The winter in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan is long, cold and tiring. It’s rough on everybody, sure. But it’s even tougher on the critters that don’t have a leather recliner to snuggle into by the wood-fired stove. The winter of 2014 took the heaviest toll on the chickens of Heavy Hardwood Corner. They were plagued with sickness, causing six of them to pay the ultimate sacrifice over the course of the cold months. Egg production stopped. The chickens were no longer pulling their weight. They were barely hanging on, just trying to survive until the spring sun warmed up the chicken park again.
During the spring and summer of 2014, we vowed to make changes. We didn’t want the flock to have to fight through the cold months like they did during one of the harshest winters on record. We raised a batch of brand new laying hens throughout the summer months, and we headed into the winter of 2014-2015 with 10 hens, optimistic that they’d stay healthy and productive.
They did. It’s now March, and we still have 10 hens. Throughout February, the coldest month of the year, they pumped out seven to 10 eggs daily. Even when the temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, the chickens produced. Even when the winds whipped through the woods at a blistering 30 mph, the chickens clucked in the coop with a smile across their beaks.
Here’s how we did it.
We kept the coop dry. Making sure that moisture wasn’t bouncing about the hen house played a huge role in this winter’s survival rate. Last winter, we constantly struggled with a wet coop. This year, we had to make a point to clean it out more regularly. That meant removing soiled straw and scraping the floor. It meant opening it up to completely air out after cleanups. It meant more trips to town to keep fresh, dry straw on hand. In turn, it meant that the birds stayed healthy.
We kept them safe from predators. A few of the six chickens we lost last year were preyed upon, both from the sky and the ground. In the summer of 2014, we built a new chicken park. We strung netting over the entire area to prevent airborne predators from snacking on our birds. We brought a second family dog to the woods to help run off coyotes, coons, weasels and other hungry critters. We incorporated part of our electric garden fence to deter night prowlers that the netting and mutts may have missed. In turn, we’re stuffed full of omelets and our neighbors are too.
We were able to keep them healthy. Keeping the coop dry was a huge part of this. Last winter, every hen in the flock fell victim to vent gleet. This is a nasty condition where the chicken’s vent becomes puffy, red, irritated and very sore. It keeps them from laying eggs and if left unchecked, the infection can take over their bodies, eventually killing the chicken. After washing countless chicken butts and nursing the hens we had left back to health last year, we made sure that the bum butt syndrome couldn’t make its way back into the hen house this winter. This involved actively checking on the hens to makes sure they remained in good health with clean, fluffy butt feathers. The extra inspections proved to be worth it.
We fed them layer pellets. Instead of picking up the regular old scratch grain mix from the farm town elevator, we went with their layer pellet feed. The layer pellets offered the chickens the nutrients they needed to keep laying eggs. During the warm months, they get all their good fixin’s from the bugs, grubs and greens they dig up during their free-range time. But during the winter, the birds are no match for the 2 to 3 feet of snow that sits on top of the frozen ground. We kept them fed well this winter, so they returned the favor with fresh eggs daily.
We made sure they always had fresh water. This gets difficult at times during the coldest months of the year. When the temps dive into negative double digits, the water in the poultry drinker can start freezing before you make it back to the front porch. When the winter storms roll through, the last thing you want to do is water the hens for the third time in a very cold, dark day. But, we did. Once in the morning, once in the evening. The chickens gulped it up every time. It was easy to tell when the birds got thirsty, because they would hop out of the coop in the morning and start eating snow. We kept their thirst quenched, and because we did, they kept our egg cartons full.
It’s only the beginning of March. I know we’re not in the clear yet. In fact, it was minus 23 degrees just three days ago when I chored the chickens in the morning. We have weeks until the April rains wash away the last of the snow and ice, bringing the chickens back out on the search for free-ranging forage once again. But we’ll stay the course, knowing what we’ve done this winter works.
If all goes well, the hens will stay the course too, living happily and healthily in the cold, providing us with a brand new batch of fresh eggs every day.