Leaving Your Chickens for the First Time During Winter

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You're going on a trip, and it's winter. I hope it's somewhere warm. Par-tay! But wait, you have chickens. Should you leave them in someone else's care? Can another person give your flock the love and attention they deserve? Will they even miss you while you're gone?? Stop worrying.

Uh, where do you think you're going?

Uh, where do you think you're going?

We may be homesteaders, but we have lives too, right? I mean away from our homesteads. There are holidays we want to spend with family, friends having life changes we want to visit and celebrate with, and kids we want to take on adventures. I love my homestead more than any other place I've ever been, but I admit there is much I want to do and see outside of it. 

Chickens don't take care of themselves. They will go to roost every night, and if their run is enclosed predators aren't as likely to get in the coop, so you can leave the door open. If you buy or make a huge auto-feeder and get the largest chicken waterer available, their basic needs are met in your absence. There are circumstances though that are hard to foresee or prevent, so at minimum I recommend you have a human check on them in the morning and evening. Eggs should also be collected so your ladies don't decide to start pecking at them when they pile up. I had been preparing for our flock's arrival since we were just dreaming of moving to our homestead. When you add in the large time and money investment they were, I wanted to take an active role in making sure they were going to survive our trip away. 

Leaving our chickens for the first time wasn't easy for me. I stressed leading up to it trying to decide what to prepare. Is this person going to think I'm an insane chicken lady if I give too many instructions? Am I not being detailed enough? Did I leave them with all of the supplies and knowledge they need to handle something in case I'm not reachable? Now, I don't think you need to send the person watching your chickens for you to chicken care boot camp, but they will appreciate knowing what to do when things don't go right. Trust me, they don't want anything bad to happen to your chickens while they are caring for them either. I'll share what we did to prep, and what issues we ran into, so you can have a great time away.

If I had to pick a non-living enemy number one for chickens, it would be snow.

If I had to pick a non-living enemy number one for chickens, it would be snow.

My neighbor kindly volunteered to watch our flock in exchange for the eggs so we could visit family after Christmas. The forecast called for unusually cold temperatures (that are continuing), so the first thing we did was winterize the coop and run. Our normal lows are in the teens and 20's, but we were forecasting 0 and below during our time away. Honeyshaker had been sick the week before we were scheduled to leave, so Orion and I cleaned the coop top to bottom and gave them a thick layer of fresh straw. The last thing we needed was an outbreak while were gone. We added an extra bale of straw to the coop stacking the slices against the walls to add more insulation, and the run was filled with fresh straw so they could have a clean, dry place to enjoy the sunnier days. It had been rather muddy outside, so our chickens were a mess. Jared and I spent some time with them the day before we left washing them off with a hot wash cloth and salving up their combs with our awesome Henny & Roo comb salve (which we received in our chicken subscription box!) to protect against frostbite. Vaseline works too, but doesn't smell nearly as good. I knew the layer of salve wouldn't last the whole time we were gone, and I wasn't about to ask her to do that to the chickens every night (some REALLY hated it). It was good to do though to ensure none of the mud caked on their combs was actually frostbite. It looked like it could really be either or. One tip for spreading the salve easier: drop it in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes while you prep to go out there. If you bring it out cold it is impossible to spread!  

You can see the gray mud on Himalaya's comb(left), and Bellatrix's clean, salved up comb(right). Definitely a two person job.

In hindsight I would have wrapped the run in a clear tarp for wind and snow protection. It snowed while we were gone (not in the forecast), and the ladies weren't pleased their run was covered in it. Their water also froze on day 3 of our trip, and froze every evening after that. We have a water warmer installed, but it couldn't handle the extra cold temps, and it hadn't been tested in temps so low before we left. Luckily our neighbor cleverly thought to pull a rebar stake from our asparagus patch to break it up and  bring hot water to the coop every morning to thaw the ice chunks. We still haven't solved this water freezing issue now that we're home, so were doing the same thing still. A heated dog water bowl would totally solve this problem, but our flock is messy and kicks straw into the water trough now, so I imagine the bowl will just be filled with the stuff every hour. A bowl also doesn't look like it holds enough water for a flock as large as ours, so I'd be filling it constantly. I'll update this post with what works when we find it.

The feeder Jared built (left) has a few design flaws we'll work out on V2.0, The water heater(right) is a 40W bulb under a cement block with cap. Keeps the straw and dust out to prevent fires, but might be too thick to get the heat radiating through enough in extreme cold. Did well in lows of 15F and over. 

Before we left I gave her a written list of what the chickens needed, and where to find extra supplies. Then we walked through the coop and did the daily care routine together. We have a large auto feeder and a trash can full of extra feed in the coop. Our feed sticks in the elbow, so I let her know if it was empty a bit of poking at the jammed feed would bring it down. Our watering dish lasts 2 or 3 days (unless it freezes), so I showed her how to open it and where to fill it when it was low. I brought over a bag of scratch with instructions on how much per a day. A few handfuls is enough to give them something to do and warm them up a bit. I wasn't too specific since it wasn't life or death and just a treat. I also made sure she had a large bag of calcium so their dish wouldn't run out. My chickens like to bury it, so I let her know where she was likely to find it. We keep our spare straw in the barn, so told her where it was and gave her a key in case they needed more. I also let her know what kinds of kitchen scraps the chickens enjoy and what to avoid. Not a comprehensive list, but enough to let her know if she had anything spare from prepping meals or leftovers they would enjoy it. I also let her know what times of the day I typically find eggs, and if they were left too long in the coop they could freeze and break.  

I left written instructions for what to do in an emergency, and left the first aid kit along with our emergency "coop" (aka sick bay) up in the garage with the heat lamp attached and extension cord nearby (one hen can't keep herself warm in a garage below freezing, so I give them a secure heat lamp so they can be cozy and safe) . What situations would she need it in? If a chicken was injured and bleeding, separate them so the rest of the flock doesn't peck their would to death. There is Vetericyn in the first aid kit I left and told her to spray an open wound with it to clean it, but otherwise it could be left to heal. I knew she would send me photos if that happened so we could evaluate whether it was something more serious that required more. I also let her know there was a syringe and saline (also from our chicken subscription box!) in the kit for flushing if needed. I didn't leave any sickness instructions, we were only gone for 6 days, so I figured we could handle sneezing and runny beaks when we returned if that occurred. 

The water is still freezing solid daily. Makes morning chores a pain.

The water is still freezing solid daily. Makes morning chores a pain.

Most importantly I told her that there are some things that just can't be prevented. If a weasel decided to break into the coop, or a stray dog tore open the run to get in, those are just out of our control. It's tough to acknowledge your whole flock can be decimated by a predator attack, but I wanted her know that is a risk we take every day as chicken keepers. On the other hand, I also mentioned chickens are pretty hardy, so not too be too concerned about them if she slept in a bit, or was late to close the door. That happens around here a couple times a week as kid's activity schedules, and life conflicts with sunrise and sunset.

Besides the small issues we had with the water freezing, everything was fine! Another hen decided to start laying while we were gone, so we are now getting 9 eggs a day on the good days!

Reunited and it feels so good. Carol Pacey is not amused.

Reunited and it feels so good. Carol Pacey is not amused.

Now go on, and enjoy your trip! Your chickens will definitely miss you while you're gone (just kidding, mine didn't even notice my absence), and your friend will love having fresh eggs for the week!

Cheers!

Bev

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This post contains ads & affiliate links (this links to our full disclosure about browser cookies, and way more than you probably wanted to know about ads and affiliate marketing). We make a small commission when you purchase from some of the links shared in this post. Making a purchase from a link will not cause you to pay more or affect your purchase in any way. It will however, support our wildest farmin' dreams, which is mighty awesome of you.