Last week we put up a picture of our laying hens moving into the hoop houses for the winter and someone asked why we did that; why not let them run outside all winter.
During this two week period, which is also when we're hosting our two-day checkouts for our next year's stewards (formerly interns), we're transitioning the farm to winter. My next couple of posts will be about this winter transition.
So today, the laying hens. They move from the pasture into the spacious hoop houses. The reason is comfort and health. Yes, when days are warm in the winter, they do enjoy being outside, but most days are not warm. Chickens developed in the tropics and love light and warmth.
We could give them a yard to run in, but in the winter grass isn't growing and nothing is decomposing in the soil so it can't handle manure and pathogen loads. It's one thing to have a little coop with half a dozen chickens in it and let them run out in a yard. It's quite another to have 4,000 and give them enough yard space to be meaningful.
I've seen many, many filthy dirt pathogen-laden yard runs in the winter. In the summer too, but winter is less forgiving. It would be wonderful to have portable hoop house accommodations in the winter, but that would require keeping feed lines of water thawed and driving around on soft, moist soil that would put ruts everywhere in the fields. No, not doing that.
Here is our protocol for winter:
1. Deep bedding. We start with 12-18 inches of wood chips. Of course, since we've grown vegetables in these hoop houses during the summer, they have all sorts of plants and vines and vegetative leftovers to eat and scratch into the bedding as well. Known as a carbonaceous diaper, this deep bedding composts slowly as the chickens scratch it around, injecting oxygen.
2. Composting deep bedding grows bugs throughout the winter. The hoop house also helps keeps the bedding warm.
3. We add whole small grains like wheat or barley on top of the bedding each day; the birds eat about 75 percent of it outright but the rest filters down into the deep bedding and sprouts in that warmth, offering fresh sprouts throughout the winter and incentivizing the chickens to scratch deeply into the bedding, which incorporates their manure better and stimulates oxygenation for good composting.
4. Hay racks filled with our highest quality second cutting hay (dehydrated grass) keeps the chickens eating green forage and gives them something enjoyable to do to keep them occupied. One of our apprentices last year, Ashleigh Nuce, ran extremely detailed experiments with controls on this idea and the results were so dramatic in egg production and yolk quality that hay feeding throughout the winter is our new protocol.
5. Even on the coldest day of the year, when the temperature is well below 0 F, these hoop houses are a comfortable 50-70 degrees. This keeps the birds warm and happy. At night they simply huddle together to stay warm but when they're awake during the day they're comfortable. That's a big deal.
6. Fresh meat. Old timers in our area always said that one of the first chores for farm boys years ago was to trap or shoot a possum, raccoon, squirrel or something, cut it open, and toss it into the chickens in the winter when the birds didn't have grasshoppers and crickets to eat. Chickens are omnivores and thrive on fresh animal protein of some sort--worms, bugs, insects. So a carcass once a week helps satisfy this dietary need. We adhere to this historic activity by tossing in deer carcasses and rodents throughout the winter. This keeps the birds healthy; they pick off every morsel. They don't need a lot, but they certainly thrive with some.
7. We catch the chickens, put them in crates, and either bring them in or out. Doing this after dark, when the chickens are sleeping, is easier on us and the birds.
We're as happy bringing the birds into the hoop houses for winter as we are taking them out in the spring. Both transitions are exciting, expectant, and expedient for the birds' health and performance. We do not put lights on them like many do, preferring to let them go through their natural rest cycle and molt through declining day length. But once Dec. 21 happens, everything changes as they respond to increasing day length. Around Polyface, we live for Dec. 21, the shortest day. And so do the laying hens.
Would you like to be a hen at Polyface?