Monday, 13 January 2014

Winter Eggs

Chickens are an important element here on our homestead.  While we don't aim for self sufficiency (for many reasons), we do aim for resiliency ~ a sturdy and diverse system that can withstand adverse and variable conditions.  Chickens are critical in that system, giving so much for so little.  Not everyone uses chickens to their full potential but can they pack a powerful "output" punch if carefully managed.  In no particular order:

  1. Eggs
  2. Manure, feathers and egg shells for the compost
  3. In situ fertilization when rotationally grazed (directly depositing manure where they graze)
  4. "Weed" management in the garden and wherever grazed
  5. "Pest" management 
  6. Heat (direct body heat in the coop and indirectly, thermophilic heat when we use deep bedding to manage manure in winter)
  7. Meat
  8. Light tilling (they do a fabulous job of tilling up a bed in readiness for seeding)
  9. Fall clean up (eating all spent plant matter from the garden)
  10. Orchard management (fertility and keeping dropped fruit from attracting pests)
  11. Disturbance.  Healthy systems need periodic disturbance to thrive.  Chickens can disturb the ground very effectively if tightly grazed and moved daily.  
  12. Recyclers.  Our hens eat nearly all of our kitchen waste, effectively turning a waste stream into a resource (eggs first, but second to that, manure).
  13. Entertainment.  Chickens are hilarious and they provide us with endless entertainment.  There's value in that!
  14. More chickens!  If allowed to breed naturally, you've got a successional supply of all of the above.

At the moment, we've got 8 dozen eggs in our fridge which is a rare thing in winter.  We've been experimenting with a few different techniques this year in order to maximize the health of our poultry over the cold winter months and one of the byproducts of that effort has been HEAPS of eggs!  It wasn't our intention to ramp up egg production, but that benefit is sure nice as we use a lot of eggs on a regular basis (summer and winter).  We also supply our 2 adult sons with eggs, so we are pleased that running short hasn't been a problem so far this winter.

In summer, our hens have access to all sorts of insects and a diverse number of plant species  (grasses, garden greens, tree leaves and herbs).  They have everything need at their beaks (so to speak) and can pick and choose what to eat given how they feel and what they need.  In winter this isn't the case.  Those birds rely solely on us to bring them all their food ~ gone is the freedom of natural foraging choice.    

First, we set to ensure that their staple feed is of the highest quality we can find. We feed them locally grown organic wheat screenings and supplement from there with an aim for diversity.   One way to achieve diversity (and probiotic benefit) is to soak the grains.  A 3 day soak is just enough to get the seeds sprouting which packs a nutritional punch for the girls. We give them soaked feed once or twice per week.  

As well, we grow herbs in the house in winter and I give some to the birds every few days.  Some days they gobble them down, others, they leave them.   Herbs are great for parasite prevention which can be a problem in flocks that are in close quarters.  We also feed our hens meat in winter as our oldest son hunts and he saves the trimmings for the birds.  We freeze them and dole them out once/per week (which they also love).  Our hens eat mice as well and believe me, the mice know that there's grain in the coop!  Any mice who dare to enter are promptly caught and eaten by those sharp eyed chickens (especially those Rhode Island Reds).

When the weather is REALLY cold (below -30C), I will often cook up some oatmeal for the hens in the late afternoon (with a bit of lard or bacon fat) .  This ensures that they have something warm in them going into the coldest nights.   This doesn't happen frequently, but it does give them a nice treat :)

Our hens do go outside in winter when it's not too cold out (by choice).  Snow doesn't bother them,  but cold wind and frigid temperatures DO.  We always leave the coop door propped open just enough for them to come and go as they please so they usually choose to come out for short bursts during the day to snack on scraps and peck through the snow.

Lastly, we always have oyster shell available in the coop.  This is important for shell building and in winter, those girls don't have access to grit in the soil.  I'd like to have a more local alternative - anyone know what I can use here on the prairie (in place of oyster shell)?

Our next project is to seed some greens for the hens in the garage under a grow light (hubby is an electrician and is going to rig me up something).  I'd like to give them a flat of greens/day and I figure if I seed 7 flats on one day each week, after a few weeks, I'll have enough in rotational sequence to make it work.  That should be a manageable enterprise (time wise) once it's established and buying seed in bulk will be essential in keeping the cost element down.  As well, as mentioned in my previous post, we shall soon have enough worms in our worm farm to be able to supplement the chickens' diet even further.

All of these factors combined seem to be contributing to our hens' health.  They have clean water at all times and a varied diet which appears to be keeping them in good form.  I would imagine that we wouldn't be getting near as many eggs if they were short on nutrition.  If you live in a cold winter climate with snow cover, how do YOU keep your hens healthy?


  1. Great post! We are in the middle of a heatwave, so keeping them cool is the problem! Love your blog :)

    1. Thank you, Ailsa :) It's amazing how different the climate can be, isn't it?

  2. If the oyster shell is for calcium, would ground game bone work (since you have a source of game meat)? No idea if they are similar enough or if bone poses any kind of risk--just the first thought. Count me out of the grinding though!

    1. I have no idea - never thought about it! Will have to investigate... Thanks for the idea.

  3. We just feed them their own egg shells (crushed) back to them for calcium. We've never bought oyster shells.

    1. I do the same and have read that crushed egg shells are a good alternative to oyster shells - I'm not sure the egg shells provide the grit, which is why you give it, right Sheri? Luckily we are not under snow cover all winter, so patches of dirt are usually still accessible between snow storms...i suppose you could dig down in the snow to find them some pebbles :)

    2. Hi Evelyn - yes, we have done that in the past. We got out of the habit as we had egg eaters for spell (not for a long time now, though). I wanted to not encourage them to eat shell, but I think you're supposed to bake them for a bit, right? Do you?

  4. Jaime, the land under our snow is frozen ROCK SOLID. There's no hope of scrounging anything up in winter. I'd like to come up with a solution that doesn't involve buying oyster shell - maybe stockpiling some grit/dirt in the fall to provide through the winter...

    hmmmmmnnn.... you've got me thinking!