Wintering Hens

Farmer Voices

Wintering Hens

By Cheryll Mellenthin | Photos By Cheryll Mellenthin 0

For many small, diversified farms, a year-round product supports other seasonal items. This is true for our farm. My commitment to high-quality eggs for our customers means that when the meat chicks and piglets arrive in the spring, we have the egg revenue to pay for organic feed as we wait for the coming grass pastures. Thus, the morning chores on my small Verona farm during winter months are not driven by the sunrise like my other farm seasons – it’s all about the hens. These layers are my only year-round farm animal. Their day starts at 4 a.m. when the light timer bulb in their winter barn signals that it’s morning and time to start laying.

The crow of Mr. Mister, the majestic Delaware rooster, shakes me from a light slumber and my day begins. With the temperature below zero and frigid wind gusts finding a way through every crack in the hen’s repurposed cinderblock horse barn, I know this morning I’ll need warm water, a substantial tub of warm oatmeal, and raw milk. I enjoy these chores and that the hens know I’m here. As I open the split barn door, the sound is deafening with purring hens. It’s 6 a.m. and their laying boxes are already full of beautiful, colorful eggs. This is our arrangement for my wintering hens, happy and healthy no matter the weather.

There are a few simple guidelines I’ve learned in my four years of successful cold season egg production. First, the breed of chickens is the most important consideration. I have hens that are considered winter hardy. These are the same chickens that can tolerate heat, do well in a free-range summer pasture and can also find random seeds in a winter field. I don’t need good moms, so that’s not a factor in the selection. My hens spend their warm weather nights in closed barns, so that also prepares them for a more confined winter experience.

The next three considerations – shelter, food, water – are the same no matter the season. Yet winter brings added challenges to chicken care. I provide a cozy shelter that protects them from cold and predators, with access to electricity to create the daylight of a summer day needed for laying. I staple clear plastic to “lower” the ceiling, keeping heat where the hens are roosting. This also helps manage wild birds and the mites they can bring into winter barns. I use chicken guru Joel Salatin’s deep bedding solution – thick straw added throughout the winter providing dry footing and natural heat from slow decomposition at the ground level.

With the cold weather, chickens need more food to maintain their body weight and lay eggs, so I feed them twice a day, including a warm breakfast, with enough feeding stations for all the hens. I fill up the feeders in the evening before lights out.

Fresh water is a basic item but can be challenging on very cold days. I use heated water containers and keep these filled. I also bring in warm water and milk every morning. In the middle of the winter, I also add probiotics to their water to help maintain their feathers and overall health.

Of course, the hens would rather be outside. The glass block windows in their barn offer a tease. On days above 20 degrees, they wait at the door to their south-facing yard, the favorite daytime destination. Outside I give them compost and spent beer grain. When the snow melts, they seek out the light, warm soil for a dust bath and spend the afternoon hours in the winter sun. Mr. Mister has proven to be a worthy protector from the occasional bird of prey. They head back inside the barn with the setting winter sun.

One benefit of winter egg production is cleaner eggs. I hand wash the three to four dozen each day, so the clean, straw-filled laying boxes means less work for me. That said, I can’t wait for spring and the longer, sun-filled days for the hens.

Cheryll Mellenthin owns and operates StoneHaus Farm in rural Verona with her husband. They specialize in small-scale hog and poultry production and have been raising heritage breeds for nearly a decade. She left a tenured career in corporate leadership to spend more time on her farm and be closer to her food. She has four young grandchildren to whom she dedicates herself in between farm chores. When Cheryll is not chasing hogs, chickens, or children, you can find her in the kitchen or running on local trails.

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