One problem with our pasture raised chicken operation is what the heck do we do with them in the winter? New Jersey can have some fierce winter storms that can dump feet of snow over our pastures. This is no good for chickens as they are not happy tromping around in the snow. Not only that, but our light weight chick shaw roof would collapse under the weight of the snow. We needed a more substantial structure for my chickens to live over the winter.
As winter quickly falls upon us the grass stops growing, the ground begins to freeze – I know its time to get the chickens off the pasture. Traditionally, November 25th is Saint Catherines day. Saint Catherine, known as the protector of livestock and is meant to bring luck and safety to animals during winter. This date is my guide to when I should have my animals off pasture each year.
Following farmer Joel Salatin’s guidance, I wanted to move the chickens into our high tunnel. Our high tunnel is a repurposed carport that we covered in uv resistant polyurethane plastic sheeting. This structure doubles as a winter chicken coop and helps us extend our vegetable growing season from early spring through fall.
The high tunnel provides a perfect structure to keep my birds out of the harsh winter elements and protected from predators. The hight tunnel generates some serious heat during the dead of winter with no supplement heat. It also protects the birds from the deadly cold winter winds.
The most important step to do before the move is to add a deep layer of bedding to the floor of the high tunnel. The chicken make quick work of any weeds or veggies left inside from the growing season. Its amazing how quickly the high tunnel is gleaned from every bit of green in a matter of days by the ravenous chickens. To create the deep bedding we use mostly fall leaves and a few yards of wood chips we can get free from a local tree trimmer. We will also add in hay and straw. I aim for 8-12” of bedding. Most tree trimmers are happy to dump a load of wood chips when they are working near by.
The deep bedding adds tons of carbon to the floor of the high tunnel soaking up all of the ammonia from the manure of the chickens. This keeps the high tunnel smelling pleasant during the winter with little to no maintenance. The chickens stir and manure the bedding all winter long creating a beautiful dark compost we can plant directly into the following spring. This is the very core of permaculture. You take a problem and turn it into a solution that benefits the homestead.
My husband will simply roll the chickshaw into the high tunnel so the chickens can continue to use the nesting boxes and roosting bars at night. They spend their days digging in the wood chips searching for bugs, seeds, and taking frequent dust baths. We keep our premier one electric fencing around the perimeter of the high tunnel to ensure they are safe from predators.
Another game changer was a the addition of a plug in heated nipple waterer from primier one. Typically I would have to haul fresh water in buckets every morning, but with the heated watering I replenish it once or twice a week.
Winter is the season we have more free time to vacation and this setup makes that easier. I worry less about chickens getting out and being taken by predators when they are locked up and secure in the hight tunnel than when they are out on pasture.
In previous years before the high tunnel the chickens were stuck in a dank dark shed the majority of the winter. The birds are noticeably happier in the warm sun drenched high tunnel. Their egg production dwindles in winter but with this set up we tend to get more eggs than when we had them in the shed.
I like my homestead to follow a rhythm that honors the cycles of nature. Honoring these cycles is synonymous with honoring ourselves. Myself, my husband and our children can ride the waves of the shifting seasons much better with established rituals in place. The cessation of the chickens on pasture, marks the beginning of the yuletide season and all the blessings abound.