Winter Came All at Once

Day 252 of 365

I am so tired. Not only did I spend the afternoon shoveling some very heavy ice-snow, I couldn’t sleep last night because I could hear the ice coming down, which made me fret. Mainly, I was fretting about what kind of day the poor chickens and ducks were going to have. Today was miserable weather here in our part of Maine. It was ice then snow and then ice again–all_day_long.

I shouldn’t complain because we have had a very, very mild winter. I was just seeing a farmer friend call this year in Maine “the year without a winter.” Well, I am sure my farmer friend must have jinxed us because winter came today–with force.

The poor ducks stayed out in the terrible weather all day. I took them straw and tried to give bring their water and food to them, but that just upset them. You can’t move the food bowl. It is wrong to move anything. Everything must stay the same always and forever.

Thankfully, I was able to clean out their duck house in all this mess and tuck them in tonight with a bowl of warm peas and a house full of fresh straw. They seemed happy after a long day.

The chickens, mostly, just refused to leave the coop, so they sat in there and got on each other’s nerves all day. I delivered treats once and stayed for a visit. I also visited off and on while I shoveled the snow.

The cutest story of the whole day relates to Ruby, Juliet, and Kate–mainly Kate. This morning, despite the terrible weather, Ruby and Juliet took off out of the coop front door while I was bringing in the food. Later, I realized that, somehow, Kate also got out, but she may have gone out the back door and then flew over the fence. I didn’t check for tracks, but she does that kind of thing all the time. When she was young, she used to trek through the snow all the time.

Anyway, there was nowhere for the driveway crew to go today, except under Ron’s camper shell for his truck. So, all day long, I took treats and food and water to the camper shell. There, under the shell, Ruby, Juliet, Kate, and a red squirrel hung out all day long. They all seemed to be pretty happy with the arrangement.

But in the late afternoon, just as I was getting ready to go out to shovel snow with Ron who, by the way, shovels snow like a miracle, I thought I heard someone at the door. Turns out, it was Kate. She was ready to go into the coop, and she knows to come to the door to get us.

I took this picture of her at the door because it was the cutest thing. If we had a doorbell down low, I have no doubt that she could ring it. Isn’t she wonderful?

I sure hope tomorrow is a better day for the chickens. I told them when I tucked them in tonight that tomorrow would be better. I hope I didn’t tell them a lie.

Water Buckets

Day 194 of 365

This morning marked one of our annual milestones on our little farm. This morning, the outside water was frozen solid, so it was time to start hauling water from the house to animals. We use five gallon buckets, fill them up in the tub in our guest bathroom, and haul them all over our property. The chickens live near the front of the house. The ducks live at the back of the house. So we haul water every which way.

I used to feel worn out from carrying all of that water. I looked it up, and a 5 gallon bucket filled with water weighs 42 pounds. That’s not a little–at least not to me. But, over time, I have built up strength, and I am able to carry them without too much trouble, well, except for the trouble having two curious cats and a curious puppy cause. Oh my goodness! They were all three in the middle of everything all morning. Still, I try to remember to enjoy them and their curiosity.

I also have come to find a kind of joy in the service in relation to my water carrying–a task I will be completing for the next four months or so. I love bringing the warm water to the ducks because they love the warm water extra. They have a little tub we fill up, plus their 3 water dishes. I love when the just jump into the warm water and seem so happy.

The chickens aren’t quite as grateful for the fresh warm water, but they are some too. It’s the gratefulness you can see on their faces, especially those ducks, that really keeps me going in the winter. I have found that I am the type of person who will give and give and give as long as I feel appreciated. And the animals are endlessly grateful. They have a pretty good existence here. I have learned how to “listen” to our animals when they try to communicate with me, and it helps a lot. They have come to understand how to best get my attention, and I have some to understand that I need to pay close attention to such things. But they are always so grateful. It’s like a never-ending well of gratefulness with them, so I am a never-ending well of giving for them.

It has made for an interesting and wonderful life.

Here are some pictures from morning chores today, on this milestone. It will be another milestone on the farm when we can, once again, use the hoses for the water in the spring.

For the Love of Mittens

Day 165 of 365

I can’t believe I have been doing this project for 165 days. I often wish to write more than I have time to, but I am thankful I make at least some time to write each day. Plus, at least once a week, I can write a little more. I find that I am having lots more writing ideas than I used to. I still do not have time to write them, but the ideas are everywhere. I guess all of the writers I know who say to write every single day, no matter what, knew what they were talking about. My next step is to figure out more time to write. For now, I am proud to be writing these words tonight. 165 days is no small feat for me.

Today was a good day. I did a book event for Farmer-ish at my favorite store in the world, Tiller & Rye in Brewer, Maine. It was slow but good overall, and the only bad thing about the whole day was that I found so many more things I wish to buy in that store because I love them so much. Handmade bowls, beautiful spices, locally made soaps–and mittens.

Oh, they have this giant bin of handmade in Maine mittens! Giant! And I think they are upcycled materials. I couldn’t get too close, or else I would have purchased too many mittens, You have no idea how much I love mittens for people I love, especially children. But all of my nieces and nephews live in Texas. They don’t really need mittens and I already bought mittens for the couple of children I know in Maine. But the mittens are magnificent. I wish to buy like ten pair of mittens and then give them as gifts to all of my friends. But I assume they do not necessarily need mittens. I am to an age where I do not have many young children in my life, so I don’t know of anyone who might really need some mittens. I assume not everyone loves mittens like I do. I asked my son, the teenager, if he would like mittens, and I can’t remember what he said exactly, but it was something clever that was equivalent to a verbal eye roll. So no mittens for him. Anyway, I’ll have to keep thinking about who I know who may be able to use some mittens.

As I think about it, I feel like, if you live in the north, you could surely use some mittens, right? Maybe people do love mittens as much as I do. I mean, remember Bernie’s mittens?

Today, in addition looking longingly at a giant bin of mittens out front where I was stationed at the store, when I went back to the office to talk to the manager, I discovered they have more bins in the back of beautiful handmade mittens. Oh, the colors and the fabrics and the uniqueness of each one because they are handmade. They were so beautiful there in the store, and it made me happy thinking about people coming in, buying mittens, leaving with warm hands. The winters can be so hard on my hands. Mittens help keep your bones warm.

Wait. I have a plan! I am writing this down to make myself do this. I am going to talk to Ron about spending some holiday money on buying a bunch of these handmade mittens. Then, I am going to call an organization in town that helps the homeless (I can’t remember the name, so I am going to have to look it up), and if they will take mittens for families in need, I’m going to donate those beautiful mittens. That would be an act of joy that would be helpful to someone, so it would be good for my soul and for others–at least their hands–but maybe also their bones–and maybe also their souls.

How to Last-Minute Prepare Your Flock for Extreme Cold Weather

by Crystal Sands

We have been keeping chickens in Maine for 8 years, and over those years, I have learned a lot about keeping our flock safe and warm through some fairly extreme cold. Some of what I learned, I learned through research; some, I learned through experiences. One of the key things I have learned is that there is the “ideal” situation for keeping chickens and then there is the situations many of us find ourselves in.

It is so true (and I have written about this very thing) that chickens generally do not need a heat source of any kind in the winter, even when the temps drop in an extreme way. But a good winter situation means you have a sturdy, dry coop with good ventilation, no drafts, and good, dry bedding. What do you do when this is not the winter situation you find yourself in?

I have given chicken talks for the Common Ground fair and written about chicken keeping for years. I have interviewed several big names in chicken care, and one of my biggest worries is when people offer “blanket” advice without knowing the ins and outs of particular situations.

Take our situation, for example. We had always done well with preparing our coop for the winter. We kept 15 to 20 birds for the longest time and went along at a good pace. We had no issues of frost bite in the winter. But, two years ago, we increased the size of our flock to 31 birds. When winter hit, we found we were struggling to get the vents opened to the proper amount, and our coop was getting damp from the increase in birds. After all, all that chicken breathing makes moisture. We were trying to adjust, but one night, the temps dropped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit, and our rooster got frostbite. We had an oil-based heater that we had used one winter when the temps were hanging out around -18 degrees for a couple of weeks, but since everyone told us you don’t need a heater, that year, we never brought out the heater. The night of -7 degrees meant frostbite for our rooster.

Thankfully, the frostbite was minor, but I learned a couple of valuable lessons: First, I needed to do better to prepare my coop for winter, and second, I needed to stop listening to “blanket” advice and make my own decisions based on the situations I am in, however not-ideal they may be.

As I write this post, we are looking at a significant temperature drop here in Maine tonight, so I wanted to offer some tips to help you prepare your chickens for a cold night–if you find yourself in one of those less-than-ideal situations.

Assess the Dampness Right Before the Temps Drop

Go out to your coop right now. Is it damp? Does the bedding feel damp? We use straw, and contrary to one of the many myths circulating the internet, no, it does not lead to crop or mite problems. When our straw is dry, I know things are okay in terms of the moisture in the coop. Because moisture leads to bigger issues with frostbite (essentially, the moisture sticks to any surfaces, including your chickens and leads to the cold feeling colder and doing more damage), you want to make sure your coop is good and dry tonight. Last year, when we had the frost bite, we had been struggling with the humidity, and the straw was a bit damp feeling. I should have pulled every bit of that damp straw out of our coop for that sudden drop and made sure, though we were struggling with ventilation, that, at the very least, we were starting the evening in a dry place. If your coop feels damp, get the wet bedding out of there today and put in fresh. Do not hesitate on this!

You should adjust your vents. The trick to a well-ventilated coop is that there should be no drafts, but up high, there should be vents you can open and adjust. If you have been struggling with dampness, open those vents a little more. It may feel counter-intuitive, like you are letting in more cold, but ventilation up high helps release the moisture from all of that chicken breathing.

Assess Your Flock

If you have healthy, cold-hardy birds, you are in good shape as the temperatures drop. If you have any Silkies, please understand these are not cold-hardy birds. We do not keep Silkies here in Maine, but I spoke to someone who lost some Silkies in a cold snap here in Maine. They do not have the same kind of feathers as other breeds and can struggle in the cold. If you have a less-than-ideal situation in your coop and can bring your Silkies into the garage or somewhere milder (you do not want too warm, as then they will get used to the warmth), I would. There’s just a big difference between a Rhode Island Red and a Silkie when it comes to handling the cold. Please note that I know there are plenty of Silkies in great coops who make it just fine, but every single year I read about Silkies freezing to death here in Maine, so I just have to raise this possibility.

Also, ff you have just one or two birds, I would be hesitant to leave them alone in a coop in sub-zero temps. The snuggling helps everyone handle the cold. Plus, more chicken breath equals more heat in the coop. If you have one or two chickens, as I know some people do, I would make a plan B.

Should You Add Heat?

If the only heat source you have is a heat lamp, no matter the situation, I just say no. I know I said I don’t like “blanket” advice, but I have seen far too many coop and barn fires from heat lamps. In my opinion, they are simply not worth the risk. Plus, there are other heat sources. If you have just a couple of birds, a Sweeter Heater, which does not get hot to the touch, works great. If you do not have one, ask around. We have one we let a friend borrow, and chicken people are generally really good about helping other chicken people.

We have an oil-based ceramic heater that does not get hot to the touch that we have used. My husband also built a cage to go around the ceramic heater, just in case. This oil heater doesn’t make a huge difference in coop temperatures, but it helps. Our flock is a closed flock due to a respiratory issue several years ago. We have some old birds that are not as tough as they used to be. I wish, last year, I would have gone ahead and put the heater out that night our rooster got a bit of frostbite.

Of course, in an ideal situation, I would never use heat. And, honestly, we have managed to fix our moisture problem in our coop with better ventilation. We may not break out the heater tonight for the -8 degrees, but if we find ourselves at -18 degrees again, I’m probably busting it out. Our flock has a health issue that makes for a special situation. My sweet Lucy is 8 years old and has survived a serious respiratory issue in 2019. She needs a little help.

Can Treats Help?

I used to feed our flock corn before bed on cold nights, but I recently learned this may be doing more harm than good. This article, What a Corn-Idea by Dr. Curran Gehring, explains why corn may actually be making things worse. This information is explained in some pretty clear scientific terms, and it’s new to me. However, it’s compelling enough that it is given me some hesitation about giving corn to the chickens tonight. In fact, I think I’m going to pass on it tonight and share it as a treat when it’s not so drastically cold. This article definitely goes against the chicken lore we read on the internet and in the forums, so I understand this may be controversial.

Ultimately, however, I think doing whatever you can to make sure your flock has a super clean, dry coop tonight is the best thing you can do. So if your bedding is damp, head out there before or after dinner and spiffy up the coop. And if you have a breed not really cold-weather hardy, I would bring them into the garage.

I hope this information is helpful, and I hope the extra cold temps do not bring any problems for anyone!