There really are few things more satisfying than fresh farm eggs - dark chocolate and a good pot of hot coffee rank quite high on my list, too. Rhonda Jean over at Down to Earth has a wonderfully informative post on keeping backyard chickens and has asked us all in for a chat around the topic. We've had chickens for quite a few years and have learned a lot but there's always more to discover (like how to keep them safe from Wily Coyote and still allow them to range freely). Keeping chickens happy, healthy, and laying through the cold winter months have a few special considerations.
We like the Buff Orpingtons because they tolerate extremes of climate well. They're a large dual purpose (layers and meat) breed but we don't raise them for meat because I cannot kill my chickens. Their coop lays on a cement foundation that has been dug a couple of feet into the ground but the floor is dirt. In a dry climate like Colorado this hasn't been much of a problem as the dirt is so hard packed we can clean it out easily. It's 8 feet deep and 12 feet long. In the winter their little yard has to be scooped out so they can get some winter sunshine. When the snow melts in between storms the gate is opened so they can get good exercise and whatever else they fancy (but that is when the coyotes snatch them up so we have to be home to keep an eye out).
(Chicken Man Jerome with a bag of oyster shells)
Inside the coop in the winter we have a red heat lamp on which keeps the coop quite warm and has the added benefit of keeping their waterer thawed. The plastic cans hung so attractively over the waterer keeps the hens from perching on top of the waterer. You don't want your hens pooping in their water and they just can't help themselves from perching on things. The red lamp also gives them some calming light - we've never had a carnivorous pecking problem - and the extra light allows them to lay eggs all winter.
The coop has five nesting boxes which is enough for 25 hens. The straw is changed out every month. Right now we don't have any broody hens but occasionally one or another will nestle in and make it a bit harder to get the eggs. We've had roosters from time to time but unless you're wanting to get fertilized eggs and raise chicks roosters are kind of hard on the old girls. Roosters dig their spurs into the hens' backs and defeather them there.
Instead of mud and muck in the coop we tend to get more dust (see the thick layer of dust on top of the nesting box?). Every so often we have to take the shop vac into the coop and clean the dust off. You don't want to broom it off because it becomes incredibly hard to breathe in there. It's darn near impossible to clean a coop in the dead of winter and is accomplished only on those nicer sunny days.
We make sure they have lots of greens in the winter - tops of carrots, lettuce that is a little wilted, leftover porridge, apples that aren't crunchy anymore, leftover soups/stews - in addition to their mash and grains. We don't feed them their own eggshells to prevent them from getting a taste for eggs. It will really make you angry to see little holes pecked in eggs that you've come to gather. Oyster shell keeps their shells and bones hard.
Hope this helps folks who would like to raise chickens in colder climates. And here's a confession that might help you realize that we all start somewhere. My first experience raising chickens was about 26 or 27 years ago. We were living in an old farmhouse up north of Denver which had barns and a coop. Jerry was raised on a ranch and was more knowledgable about the intricacies of chicken keeping but I was raised in the suburbs of Detroit and knew really nothing. Well then, Jerry was out of town for a couple of days and it was up to me, my stepdaughter Tracy who was 12 at the time, and my 3 year old Jessica to tend the chickens. It was getting late and I had the thought that the chickens - who were allowed to roam during the day - should be in their coop. So I and the girls went out to round them all up. It took us forever and the neighbors probably thought we were quite insane, running about, yelling, and coaxing chickens into their coop. We had them all in except one hen who ran into a small culvert out in the pasture to hide from the crazy banshees. How on earth do we get her out?, we wondered. We had Young Bandit, the border collie cross pound dog, and had the great idea of sending him into the culvert to chase the hen out. He didn't want to do it but he had no choice. In he went - with our encouragement - and out the other side minus the chicken who was still in the culvert. He somehow was able to go around that clever chicken inside the little culvert. We thought it was pretty amazing. She finally came out on her own and we hustled her into the coop. When Jerry got home later we all told him the story of our amazing chicken gathering feat. He laughed and laughed and laughed - at us. I hadn't a clue but have always known from that day on that chickens naturally will go back to their coop for the night when it is dark enough.