Saturday, November 2, 2013

Getting the Flock Ready for Winter


Getting the Flock Ready
for Winter

This article was first published under the title “Preparing the Flock for Winter” in the October/November 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine

Here in the mid-Atlantic, Zone 7a, winter means that water routinely freezes, plants are dormant, and days are considerably shorter—and nights commensurately longer—than in summer. Winter storms bring driving snow or high winds combined with brutally cold temperatures. Such conditions pose challenges to keeping the flock happy, healthy, and naturally fed. Fortunately, domestic fowl are pretty tough critters and can sail through winter with a little help from us. Let me share with you what I do to prepare the flock for a season that can be lean, mean, and cold.

I like to allow my birds outside as much as I can, even in winter. However, they inevitably spend more time inside during winter, if only because the nights are so much longer, though drifted snow as well may keep them inside full-time for a week or two. Housing choices must ensure that, despite the greatest confinement they experience all year, they remain healthy, comfortable, and free from stress.

Deep Litter
Since chickens do much of their pooping at night, long nights mean a heavier deposition of droppings. The best way to deal with manure in the coop is deep high-carbon litter over an earth floor. Not only is a deep litter house more wholesome for the birds, it is more pleasant for me—and best of all, the busily scratching chickens do most of the work of manure management.

When preparing for winter, I stockpile great mounds of oak leaves, my favorite litter material because I get them free from a neighbor; they are tough and high in carbon, so they break down slowly while absorbing the nitrogen from large quantities of droppings; and they produce a compost for the garden and elsewhere on the landscape that creates a lot of residual humus.

Note that, contra advice to thoroughly clean out old litter in the coop, Inever clean out all the litter. A major value of an established deep litter is that it is a biological circus—trillions of microorganisms breaking down carbon, using nitrogen in the poops as fuel. Why inhibit all that action? When I remove well broken down litter, I leave at least half of it in place to inoculate new litter.

I monitor the litter closely and frequently add fresh leaves from my stockpile to prevent the nitrogen from getting out of balance with the carbon in the mix. Should that happen, generation of ammonia would not only waste nitrogen in the final compost (ammonia is a gas of nitrogen, NH3), but would harm the birds’ delicate respiratory tissues. Working with deep litter has taught me to “read” its condition and to add fresh leaves before getting that first whiff of ammonia. For more on using deep litter, see “When Life Gives You Lemons . . . ”.

I am often asked “How do you heat the henhouse in winter?” or “Do you insulate the coop?” Emphatically, I do neither. In earlier winters I shut up the henhouse as tightly as I could at night, but changed that practice after reading Fresh-Air Poultry Houses: The Classic Guide to Open-Front Chicken Coops for Healthier Poultry (a republication byNorton Creek Press of Prince T. Woods’s Modern Fresh-Air Poultry Houses , originally published in 1924). Remember that our poultry’s marvelous plumage makes them supremely resistant to low temperatures, so long as they stay dry, especially when harsh winds kick up. Consider as well that both the increased manure dropped in the winter house, and the exhalations of the birds, generate a lot of humidity. Trapping that moisture inside a tight coop creates damp conditions that increase the likelihood of molds and such respiratory diseases as coryza, Newcastle disease, and infectious bronchitis. Abundant, constant air exchange keeps the flock much healthier than heating the henhouse or trying to seal out cold temperatures.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

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This article is Copyright by Harvey Ussery and reprinted with permission. Harvey Ussery is the author of The Small Scale Poultry Flock (Chelsea Green, 2011), on sale in Premier's book section. Visit Harvey's website