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Winter Chickens

Garth Brown |

The best (alright, the only) dietary change of the past couple weeks is that the hens have finally started consistently laying. I got them early enough last summer that they should have been in full swing by December. But whether or not chickens lay is largely determined by the amount of light they are exposed to, and for several weeks they weren’t getting enough due to where they were roosting and the 40 watt bulb I’d put on them. Once I’d moved them into a smaller space with a brighter bulb, it took another three weeks of exposure for them to really get into the swing of things. But, as I say, they are now consistently laying nearly as much as I would hope for, though not enough for me to have both scrambled eggs and sabayon every day.

It’s surprising enough that large animals like pigs and cows can handle the cold, but it’s even more amazing that chickens, to say nothing of grouse and turkeys and all the other wild birds that have to work for their food, can handle winter, even when the temperature drops well below zero, as it has most nights for the past week. Feathers are incredible insulators, which explains most of it, but they also perch shoulder to shoulder when they aren’t eating or sitting in the nesting boxes. Once it gets cold the pigeons on the roof of our barn often form a little clump rather than stretching out in a row along the roofline, and the pigs all pile together in a big nest of their bedding. Only the cows seem to value personal space more than the extra warmth conferred by lying against each other.

Even if the animals are tolerating it fine, I’ll be happy when the current cold spell, which I hope is the last we’ll see this winter, passes. The snow has gotten deep enough that getting hay to the animals is taking longer and longer, and various water systems around the farm would benefit from a good thaw. Even though this winter hasn’t been as bad as last year’s, it has been consistently colder than average, and something about the monotony of my diet and the monotony of the weather has started to wear on me. I hope I’m not deluding myself in thinking that starting seedlings in the greenhouse and watching the hillside for the first signs of ramps - the visible prospect of variety, in other words - will make my dietary restrictions easier to tolerate. If nothing else the eggs will be better once the chickens have new pasture to peck around in.


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