen chunks.
  • They are able to get out of the wind and rain. Dry chickens can regulate their own temperature.
  • Their coop has sufficient ventilation. Moisture is more likely to cause chicken death than cold, dry air because it leads to frostbite, respiratory issues, and hypothermia. Heat from their breath, water, and manure can cause condensation which becomes dangerous when it freezes.
  • They have liquid water during the daytime. If the water is freezing it must be replaced in the morning.
  • They have high quality feed. Chickens will need more food to help keep them warm, and you can supplement with scratch and cracked corn for added nutrition.
  • They are active. During the daytime, your chickens should be behaving normally – eating, drinking, strutting about – and may continue to lay eggs. If your chickens are lethargic, there is likely something wrong.

Chickens can be brought indoors if your coop is not sufficient in winter, but they are very smelly! We do not recommend heat lamps for any barn or outbuilding except in extreme cases, as they are the number one cause of farm fires and animal deaths.

Exciting news for us though! We had essentially given up on our chickens laying eggs until spring. They hadn’t laid any at all, and we assumed they wouldn’t in winter because of the shorter days and cold weather. Well, when doing the weekly straw turnover, I discovered almost a dozen eggs in the nest boxes! Most were frozen as we had failed to collect them, but we have been getting 2-4 eggs every day since. Collect twice a day to keep eggs from freezing. Frozen eggs can be fed back to the chickens once thawed, as it gives them vital nutrients back!

Eggs of many colours from our “Easter egger” chickens!

Goats

People have been adorably concerned about the goats in this weather, and I don’t blame them! If Y didn’t insist against it, I definitely would have brought them inside by now, and they’d be destroying every inch of the garage.

If goats are left to their own devices, they will usually do fine. They grow thick winter coats, eat more to keep their rumens active for warmth, and shelter themselves from the wind. With appropriate wind breaks, shelters, and access to food and hot water, goats can manage at temperatures most humans run from.

I go into some detail in our YouTube video, “How cold is too cold for goats?” You’ll see our healthy, chubby active goats enjoying some food and attention in -23 C weather.

The general rule is, if you can stand to hang out with them where they are, all bundled up in your own winter gear, then they are probably fine. I was out in the barn with the goats for 20 minutes yesterday, and because I was playing with them and heaving water around, I was actually sweating a bit! They were a bit slow to get up this morning and out of their cozy beds, but frankly, so was I.

With a little more care and attention, winter doesn’t have to mean woes for your animals. It definitely presents unique challenges, but, as usual, nature seems to know best! That said, we are definitely looking forward to some warmer weather starting tomorrow!