Friday, December 2, 2011

Wintering at Waggin' Tails Station

Sooooooo... No denying that Waggin’ Tails Station has been on hiatus for a while. Our apologies, but some medical issues over the past few months required some re-evaluation of our workload. We weren’t sure whether we would be forced to move from our small farm to a new location. That issue has now been laid to rest, at least for a while, so it’s time to bring Waggin’TailsStation back up to speed!

          Seeing as mid-Michigan just saw its first major snow of 2011, this seems a good time to talk about wintering over your livestock...

          If you break it down to basics, the requirements for livestock are the same as those for us humans! Food, water, & shelter are all essential. But providing these things for livestock can present some challenges, both financial & logistical.

          Consider water, for example, in the frozen winter months here in Michigan. During the summer, we utilize a simple hose system by which we keep chicken waterers & the sheep tank filled with fresh water. This same system allows us to scrub out the waterers & tank periodically, then refill, in order to avoid any bacterial growth.
          However, this hose system is useless during the winter months. In fact, if the hoses aren’t cleared of water before the first freeze, the water in them will freeze, expand, & split the hoses! So we pull the hoses at the first freeze, & store them for the winter. But then, what’s a person to do to water the chickens & fill the sheep tank?
          That’s when we REALLY go back to basics, using gallon jugs or 5-gallon buckets to carry water out to the livestock. It’s much more labor-intensive than the summer system, but is the only solution to our situation at this time.
          In order to keep our chicken waterers from freezing, we use metal waterers with heaters that are specially designed for the purpose. We also use a floating tank heater in the sheep tank. This heater floats freely around the tank, so that the surface of the tank doesn’t freeze. Of course, the use of these devices causes an increase in electrical costs during winter months, which is another challenge altogether!

          Shelter is less of an issue, especially with the chickens. The henhouse door to the chicken yard is closed & insulated in order to preserve warmth, & a supplemental heat lamp is added when needed. Our chickens snuggle together when they are cold, which has occasionally resulted in “sudden chicken death”. This happens because chickens aren’t very bright, so sometimes the chicken at the bottom of the pile is smothered by all of the others. To avoid the occasional chicken catastrophe, we do our best to keep the henhouse warm enough. Our chickens are pretty comfortable at temperatures over 40 degrees Farenheit. Even in winter, if the day is warm enough & we are not working, we will open the door out to the chicken yard so that the chickens can get outside & roam around a bit. Even with chickens, too much togetherness is NOT a good thing!
          When setting up a wintering system for the chickens, something else to consider is a way to keep the roosters from tormenting the hens too much while they’re all confined inside. “Chicken love” is not a very nice thing from the hen’s point of view. Roosters tend to be larger than hens & are far more aggressive as well, so being confined together can wreak havoc on the hens. For this reason, many chicken wranglers “process” their extra roosters before the winter begins, eliminating part of the problem. For those hens confined with the remaining roosters, we set up a shelter that the hens can access but the roosters cannot. We use ½ of a plastic dog kennel for our hens. Our roosters are too large to get thru the doorway, but most of the hens are not. In fact, in the spring & summer, many of our roosting hens (e.g., sitting on eggs) like to “hide” in this shelter while setting on their eggs.
          For our small herd of sheep, an aluminum pig house does the trick, with a wall added at one end as a windbreak. All 6 of the sheep can enter this enclosure, & their body heat is shared within the small space, keeping them all warm. Of course, there are occasionally squabbles regarding the space limitations, but our dominant sheep Carmel seems to keep all the others in check. The sheep share a large fenced area during the winter months, & we occasionally let them out onto the “big yard” if the day is warm & the snow isn’t very deep.

          When it comes to diet, we make some changes over the summer months. Although this might sound a bit macabre to the uninitiated, we will occasionally scramble eggs to give to our chickens during the winter months. The extra fat & protein in their diet helps them to create “internal combustion”. It is an unfortunate fact that chickens become cannibals when one of their own number dies, so they are totally OK with eating the eggs of their own species. I realize it seems a bit macabre to humans, but it is the most cost-efficient way to upgrade their diet in the winter months. In addition, we know that the food source is uncontaminated, since our chickens are all disease-free in a closed flock.
          We also increase the amount of owner-fed foods, such as breads & veggies from our refrigerator. Chickens will eat virtually anything, & their diet becomes more limited in the winter when they cannot forage for bugs or other goodies. They are willing to eat veggies that are slightly past their “good date” in human eyes. The most amusing thing I’ve ever seen is the way our chickens go insane when we give them an old watermelon that has been cut in half! By the time they’re done, only the thinnest shell of the watermelon remains, they are all covered in pink, & are very happy!
          For our sheep, the winter diet is also changed. During the summer, they are very efficient lawn mowers of our “big yard” & get enough vegetation in that way. But in the winter, they require more “owner supplementation”, so we put up a good supply of hay to carry them thru the winter months. We also increase their corn intake, provide a mineral block, & add in little treats such as cut-up apples or other fruit.

          So as you can see, there are some things to be considered if you decide to “winter over” livestock in Michigan. And we have some of the simpler species to winter over. As the saying goes, chickens and sheep are “easy keepers”. But folks with horses, cows, or other animals have other issues that they must consider.
          There is no doubt that there is a bit of extra labor involved during the winter months, particularly in making sure that water sources are available. But the contentment of having sheep come to you to eat corn from your hand, or having chickens come to your lap to roost in the henhouse, far outweigh the extra labor, at least in our eyes.

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