Winter Chicken Coop

Snow Birds – Sugar Mtn, Mt. Knox and Butterfield in background.

Chickens don’t particularly like winter. They survive it. Winter is something to get past until spring’s warm weather brings an explosion of black flies, mosquitoes, gnats, house flies, worms, tender shoots and other goodies. Until then, the chickens get by.

During the warm months I don’t feed the chickens. They feed themselves, foraging in our pastures and just about everywhere around the farm. They get along fine with the dogs, sheep, pigs and other animals. Occasionally a clutch of eggs will get missed during gathering, or left by us intentionally, and more chicks are hatched.

Ms. Very Buff Orpington

We find the Americana/Auracanas to be particularly hardy as well as having the fun trait of laying green to blue eggs. The Buff Orpington and Reds (RI & NH) both do very well too and lay brown eggs. We have tried a few other breeds over the years but come back to these. Breeds with smaller combs tend to do better in our cold climate. The greenhouse sun room helps prevent frost bite to combs and toes.

The Buff Orpingtons seem to be the best brooders and mothers closely followed by the colorful Auracanas and then the Reds. Yes, above is the semi-famous chicken in person. Interestingly, photos of our chickens have appeared on television, in documentaries, paintings, art shows and other places around the world as far away as Japan and Australia. The internet is amazing.

Hawk Attack Survivor

I like the look of the Barred Rock but they seem to be a real predator magnet when young so beware. I ended up putting one of our LGDs, Coy, in the brood coop over night with the chicks at one point. He immediately killed the offending rodents and solved the problem. The White Orpington above survived a hawk attack thank you to the attentiveness of one of our dogs Kita. Some people say the whites attract arial attackers but I don’t have a statistically significant sample set. Normally the owls, hawks and ravens are not so foolish as to land – we’ve only had two cases where I know they’ve attacked a chicken. In this case the hawk actually entered the chicken coop in the early evening. My wife Holly saw the big red tailed hawk go in closely followed by Kita. After a loud scuffle and much squawking from the hens, the predator and protector quickly exited. With Kita close on its tail the hawk almost never made another flight. I like seeing the big birds of prey, at a distance and up in the air. Kita lives for the moment they’ll descend within her reach…

We have about 100 chickens. That is a lot more than we need for eggs for just our family at the height of the laying season. The eggs are a nice bonus but that isn’t why we keep chickens, certainly not so many. Rather it is their all natural, organic non-chemical solution to pest control that I’m after. With a large number of chickens around we have hardly any flies or other insect pests. The chickens also eat mice, voles and the occasional snake just like the dogs do.

The chickens stop laying en-mass this year during the darkest month, December. I really should have had a light on in the hoop house. Normally they slow down but we still typically get a dozen eggs a day from the flock even during the winter. The hens have picked up again as the sun returns so fresh eggs are back on our plate. With winter and no bugs to grub they are dependent on left over veggies, some store bought chicken food, a bit of whey, some butter and cottage cheese from a recent big score. I also give them meat. Chickens, like us, are omnivores by nature and appreciate a some flesh in their diet. Add in some oyster shells and broken up egg shells and they lay the most delicious, nutritious eggs. Extra’s go to the dogs and piglets which is great for weaning time – eggs are high in protein, cook them for the greatest digestibility.

Geese & Ducks Watch Petra Pig Farrow in Garden Shed

Unlike the ducks and geese the chickens are not fond of walking on the snow. In fact, they’ll do just about anything to avoid walking out on the soft fresh snow. Understandable as they sink in deeply. Unlike the ducks and geese the chickens lack webbing on their feet. Cold feet doesn’t appear to be the issue as they’ll stand on ice or packed snow – they just need snowshoes. Our solution is to spread sticks, hay and the like on the snow and to provide them a stronger surface. The chickens’ sun room gives them a bit of space with little snow in it. A periodic addition of hay under the translucent plastic makes that a pleasant space, for chickens, to sun themselves on winter days. Come summer time that will become a compost pile and then eventually get used for garden space.

Snow Banked Hoop House

For the winter we moved their hoop house up above the upper whey tank. That is a windy spot, compared with the gardens down by the old farm house. Burying the chicken house in a snow bank solved that problem. Snow banks make for great insulation and lift the wind up over things. I use the same technique on our house, animal shelters, dog houses, whey tanks and anything else needing protection six months of the year from the cold north winds.

Petra Pig Farrowing in Garden Shed – First Piglet Out on Tit

Moving the hoop house twice a year helps to naturally clean it out as the chicken droppings are left behind. We typically flip it upside down so the interior is exposed to the sun and air. This may be why we’ve never had problems with mites and other chicken pests. A little fresh air and sunshine goes a long ways. Works for the pigs and us too although I’m not going to turn our cottage upside down to air it out!

Our Tiny Cottage – Rather like the hoop house.

During the warm seasons the chickens aren’t cooped up at all – they strut about our farm pretty much where ever they please. My only focus is trying to keep them out of some my gardens where where there are young plants that are too tempting to taste. Without our livestock guardian herding dogs (LGDs) predators would be a major problem – but the dogs eat those for lunch and keep the chickens from wandering too far, herding the overly ambitious explorers back out of the brush towards the central homestead. Dogs have very strong sense of order, of where things should be and want everybody in their place.

Big Pig Sow, Piglets, Sheep, Chickens in South Field

In the spring the insulating snow will melt away. The chickens will fly the coop to free-range all over the farm in search of that perfect bug. I’ll plant veggies where the hoop house was this winter. The cycle of the year continues. For now, the chickens and I only dream of warmer weather. We have faith the sun will return. Some days it just takes more faith than others.

I met a moose,
amoungst the mist.
He must’ve taken,
the other ditch.

Outdoors: 22°F/10°F Sunny 4″ snow, clearing skies with some flurries
Farm House: 43°F/37°F
Tiny Cottage: 62°F/58°F

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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15 Responses to Winter Chicken Coop

  1. Mellifera says:

    Welcome back!

    I was reading some of this post about chickens to my husband. A couple moments later he looked over, rubbed his eyes, and said incredulously, “They look an awful lot like… ducks??” (I’d scrolled down by then.)

    He’s a plenty bright fellow, it’s just been a long semester already. : )

  2. Quatrefoil says:

    You say that sometimes you leave a clutch of eggs and they hatch. Does this mean that all the eggs that you eat are fertilised? Isn’t that a problem? Or do you get them so early that the chicks don’t develop?

  3. Hi Quatrefoil,

    Probably all of our eggs are fertilized. Eating fertilized eggs isn’t a problem at all. 99% of the time you can’t tell since we’re collecting a couple of times a day. The egg won’t develop unless kept warm virtually continuously for 28 days.

    Truth be told, you don’t need a rooster to get eggs but I like having roosters. For one thing they do help protect the flock – they sound alerts about predators, especially the arial variety. Another reason to have roosters is that then when we do want to raise replacement chickens we do have fertile eggs. One more sustainable step although often we get them from the hatcheries too.



  4. edgwickfarm says:

    I have an aggressive red tail hawk issue on my farm and my farm collie is just coming up to speed to dealing with it given her young age and experience (I point ot the sky and say bad bird). I did find that the all white chickens were wiped out first by the hawks as well as the solid black ones. This year I have experimented with speckled sussex pullets and have lost none of them to the hawks, a huge difference.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My wife & I tried electric netting and within 2 & 1/2 minutes our two industrious pigs rooted up some earth and shorted out the bottom wire. Which in turn shuts down the whole perimeter. So much for electric fence….We must be over looking a way to keep earth from contacting the bottom wire? Terry

  6. Terry, there’s a simple trick. Clip the electrical leads at the end posts that go to the bottom two horizontal wires. Tie them off together separately from the hot wires above. Now the fence is much less prone to shorting to ground yet still highly effective. Cheers, -Walter

  7. Anonymous says:

    DON’T EVER MAKE A PLURAL OF ANYTHING BY ADDING AN APOSTROPHE S!!! One chicken, two chickens, not two chicken’s!!! And not two Buff Orpington’s either! Seriously, it is not that hard.

    Otherwise, you are the best thing on the internet by far. I buy your stuff at the Coop and Uncommon Market in Montpelier. Keep up the good work.

  8. *grin* Gosh, I know that rule! I must have been asleep at the keyboard. Thanks for catching it. I fixed the offending plurals.



  9. Alex Avery says:

    Walter, do you guys live in the “tiny cottage”? If so, I’m assuming no kids?

    Nice pics and appreciate your non-dogmatic approach to things — I saw your comment on Ethicurean about Temple Grandin appearing to endorse veggan diet for pigs/chickens and was glad to see that instead Niman had misled folks with their self-serving press release.
    Alex Avery

  10. Hi Alex,

    Yes, I too was greatly relieved to learn that the magnitude of Dr. Grandin’s endorsement of the standards had been greatly exaggerated by Niman Ranch. Perhaps the PR person got a little ambitious. I have tremendous respect for Dr. Grandin and have read a great deal of her writings.

    Thinking about it further I wondered if Niman Ranch is trying to distance them from the Animal Welfare Institute with whom I believe they have previously worked. Perhaps they seek to create their own label for humane standards where they will have more control.

    I do take issue with Dr. Grandin’s statement about the pig’s destroying the land if they don’t have their noses ringed. That is merely a management issue related to rotational grazing cycles. We don’t ring our pigs and we have excellent pastures where our pigs graze. Pigs root minimally when grazing conditions are right and they are rotated soon enough.

    By the way, are you perchance this Alex Avery [1, 2]? If so I would love to hear about your views of the use of nitrates and nitrites in curing of ready to eat (RTE) meats. If that is you then you have have written about some related issues. I’m still researching the topic and trying to make up my mind on this. Our hot dogs are nitrate/nitrite free but our bacon and hams are made with them in the minimal levels. Both sell out so this isn’t a marketing issue.


  11. BFW says:

    Lovely post (as always).

    We live in the city and have 3 buff orphingtons – no problems with pests yet (knock on wood). But, given the smallish space of their general area (10×20, including the actual coop (3×5)) for 3 hens, I doubt a predator would feel comfortable with the vertical landing and takeoff required.

    But, a chicken control question. We have a poured concrete house – the kind where the concrete fills a styrofoam mold. Love the house. The problem is that the exposed foundation of the house is merely painted styrofoam. The chickens LOVE to peck at this, which annoys me to no end.

    Given that our back yard is where we like to let them roam, we’re having trouble figuring out an inexpensive and not too hard on the eye solution to prevent them from pecking at the styrofoam. Any ideas/suggestions? We love to let them roam freely more often.

  12. Chickens love to peck styrofoam. Pink seems to be preferred but they will go for any. We have 4″ of pink board on the outside of our tiny cottage. Outside the pink board we parged with about 1/2″ or so of fine concrete containing PVA fibers. The results are a hard outer shell that protects the insulation from sunshine, people and even chickens.

    A trick when parging is to wash the foam with soap and water, score the foam and then leave the it exposed to the sun for a few weeks. The concrete parge will then stick more easily. Just before applying the parge paint on a neat cement (cement + water). I plan to write about this in more detail sometime.

  13. BFW says:

    I’d love to hear more details on parging styrofoam – it sounds perfect.

  14. ed says:

    Realizing this is an older post… I thought I'd share an experience we had with electric netting and hogs.

    We raised a little (well, at least for a while she was little) Yorkshire behind electric netting. She was smart enough to turn her head sideways, bite the line posts, and pull them up out of the ground. She would also berm up around the bottom wire as described here.

    I didn't want to clip the bottom wire or two because I intended to use the same netting for smaller animals after the hog moved to the freezer. Instead, I had a stroke of genius (insanity?) while driving past a prison one day. Why not *angle* the electric netting inward?! This would shock the Yorkshire's ears while she was rooting, prevent the berm, and keep her off that line post.

    I re-set all of the line posts, angling them inward maybe 10-15 degrees. It worked. Her ears were hit when she got too close, and she backed off. No more berms, and no more line post removals!

  15. Hi Ed,

    We discovered the same thing about angling the netting. That works well. Another trick is running a hot wire inside the netting and that is the heat while the netting is ground.

    As to clipping, we do it such that the netting can be easily restored to its full electric status – see this.



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