Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

Foggy, frosty morning out our front door

Doesn’t that make you cold just looking at it? That is a photo of one of the two types of mornings we’ve been having around here lately.

It all started Wednesday morning. I awoke at dawn, went into our bathroom, and looked out the window onto a sparkling winter wonderland. It was the first clear morning we’d had in weeks. Until then, mornings had been socked in with cloud or fog or both, though the sun had been coming out later in the day since just before Thanksgiving. But this Wednesday morning was clear as a bell. And without the insulating layer of clouds to hold in what little heat this time of year provides, it was COLD.

The moisture in the ground and air that had built up from the rains turned to a brilliant white frost that left no surface untouched. It was thick and heavy and it honestly looked like it had snowed. I wondered how cold it really was. We have had mild frosts so far where, by dawn, the temperature hovers around freezing and soon warms. On those mornings, the water in the thin rubber tube between the 5-gallon bucket and the chickens’ cup waterers was sometimes slightly frozen. A few minutes of holding the tube in my hands and the water flowed again. But this frosty morning was different.

I bundled up and headed out to the coop. Everything was frozen solid. Every blade of grass was white. The spots on the ground that had been scratched bare of grass by the dogs or the chickens or the constant tread of human feet were hard and slick like a skating rink. I almost fell twice.

frosty black berry leaves

I crunched my way across the yard to the gate that separates the dog yard from the garden and chickens; it was frozen shut. After breaking it loose, I finally made it to the coop. The air was still and my breath came in huge white billows. I looked up at the thermometer on the outside of the coop. 24 degrees.

Well, I thought, here comes the first true test of the chickens’ cold-hardiness. I have read at length on this topic and it seems that chickens are mostly very tolerant of cold. They do less well with heat, which is strange considering that they were originally tropical birds. But, aggressive breeding by humans over thousands of years has made many very tough and fluffy (read: warm) birds. The breeds I have are supposed to be particularly cold-hardy and also well-known for laying in the cold months. Still, it seems hard to believe. 24 is C-O-L-D, am I right? No matter how many blog and internet postings I read about chickens who make it through Minnesota and Montana winters in unheated coops, or how many times Dr. Prince T. Woods reiterates in his book, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses: The Classic Guide to Open-Front Chicken Coops for Healthier Poultry, that not only are chickens just fine in unheated coops in his native New England, but they actually THRIVE in open-front coops that are never closed… I have been skeptical. I worry about my chicky-pies. They are my babies, after all.

But wouldn’t you know it, they were just fine. All twelve birds were up and perky, enjoying the sunshine out in the run or sitting in the greenhouse window. They didn’t even notice the cold, it seemed. What they did notice, however, was that their water was frozen SOLID. Little rock-hard ice-cubes filled the drinking cups, and the rubber tube was stiff when I tried to move it. My poor chickies pecked in vain at the ice and then stared at me with sad eyes, “Where’s our water, mama?”

There was nothing I could easily do to defrost their water, so I went inside and got them a bowl of water that I placed in the run. Then I went inside to work. Soon, the sun had warmed the air into the 40s and I figured that their waterer must have defrosted by now. No problem, right? Well, at 11:30am, I went to let them out in the grass and the poor babies all ran directly to the big plastic tub that sits outside their run and collects rainwater. They acted like they hadn’t had any water in days. They drank and drank. And I felt like crap. You know what you get when you assume.

Upon witnessing the mass-hysteria for the water, I went inside the coop to investigate. Though it was well above freezing inside, apparently it takes a long, long time for rock-hard ice to melt at 41 degrees. Damn. I’m a bad mama. So, when I put them away, I gave them more water in the container in the run and I waited for the waterer in the coop to defrost. It never did. That afternoon, I rigged up my outdoor extension cords and hung one of the brooder heat lamps I had for when they were babies over the rubber tube and water cups. By the evening, the apparatus was warmed and back in working order. Solved, I thought. Ta da!

red heat lamp (brooder) hung over cup-watering system

Like it would be that easy.

The next morning, it was just as cold and I found that my heat lamp was no match for 25 degrees. The water in the tube was liquid, but the dreaded ice cubes filled the cups on the wall. Fail. The chickpeas were not pleased. So, I resigned myself to using more electricity than I would like and I got the second brooder lamp. I hung it just inside the coop, over the cups.

two heat lamps to defrost waterer

I went back into the house to wait and when I came back out the water in the cups was indeed melted. But something was wrong. One of the cups was filled to brimming. It would be impossible for a chicken to make that happen. And then I looked at the bucket. Empty. And then I looked at the floor. The shavings were sitting on top of 5 gallons of water that had run out of the cup and onto the coop floor. Awesome.

The expansion of the ice in the pipe/cup joint broke the stopper on one of the cups. The water had flowed freely out and onto the floor. The chickens were not pleased.

So, I admitted defeat. I brought out their old, five-gallon fount waterer that I had gleefully put into storage when I installed the cup waterers. The five-gallon fount, in case you don’t remember, gets spilled on the floor, filled up with dirt and shavings, and pooped on… multiple times daily. Ah, the memories. Also, it is harder to fill, clean, move, and generally deal with. But, because the large volume of water never travels through a small space like a tube or a pipe or tiny cups, it’s less likely to freeze.

back to the old fount. Lady B checks it out.

Please note the dirt in it already. Sigh. Anyway, this plan has worked for three mornings now, I have gone out in weather in the 20s… some sunny, some ice-foggy, some windy, but all cold… and found that the old waterer combined with a single brooder lamp has done the trick. Liquid water and no more thirsty chickies.

The good news in all of this is that back when I bought the cup waterers, I actually bought two setups. I thought maybe I’d install two. It turned out one was enough so now I have a backup. This broken setup is done for – bound for the recycling bin. But, with my same bucket and tube setup, I can attach a new pipe and cups to the existing wall brackets and we’ll be back in business. I think that if I keep the two brooder lamps on them at all time, then they’ll never actually freeze and so they won’t break again. I am using red heat lamps and they are pointed at the floor, so it is still dark on the perches and they chickens can still get good sleep.

And thus ends my battle with the frozen water.

Eggs and Molting News

Daisy Mae in a nest

Lately we have been getting 1-3 eggs per day. We are down to four layers right now, as everyone else is in molt. Daisy Mae seems to be our champion, as I find her in a nest nearly every day still. She is joined in her efforts by Pol Pot, Sofia, and Lorelei, all of whom are still gorgeous and super fluffy.

As for girls in molt, our early girls seem to now be on the tail-end of it. Both Rory and Blanche are looking much better. Their neck and tail feathers are growing back in nicely and they don’t look nearly as pathetic. I also caught Blanche in the act of checking out the nesting boxes the other day, so maybe she’s on her way back to laying as well.

Blanche checks out the nests

Lady B, ever the star, never really looked very scruffy and I think she’s close to being done with molting as well. She was missing the feathers on the very top of her head for a while but that’s about it. She, too, was checking out a nest the other day.

Lady B contemplates the art of egg-laying

Poor Shelley currently holds first place in the Scraggliest-Looking chicken contest.

Shelley, in molt

Today, I was excited to have the opportunity to photograph something for you that I had learned from my reading, but was so much easier to understand when I saw it for myself. You see, chickens’ combs and wattles are indicators of hormone levels. When they are young, the combs are yellow and then pink. When they come into laying/breeding age and their hormone levels are up, the combs and wattles turn a vibrant red. From then on, a rooster’s comb and wattles should always stay red, but a pullet’s/hen’s will continue to change in sync with her laying status. IF a hen goes broody, she stops laying because she wants to sit on and hatch eggs. Her comb turns pink during this period. Also, when she goes into molt, she stops laying as her energy is directed toward growing new feathers. The rest of the time, it should be bright red to indicate that she is healthy and laying.

So, it’s nice to read all that but seriously – red? pink? It all sounds pretty similar to me. For all these months, I kept watching the combs to see if they seemed pinker or redder and what that might indicate, but I could never really tell. They all looked pinkish-red to me. However, now that some are molting, I can finally see a distinct difference. And now, for your learning pleasure, so can you!

Sofia with a red comb, Blanche with a pink comb

The fates aligned and let me get a few pictures – the sun came out, the girls weren’t in shadow, and the same breeds stood together so it’s easy to see. Sofia is on the left. She still has all of her rich gold feathers and fluff and since she is still laying, her comb and wattles are red. Blanche is on the right and her feathering is less fluffy and lighter in color because is is molting, and her comb is light pink for the same reason.

Blanche, pink comb, Sofia, red comb

In the second pic, Blanche is on the left. Hopefully you can see that her comb is much lighter than Sofia’s.

Rory, top, pink comb, Lorelei, bottom, red comb

The pic of the Marans girls isn’t great, but hopefully it still illustrates my point. I wish I had had pictures like this in the past so I could understand the difference between pink and red combs.

Anyway, back to the topic of beauty… like I said, Blanche is looking much better as her new feathers fill in.

Blanche sports some new feathers

Thought she isn’t quite back to full, golden, fluffy, Orpington glory, which is illustrated beautifully by Sofia, who has not started molting yet.

Fulffy, golden Sofia

And Rory has much improved from her dull-feathered, small-head-huge-body days of yore.

Rory, with a more balanced look

Garden News

Straw mulch on garden beds

Over the last few weeks, I have planted garlic and onions and put the garden slowly to bed. The chickens have been wonderful helpers, as they have enthusiastically cleared the beds of all weeds and excess bugs and left me a clean slate. In honor of this situation, I have decided to be pro-active and apply a winter mulch of straw to the garden beds. This will add low-fertility organic matter to the soil as it breaks down, but its main function is to keep weeds from sprouting until I replant the beds in the Spring. I am perfectly terrible about weeding and more than once it’s come back to bite me in the ass. I am hoping this approach will help avoid that this time.

heavy morning frost on the straw mulch

Also, I am conducting a bit of an experiment. In some of the beds, I have added a thin layer of chicken manure and shavings scooped straight from the coop. Until now, I had been putting it in its own compost pile as my reading had instructed. But I thought… hey… a lot of those nutrients are just going to get leached down into the soil below the compost pile instead of into my garden soil! So, why not put it directly into the garden to let it break down? Now, I know that fresh manure can burn plants, but these beds are dormant right now (I didn’t add any manure where I planted garlic) and the manure will have all winter and much of Spring to decompose into useful nutrition for the soil, and the shavings will help improve soil texture and drainage. This way, my beds will be ready when I want to plant in the Spring. My neighbors till their fresh sheep manure into their garden every Fall/Winter and then mulch it until Spring and they have a bounteous garden. So I say, why not? I’ve only done it in some parts of the garden so far. It will be interesting to compare the results of the beds this coming season, no?

Camo-Blanche. Where did she go?

Sneaky Blanche blends into the straw mulch.

Pol Pot

Fluffy Pol Pot is still laying eggs like a champ… but she’s not as good at camouflage as Blanche is!

buds on a cherry tree

And lastly, I am proud to report that most of my fruit trees have begun to bud out which mean they are not dead! The buds will sit there until spring as little indicators of life :)

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One thought on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

  1. YES – It was COLD out. It was down to 9′ at my place. I was bringing in the chicken waterers to the garage at night and then adding warm water to them and the goat’s bucket of water that would have an inch of ice by morning.

    The chickens and goats both LOVED warm water.

    Both my chickens and goats didn’t seem to mind the cold at all. I posted a question on Backyard Herd forum if I should do anything special for my first two goats – like blankets (I used to put blankets on my horses), heat lamps, special diet, etc.

    Almost got laughed at. I guess 9′ at night with highs of 23′ isn’t all that cold for a goat or two. Recommendation was thick bed of straw at bedtime which I do anyway. I fluff up their straw before tucking them into bed with a handfull of blackberry vines bungy corded in their stall.

    Their LONG nubian ears were warm down to the tips in the morning, so they must have stay warm.

    My well froze in the pump house Wed. Was without running water Wed-Fri. Do you know how much water it takes to flush a late 70’s toilet??? 3 1/2 gallons!!!! I so appreciate having running water. It got to be a pain having to heat the artesian well water I got down town on the stove for the chickens and goats twice a day.

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