Fall lasted what seemed to be unusually long this year in southwest Montana. The days were warmer and the sun brighter in late October than I remembered in years past. Then the calendar flip to November and suddenly we had two back to back snow events, leaving a thick covering on the ground. We still have a blanket of snow in our yard and they are calling for another snow event tonight. Fall was gone in a flash and winter is here to stay.
Still feeling under the weather today, but this morning the sun reflected off the mountains and it almost took my breath away. I tried to capture it. Now I am trying to share it with you.
Today’s challenge was light and for me it was morning light on the snow covered mountains.
This week has been full of reminders of what spring in Montana is like. Snow and more snow. Almost everyday we woke up to snow. We were just above the snow line. Spring will not happen for us until the snow line moves up another 1,000 feet. For us that means sometime in June. Today it feels like an eternity into the future.
As much as I am ready to turn the soil and put seeds in the ground I know that we will have night-time freezes for weeks to come. For some reason this year I am not ready to wait that long. It means that I am going to need to explore season extenders that will work with my low temperatures, occasional snow, regular frosts, howling winds and a small budget. No putting seedlings in the ground and covering them occasionally with sheets. This is going to take a plan and daily effort to get things to go all the way to harvest.
So I hope you will follow along and give me your thoughts and suggestions as I figure out how to extend my growing season on a shoestring.
We just celebrated another sign of spring. Our baby chicks are three weeks old and we moved them from living in my studio space to the shed outside Sunday. It can never happen early enough for me and this year was the same. I counted the days until they were mostly feathered out, because birds can control their body heat better with feathers than when covered in down. It finally happened this week. My birds were finally mostly feathered out. I set up two heat lamps in the shed; their target ambient temperature is 80-75 degrees. I set up some shields to help their area to be as draft free as a corner in a shed can be. Quite a challenge in an uninsulated shed, with a sliding barn door. But by the afternoon I was sure we could take them out and do right by them.
Last night’s low was 19 degrees, and we got 4 inches of snow. This morning we found our birds setting under the heat lamps none the worst for wear. It looks like tonight will be more of the same. Spring in Montana what more can I say.
Yesterday we were under winter storm warnings around here, and tonight we have our first windchill warning. This is the time many folks worry about their new flock of chickens and winter temperatures. Chickens are like other livestock, given proper shelter, water and food they will do just fine.
I am not an advocate of supplemental heating for your chickens. My reasons are as follows:
- They don’t need it. Like other animals they will acclimate if you allow them to do so.
- Chickens don’t need or behave best if they have 24 hours of light.
- Fire! Especially heat lamps.
- Why waste money? A small light doesn’t cost much, but every penny counts.
- If you have a proper size coop for your flock it will be warm enough. In places where you get a bitter cold winter some insulation may be in order as well. It is important that any drafty cracks and corners be taken care of too.
I keep their feeders full of layer pellets. I supplement them with produce scraps, because they are use to free range the rest of the year.
I do use heated water dishes because all animals need access to lots of fresh water. It makes it easier for me to keep drinkable water available to them. Before I used a heated dish, it took many visits to the coop with hot water and a hammer.
I have made a decision on who I am keeping and who is going from my flock for the winter. Here is what I have decided.
Barred Rock – Going because she is from the 2011 flock. She is getting on the far side for age. She is a good layer but in the interest of flock rotation it is time for her to go.
Dark Brahma – Going because she is from the 2012 year and she isn’t a great layer. The dark brahmas have not been as larger as other brahmas in the past. They have gone broody and molted the first fall. If she molts again in fall there will be no eggs until spring. This is a breed I don’t intend to repeat.
Austrolorp – Going She has never been the kind of performer that you expect from this breed. I kept on thinking she would get better but hasn’t. This is a breed I don’t seem be able to get a good one. I no longer intend to try and get one.
Speckled Sussex (2) – one stays and one goes. They both will stay if we change our mind on the Jaehorn. They are good layers. They lay late and start early. It is just that there are birds from this year so they have a longer rotational life that forces one of these out.
California Leghorn – Going because her comb is too big for a Montana winter in my coop.
Silver Laced Wyandotte – Going because she has severe scoliosis. Though she is doing well right now but I would hate to be forced to deal with problems caused by this in the middle of the winter. Experience with this problem, says don’t take her into the winter.
Buff Orpington – Staying. She is a large bird from this flock and seems to be laying well.
Buff Brahma – Staying. A favorite breed for us. We are going to see what she will do if she stays for the winter
Easter Egger Staying We have had mixed results. We are going to see what happens if we keep her.
Norwegian Jaehorn – Staying – We are torn the most with this one. She is the lowest on the pecking order, and not sure when they are forced to hang out more together in the winter how this will all play out. Because she is for Norway and should be winter hearty we so want to keep her. We may flip on this before butcher day.
Buckeye – Staying. She has a cushion comb, and seems to be a great layer. She is a rock star forager and a fairly calm bird.
There are a couple of things that could change this.
- Death of a bird
- A bird goes broody or into a molt. In that case the bird would move to the going list. Either one this late in the season, would mean an egg hiatus until next spring.
- I waiver on the Jaehorn. Neither one of us are sure keeping her is the right thing.
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.