There is snow in the forecast for the high country this weekend. It does not mean I expect snow yet. I live high, but not that high. What it does mean for me is I need to stop pondering winter for my chickens and take action. It means I need to get my flock down to my winter size.
I have a coop that is ideal for six chickens over the winter. It is a clean uninsulated building that is large enough space wise for six chickens. Chickens need a certain amount personal space, aka square feet of floor space. Too little and they become mean girls and pecking, bullying and fighting ensues. Too much space and the chickens body heat will not keep they won’t generate enough heat to keep the worst of the cold out. Coop size is a really fine art in places where there is a long cold winter. Chickens worst enemy in winter is frostbite, and they are their own worst enemy for that. Every time a chicken exhales it is moist. Moisture is one of those things that helps frostbite set in. So you are looking for a coop that is vented sufficiently to let that moisture out and keep the warmth in. It sounds like an oxymoron. It is a lot of reading, planning and then you personal trial and error to get it right. After all these years I know six is my ideal number.
Knowing the number is one thing, but knowing who to keep and who must go is another. Things that plan into that are age. I like to have a bird in the freezer before a third winter. Any longer than that even ground for chicken salad is a stretch. Another consideration is will they winter well physically? I am always trying new breeds and some surprise me in their qualities. This year the California Leghorn was one of them. She has the largest comb I have ever had on a bird. It is way too large for her to fare well in a Montana winter. She is a regular layer of nice sized eggs, which normally makes her a candidate for winter, but I do not do frostbite if I can avoid it. She will have to go. Lastly I look at how well do I think they will lay in the short days of winter. I look closely at how their feathers look for signs of moulting, broodiness and it their egg production is slowing down. Some of the decisions are easy and clear. Some of it is sort of a crap shoot, play it by the seat of your pants thing.
I hate this time when hand is forced and I must get down to such a small number. I love having eggs to give away. But I also know that if I dally too long I may end up with more birds than I can reasonably handle. Keeping an extra two in the coop requires all sorts of extra adjustments and time on my part to keep my flock healthy and happy. I have done that and swore to never do it again. The other thing is to be butchering out there when it is cold, and everything is much more miserable that it needed to be if I had not delayed. So this week the report card will be in and I will be picking my six for the winter of 2013.