Note: This post is a re-blogging of an older post (January 2019), with some edits from as I developed more experience, from those older days.
The location of my hen houses are perfect for most the months of the year, but in Winter it can be a bit of a challenge to tread to, here in the northerly snows of Zone 5 B. This year (December 2021 and early January 2022) we had a smattering of snow, and mostly annoying levels of freezing rain which left its residue as slippery ice.
I didn’t place the coops closer to the house for a couple of reasons. One, the flat area just outside the back door needs to be reserved for vehicles going back and forth, and also I plan to put up a greenhouse back here. Possibly this coming summer. Another reason is that these chickens are frequently out on Free-Range during the day, and while they’ll often walk up to the house, I do want to limit the quantity of droppings in what is also a recreational zone. My quail condos landed directly behind the house, but they take up little space, and they don’t free-range. Well, a couple or so did, inadvertently – but quail don’t tend to come back home…. :(. For the quail, it was best to keep them where my house could provide something of a wind-break.
I’ll note that these procedures detailed below are great for poultry and small livestock, where you can carry what you need to them. For larger livestock, you need to have facilities closer to a plowed drive, and preferably a dedicated well with the potential of heating the water in situr. You will also be best served with at least a small tractor or UTV (with its own housing) and the ability to run through or push aside snow.
I had certain constraints when laying down the location for the hen house and run: the hen house, coop and run had to be on a flat surface, reasonably close to the solar panels — the coop WILL BE connected to electric in the near future. The set up had to be in the back yard, just for aesthetics. The solar panels had to be closer to the house (the longer you run the line, the higher the price.
So… my birds are way out there in the back, which feels just right in the summer but not so all-right in winter with a layer of snow. And, snow which varies in texture and walkability with type of snow, or ack, ICE! There’s a slight downhill slope at one point, too. So, let’s say it’s about 350 feet from my back door to the coop, since I can’t walk it in a straight line, such as a crow allegedly flies.
So, this one year, sans electric at the coop, but still having Winter, me being in my 60s, with some relatively minor but long-term physical issues, this is how I cope:
*Note*: for me this is NOW for 20 chickens, located around 350 feet as the crow won’t fly, from my back door. Scale up or down as required.
Hiking Poles. I have two non-optimal knees, and one bad ankle with pins and a plate. There is a slight slope in one location on the way down. I bought my first pair of hiking poles from LL Bean, and they were very useful for various purposes over the first winter. However, one pole did snap in half not long ago.
SO, I bought a second pair. I will note that I usually manage well using just one pole, and it strictly depends on the type of snow/ice or how/where I want to hike, if I really need both. (Or, either.) Backups, however… one cannot say too much about back ups, whether on hiking equipment or on computer dalliances. Anyhow, the second pair: TrailBuddy’s Ultra Strong Aluminum Cork Trekking Poles (Amazon). This pair is still going strong, but I have a third in waiting!
Backpack. One that will hold what you need it to hold. I will get a larger one next year, but this seems satisfactory overall for now. (This one was pre-existing for day hikes.) One added benefit: the hot tap water you carry down twice a day is nice and warm against your back, as noted again below! No, I don’t see the need to get an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers pack… But I will want one larger than the one I have now when I get more livestock – a subject to tackle physically (much) later on, though I am planning anyways. (I will also have vehicular access most days – a UTV or a small tractor, as mentioned above.)
Gallon jug for water. I’ve re-purposed a Poland Springs gallon water jug for this purpose. The brand will matter – Poland Springs is one of the few brands that apparently has a screw top lid, and can be effectively re-sealed after each use. The plastic also seems a bit more sturdy than some other brands I’ve seen. Yes, I use tap water. I run the hot water tap and fill and re-fill the jug with it. Even when I get electric to the coop, I WILL HAVE to refill winter water daily, or twice daily, and very occasionally, thrice daily in winter, since the hose won’t run to the chickens in winter. Temperatures depending. The hose won’t be heated from the source sufficiently enough to keep this from freezing, considering the distance. Unless I want to spend buckets of money on this… One good thing about using hot tap water… in your backpack it really nicely keeps your backside warm on the way down and while you provide other chicken maintenance, prior to water dispensing! (Can’t mention this often enough!)
In case you are dubious about your own winter water (ie, oncoming storms and potential power failures) have a good stock of drinking water available for both yourself and them. I try not to deplete groceries of pre-bottled water – if I plan ahead, I can find plenty of food-safe containers in the house, and when I absolutely do have to buy some, I save those containers, for needs such as this.
(I admit I am also considering a second well, but… We, and the budget, shall see how this plays out, but it should be do-able for my future four-leggeds. Assuming they are still on the plans.)
Pans for water down at the coop. I started by using smaller kitty litter pans (virgin, of course – besides my cats would never keep their bizness inside a small kitty litter pan, anyway). Unfortunately, at very low temperatures (one demolished itself at 17 degrees F / minus 8.3 C), these pans have a habit of cracking when you try to remove ice so you can add more water. Nipple buckets and standard hanging buckets will freeze at the ports of exit for drinking, and while excellent in non-freezing seasons, aren’t optimal for those of us who get Real Winter.
Because the newest coop and run has a very small interior coop, the kitty pan option is not an option there. I have two or three hanging chicken watering units of a small size, that I switch out as needed. I always DO need to keep some water in each coop, as the water will take longer to freeze in that protected space than down in a run.
Large jug for food transport. I’ve re-purposed a plastic container once containing kitty litter for this. It holds more than the water jug, but won’t be as heavy, since it’s not carrying water, when full. It is severely better than manhandling 25 to 40 pounds of chicken feed to them at a time on icy surfaces. (Note my aforementioned knees and ankle, please.) I would not use this for water, as it is probably not food-safe plastic. I will bring down loads of food in the jug at one time, and store the food in the bin associated with the run, and return the empty container to my house until I need it again around a week later. Note, if the ground isn’t slippery, I just manhandle down the 25 lb bag, or put half in a bucket that I use for storage in the bin and carry that down. Non-winter or muddy months, I just drive the stuff down, but I need a tractor or UTV for further farm growth! (
Egg collection apron. For 1-4 eggs, I can carry them in my jacket pockets, especially if I remembered to bring a few sheets of paper towel along. Both as buffer, and as a way when some eggs were dirty… my pockets could survive the mud or poo. These seem to hold 12 eggs total (and there are still always your jacket pockets anyway for back up).
Yes, there are some great baskets for egg collection, but for winter with certain types of snow/ice/mud, I want my hands on my hiking poles. Sometimes I am bringing things back and forth leaving me with just the right-hand pole, but for everyday use? Give me a good apron! If I’ve slipped on my dignity, it’s been my backside! Cackleberry Home Egg Collecting & Gathering Apron 12 Pockets, Bright Garden (Amazon). They do have other apron patterns, but this one was chicken-themed.
Paper towels/face cloths. Nice to have, I keep them in my jacket pockets. They are also fine in the back pack. If you only have a couple or so of eggs each time, you can separate them from clinking against each other with a paper towel. Or a face cloth, which is more bulky. Your choice. (Face cloths are too bulky to fit with an egg into those apron slots.) Wrapping them also keeps poo’d -on eggs from contaminating the others or your apron slots, within reason. You may also want to store extra paper towels or face cloths in your chicken storage bin.
Snow shovel. Get an extra that you keep AT your coop/run. You don’t want the ability to access your coop or run to be ruined by snow that turns into frozen nastiness. Go out early and often, clear your entryways to the coop and run. I like the ergonomic shape, do as you will. On the small scale this clearing is, ergonomic need not be a consideration and a regular straight pole for a handle should do just fine, but I had an extra ergonomic one, so that’s what’s there. My back thanks me.
Ice Chopper. This is a piece of metal at the bottom of a tall stick, and you use it to chop away any ice that keeps you from opening the coop or run door. My main coop had the problem last winter of a bolus of ice droppng off the roof right in front of the run door, and freezing solid there overnight. I had to access the run, and fortunately I already had one of these items from my pre-homestead life (living on a steep driveway there). This year, so far, I’ve used it to break away the ice layer on the garage driveway pad, so even if you don’t have livestock, consider it for yourself if you live anywhere that things might truly ice up.
Broom. I’m using the broom I also use to sweep out the coop. I also use it to brush off the top of the storage bin… turns out too much snow weight on the lid makes the hydraulic mechanism that keeps the bin open when I’m poking around in there, not work so well. Not crazy about the lid crashing down on my head, despite my winter head gear! The coop broom I use is has a 12-15 inch sweep, which for its main purpose (cleaning out the coop proper), is why I bought that size. It works with snow as well as with coop clean out. You may well find other uses… knock that snow that is turning into icicles off the coop roof, that sort of thing.
De-icing spray. This is the thing you keep around for your car lock especially back in the day when cars had to be opened with a manual key. This spray/spritzer is handy for getting into your coop if icing occurs. Even if icing occurs, you won’t always need it, but GOOD to have on hand, just in case. Or you could do what I had to do about twenty years ago to my car sitting in my driveway to get into it so I could get to work one morning after the entire driver side (and passenger side) doorway was iced over… a half liter of vodka… Yep, don’t laugh, although that car probably should have been pulled over for its own severe inebriation.
Head Lamp. This is something you should have anyway. Winter, summer, spring, fall. Chickens, four-legged livestock, getting lost in the woods, DIY in the dark, checking the outdoors for whatever, or just for anything! The back of my house does have lights, but you will want directed light, and why tie up the use of one arm in the dark holding a flashlight, lantern, or your truly awkward mobile phone to light your way? If you really have to go visit your chickens at night, it’s usually something you’ll want quick directed light to access. Full moonlight is cool, but hardly ever around when you need it. Also, it may not be good enough.
The head lamp I bought, Atomic Beam, is awesome. It uses LED lighting, and you can set the light to either of two levels of brightness (I’m sure the lower level will go through the battery slower), as well as to a strobe light, for which I’m not certain how I’d use that feature, but others may certainly find applications. Hopefully not for the induction of epilepsy, but if you are susceptible, I can see where this setting would be a trigger. There are straps so you can adjust it to fit your bare head, or over whatever winter or hard-hat needs you may have.
I am planning on buying a second one to keep in the car. Just in case. Y’ never know! Atomic Beam Headlight by BulbHead, 5,000 Lux Hands-Free LED Headlamp, 3 Beam Modes (Amazon).
Yes, keep a stash of extra batteries for anything you might ever need to use that requires them!
Footprints: Especially if you are on a slope of any nature, and need to access your chickens or any other livestock on a regular basis, having defined footprints in your landscape can be a lifesaver. Back in the day around 20 or so years ago, when I only had ONE bad knee, I lived in a home atop a super-steep driveway, and if my car couldn’t climb up (it could have been plowed, but if it were icy, I still couldn’t always drive up…), I parked at the bottom, and hiked up the side of the drive. I left footprints and followed them both directions. I didn’t have hiking poles then, but had a couple good sturdy wood sticks (aka tree branches), and they kept me from falling. One day that 20-year-ago winter it suddenly reached 50+ degrees F, rained, and froze solid to 20 degrees F… and for the next five days the weather dropped to about 9 degrees F. Stayed there. I had to use those footprints, and those sticks, to get back and forth from my house to the car (and work) and back again. I remember the only thing I could purchase and get into my house during that time was canned cat food for my feline companions, because I could carry them in my pockets. (I lacked a backpack then.) Fortunately, I had plenty of human food there. So… hey, I maintain footprints as a fail-safe. And a backpack. Unless you can plow the area (and on a steep driveway, even that local plow could not make it non-icy and safe that week, and at that level of cold, salt just sits there and laughs at you), maintain a set of footprints.
Yes, you can plow out a path, but DO keep tracks for yourself so as not to slip. Because, as noted above… snow plow paths do NOT necessarily keep you safe from secure footsteps, even if there is any sort of slope involved. I KNOW this.
Boot or shoe crampons. Yaktracks is the popular brand, but Unigear traction cleats dig into ice even further. Choose your brand depending on your needs, and on the access you have to your coop. I’ve had a broken knee, and another knee where a benign tumor was removed the year prior to this, and a really bad ankle that now has pins and a plate. I’m working on trying to figure out how my XL-sized Unigear will fit with support on a hiking BOOT, rather than just the running shoes you see in these pics. (I wear 10.5 sized footwear… men’s, US sizing, although my boots are size 11.) Unigear Traction Cleats Ice Snow Grips with 18 Spikes for Walking, Jogging, Climbing and Hiking (Amazon).
At any rate, you shouldn’t need to wear these every trip you take to the coop in winter.
Here’s the spikey base of the cleats I am using. Step down solid as you walk.
Winter garb. You should already know what works for you. I do try to keep two pairs of gloves, one regular winter wear for the cold, and another pair that I can switch to, which has more finger flexibility but protective capability should a chicken, especially a rooster, object to a procedure. Hopefully said procedures won’t be necessary, but one never knows.
Ski Goggles. One reminder: On really bright sunny days with snow on the ground, “snow blindness” is a thing. Get ski goggles. Prescription, if needed. Or simply something to cover over glasses you may already need to have. In my case, I just take off the glasses and wear the goggles as my bad eyes are good enough for what I might need to do at my coops. (Yes, I now have several coops.)
We’ve had three-four days to date where temps dropped to about 0 degrees F. I kept the chickens cooped up in their coop. They are able to keep each other warm, and if you have winter-hardy birds and have a properly-ventilated coop you should do just fine. You’ll need to provide them with liquid water more frequently, but that’s fine. Add ample pine shaving or hay bedding, and allow the poop by the roosts to accumulate… this will provide more warmth. But if it smells bad when you go in there, it means your ventilation system is inadequate or overloaded, and you will need to remove some of their droppings.
If the ground outside is snow-covered, the chickens will nearly always not wish to go outdoors – at least in my experience. After all, nothing for them to eat out there! I am sure there are exceptional birds. At any rate, I only bring onto this farmstead chicken breeds that are winter hardy. Do your research!
I understand that some breeds of chickens who are otherwise winter hardy may be susceptible to comb or wattle frostbite. I understand that Vaseline rubbed on their combs will protect them from said frostbite. Fortunately, my Wyandotte roo, Tiny Dancer, is likely not susceptible — which is good, because I don’t think he’d stand still for frequent applications of the stuff.
Winter Garb Addendum, for -10 F and Worse:
January 19th through most of the 20th (2019) we had a snowfall of about a foot here. Then, late Sunday (the 20th) our temps just simply plummeted, to a low of -13 F / -25 C on Monday. Temperatures struggled up to about -7 by the end of that day. Wind chill factors hovered around minus 25 to minus 30 (probably lower here) all day. The 12 chickens were fine enclosed in their coop (no wind chill, decent ventilation, shared body warmth, some poop warmth, and I’d given them a third of a bag of extra pine shavings before the storm). Their water froze, but that’s why I had to go down and replenish.
Normally, a good pair of thermal gloves suffices. Mittens are hard to work with, and for certain tasks you WILL have to remove at least one of them for dexterity purposes. BUT, if you get winter weather this cold, BUY A PAIR of thermal MITTENS! You can remove one quickly if you need to have fingers at the ready for half a minute. Most times, warmer weather, thermal gloves will suffice.
But, best yet!!! My friend Kat sent me information about two styles of convertible mittens/fingerless gloves. They seal up as mittens, and unseal to bring your fingers to the ready when briefly so needed – for instance, the picking up of eggs. I am ordering NOW. My choices: TrailHeads Power Stretch Convertible Mittens – Women’s Fingerless Gloves or Beurlike Women’s Winter Gloves Warm Wool Knitted Convertible Fingerless Mittens (both Amazon).
I was only down there about 15 minutes or so, but on the way back, I could feel my gloved fingers growing numb. I will also get a heavier-duty insulated hat (make sure any hat you have covers your ears, which mine did, but it was not heavy duty enough…). By the time I got back to the house, I was feeling that unpleasant “brain freeze” you can get if you eat too big a spoonful of really cold ice cream all at once.
I will also note that those effective temperatures around minus 30 F / minus 35 C wind chill factors will exhaust you. Wind out of one’s sails, and other metaphors… Or maybe it’s just me, at age 65? A good scarf and/or ski mask may also be in order.
Keep a stash of Vaseline or similar around in case a rooster or hen needs the protection from frostbite on their comb or wattles . (ATM, mine seem to be fine; as noted my rooster, Tiny Dancer, resists handling, so I’m glad he doesn’t need it. Some breeds are more susceptible than others to frostbite. In this region, I’d made a point of choosing breeds that were not.)
At any rate: Don’t let Ole Man Winter get you DOWN!
Past Posts in this Series:
- Raising Chickens Part I: Intro & Overview
- Raising Chickens Part II: Welcoming Baby Chicks
- This one. Updated.
- Raising Chickens Part IV: My Chicken Run and Coop
- Raising Chickens Part V: The Bin, or Storage at Your Coop
- Raising Chickens Part VI: Feeding Those Layers
- Raising Chickens Part VII: Predation!
- Raising Chickens Part VIII: Is Organic the Way to Go?
This post is shivering, but warming up over at the following Link Parties: