Frozen in Place (an unlikely story about chickens)

It was really, really cold this morning for Kansas City. Temperatures were at 10 deg F at 10:45 am this morning, with a windchill of -9 deg F (-12/-22 deg C), and it was even colder earlier at 7am. Several local school districts cancelled classes today because they didn’t want their students to risk frostbite and/or hypothermia waiting for school buses. I decided not to attend a 9am presentation of 1 Million Cups at the Kauffman Foundation (which I was planning on mostly for the social value of getting out of the house) and live streamed it instead on my computer while sitting in my pajamas.

It was an interesting presentation, I learned about a couple of nifty organizations and their business models, and by streaming it, completely defeated the purpose of networking with other actual humans. While congratulating myself on efficiency and tech-savvy for learning to use the application, I cringed at my laziness and cowardice in the face of cold temperatures. This was not the way of my outdoor educator/farmer self!

Flashback, last winter (Jan 2014): Northwest CT, like much of the U.S., was in the frigid grip of the Polar Vortex. I was living in Beit Adamah, residential housing at Isabella Freedman, as a winter work-trade volunteer. When we got lots of snow, I figured “Well, we are in the Berkshires” and when temperatures dropped for many days into the single digits (F), I thought, “Well, CT is a lot further north than Kansas – it’s probably always like this!”

I grew adept at layering clothing. To start with, regular bra and underwear, microfiber tanktop, then wool socks, long underwear tops & bottoms; then flannel-lined pants, flannel shirt and hoodie or polar fleece or wool sweater. (Did I mention there was a lot of flannel?) For outside, add 2nd pair of socks, parka with hood, hat, scarf, two pairs gloves, insulated snowpants and calf-high insulated snowboots. Every time we prepared to leave a building, it was like getting ready for an Antarctic expedition. The amount of clothing/outerwear we shed upon entering hallways/and entranceways appeared disproportionately large compared to the number of people who had just shucked them off.

Dressing warmly for outside activity became especially important during my task of caring for the chickens.

Winter chickens by Stephanie via https://www.omlet.co.uk/guide/Chickens/The+Seasons/winter/
Winter chickens by Stephanie via https://www.omlet.co.uk/guide/Chickens/The+Seasons/winter/

During normal winter temperatures (30s-40s deg F), the task was messy, but not particularly difficult. After all, you have greater mobility when you can wear fewer layers of clothing. However, always keep in mind that your outer layer will be covered in chicken poop.

  • In the morning, I let the chickens out of the coop where they lived overnight, made sure they had food and fresh water, cleaned the poop off the nesting boxes/roosts and collected eggs. Our procedure was to cover the liquid poop in the bedding with additional carbon- this case, it was sawdust from a cabinet maker- to create a deep bedding system in the coop.
  • At dusk, I made sure all the chickens had “put themselves to bed” – climbing back into the coop to roost for the night- which they usually did automatically as soon as it got dark, checked for evening eggs, and locked the coop up against predators.

About Chicken Food: Chickens are an integral part of the compost system at Isabella Freedman (which I’ll explain in another post). When the retreat center is open, the chickens mostly eat food scraps from the dining hall (which they delicately pick out of the compost pile) supplemented with some grain-based chicken feed.

During the Polar Vortex event,  my entire chicken-care procedure became more complicated.  First, when the compost pile freezes solid in extreme cold, it prevents chicken foraging, and we had to increase the amount of grain we fed them. I had to scatter the chicken feed in an egalitarian fashion: Long spread-out lines with enough “edge” area to allow many chickens to eat at the same time with a little space between. Otherwise, the chickens lower in the social pecking order (which is literal with chickens) would never get a crack at eating the grain.

Second, the chicken poop in the coop freezes solid.  On the pro side, this meant that less chicken poop would stick to my outermost layer of clothing (a plus for my friends and colleagues!)  On the con side, it meant I had to remove really, really solid ice-chunks of poop from the chicken nesting boxes.

I removed the trays from the bottom of the nesting boxes and banged them against the roosts, causing loud clanging noises and frightening the chickens.  Sometimes this percussion was enough to dislodge the poop, sometimes not.  I admit to occasionally cheating by layering sawdust on top of frozen poop, hoping it would capture the nitrogen-rich poop when the poopsicle eventually thawed.   I also would knock my metal shovel blade against the frozen poop stuck to the wooden roosts , which proved effective at poop removal, but gouged up the roosts.

Third, the condensation collecting in the sawdust storage containers also had a tendency to freeze in the super-cold weather, creating sawdust “bricks” that needed to be smushed apart under the ministrations of my shovel.

Fourth, the “frost-free” pump closest to the chicken coop froze early in the season, rendering it inoperable.  Luckily, there was a 2nd frost-free pump that was actually frost-free, but it was located a much longer distance up a hill, the incline of which is very noticeable under the weight of a full bucket of water  while walking through 6 inches of snow.  I had to remember  to chip out the slushy ice-cake out of the chickens’  water dish  before I put them to bed, otherwise it would be impossible to remove the next morning and replace with fresh water.

Finally, eggs left in the coop for longer than a few hours during the extreme cold would freeze and crack.  This did not affect the edibility of the egg – if you collected it before it defrosted.  Otherwise, poop, feathers, and sawdust would stick to the thawing egg oozing from the cracked shell, rendering the eggs unappetizing for human consumption.  (The chickens would still peck at them,  so I used to to try to discreetly smash them out of sight of the coop to discourage egg-eating behavior.)

Despite these challenges, taking care of the chickens was one of my favorite tasks ever! ( I think another post will be required to explore why.)

Also, the discomfort of being cold helped me recognize the pleasure of getting warm.  Among my other duties was to periodically clean, refill and re-boot the wood-pellet stove that heated the downstairs of Beit Adamah (our house). This involved schlepping the 40 lb bag of wood pellets from the basement up to main living area, and hefting the opened bag with enough skill to refill the main pellet hopper of the stove, without getting pellets all over the place. I became very proud of my core muscle strength honed during this process. The stove, coupled with the adjustable thermostat that triggered the automatic electrical “re-light,” kept the downstairs remarkably cozy.

There were few things that were more satisfying than taking off my chicken-y snowboots and coat, picking the feathers out of my hat and relaxing in the warmth of that pellet stove.  Back in Kansas, I recently wore my snowboots for the first snowfall of this winter.  It was great to wear them again, old insulated friends. While taking them off, I noticed a faint residue of brownish dried stuff in the outer crevices – a possible poo-souvenir of some very memorable experiences.

Tangents for this post:

On the spelling of “canceled v. cancelled.”
Live Science on Crazy Things That Happen When It’s Really Cold.
Dressing for Antarctica.

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