I love winter. Winter is coming. I am a happy girl.
You see, I have a new concern this year.....these two little babes.
I am a chicken-owner now. A completely moronic, first-time chicken owner who lost over half her flock in the first year. That's right. I started with 6 in April this year and now have 2. Lost my first chicken to a predator - we're thinking a fox judging by the way she was killed. Had to cull Gandalf, the rooster, when he started biting my kids. Then, like the sad, sad stories I read about and shake my head at, thinking there's no way in hell I'd ever let something like that happen, my girls were attacked in their hoop house, just a few months ago.
The predator killed Yennifer, my beautiful little silver-laced Wyondotte. Holiday, my last buff Orpington, was in bad shape. Real bad shape. Broken foot and can-see-though-her-abdomen bad shape. So I had to put her down. While in my pajamas. In the rain. With tears streaming down my face because despite how much I want to be a hardass, emotionless homesteader, I love my birds and feel no joy in taking their lives. Plus my sweet girls were wasted. Can't eat a bird when you don't know what's bitten it. Pretty much one of my lowest moments in this journey toward self-sustainability.
So that horrible morning left me with two birds. Two lone little loves. Strangely enough, the two I have left are also the very first two chickens I brought home. Ruby and Cheese, my Barred Plymouth Rocks, my little survivors.
Predators are underrated. I thought with my 8-ft-high privacy fence and secure hoop house, my girls would be safe.
Turns out it's not so easy.
Chicken wire protects chickens from nothing. That's right. Nothing. As in, not a single thing. Anything can get through chicken wire. Skunks. Dogs. Opossums. Foxes. Raccoon. Cats. Minks. Weasels. Pretty much the only creatures that cannot get through chicken wire are chickens. And that is a shame, because the other material I use, hardware cloth, costs about 3 times as much.
But I'd rather eat sand that's been peed on than lose another bird. I've made it my life's mission to keep these last two alive and to learn from my own stupidity. I modified my original hoop house door and added yet another of hardware cloth. That pretty little screen door? That was my downfall. That was how the predator got in. Screen doors do nothing, people. Nothing. Wrap your screen doors in hardware cloth because that screen ain't doing you any favors.
And I figured, while I'm at it, modifying this hoop house and making it more secure, how about I go ahead and get my winterizing on.
I live in the northern Midwest. It gets down to -20 degrees here in the winter, sometimes dipping lower, especially with the windchill. We average close to 40 inches of snow each winter. I know. It's crazy, but I love it. I love the thought of getting snug and reading with tea. It's my happy zone.
So anyways, I researched some cold-hearty chicken breeds and only purchased birds that could do well in my climate. My two girls are built for the cold, no doubt....but regardless of breeding, they still need a warm shelter for the coldest days of the year.
Some people add a heat lamp to their coop. I can't do that (nowhere to secure it in the hoop house). Plus I don't wanna. Heat lamps get hot. Heat = fire. Fire = my last two chickens dead and me pulling all my hair out and then falling into a pit of homesteading failure and doom.
I knew I had this sweet little modified hoop house just chillin the the backyard. I needed to find a way to insulate it.
Enter scene: Free plastic from a local garden and nursery shop. Think about all those greenhouses you see at your local garden store. They need to replace that plastic every now and then and guess what - that means the old plastic needs to get dumped. Sometimes they'll keep it around for patch jobs and oddball projects, but when they've got a 100-ft greenhouse that stands 50-ft tall, little scraps of plastic just aren't that useful anymore.
And that's where I come in. I have a teeny little 10x12ft hoop house. Teeny. Little. Insignificant. I talked to the manager at the garden center, who also happens to be a cherished and lovely friend, and she said the plastic is super expensive, but yes, she was pretty certain they had some old stuff sitting in a shed somewhere. That I could have. For free.
A few weeks later, I went and picked up a ginormous, huge ball of dirty, ripped, old, white greenhouse plastic. I had myself a little moment in the truck on the way home. I officially scavenged my very first item from a local business. I drove home with that lump of plastic in my truck smiling like a maniac the entire time, so happy, so excited, so thankful. I'd received enough plastic to cover the hoop house.....twice.
I cut the plastic out around the door, stapled a bottom panel of plastic onto the door (which of course is also covered in hardware cloth now), and created a curtain for the top of the door. Like their own lil' vertical dutch door. That curtain is fabulous. Allows air in and out (super important for healthy birds) but doesn't let the wind or rain in when it's rolled down. That's a piece of baling twine stuck into it and holding it all rolled up.
I also made some cutouts, covered with hardware cloth, of course, near the back of the hoop house. A little cross-ventilation will make sure they have fresh air to breath, without sacrificing their need for a non-breezy, warm place to roost.
The plastic is, to be honest, barely secured to the frame. Those tarps on top hold the plastic down pretty well, in addition to adding another layer of protection. The plastic is also stapled to the frame in the front and back....but I wanted the sides mobile...non-permanent, so in the summer I could roll them up and let the light in and the heat out. Of course, you're just asking for problems if you don't secure your cover down somehow on the sides.
The solution? On the two long sides, the plastic is stapled to a detached wooden board, a 2x4, and then rolled around the 2x4 until it's tight. In the summer, I will roll the plastic up higher and secure the 2x4 to some hooks in the PVC frame about 3 feet from the ground. Waa-lah. Hoop house side windows. Of course, the plastic went right over the hardware cloth I'd wrapped around and around and around, so (hopefully) I won't need to do much come summertime. Just roll and go.
The key to using plastic on your hoop house? Make sure you don't have pointy stuff sticking out. I had to painstakingly check every piece of baling wire I used to secure the hardware cloth to the PVC pipe and make sure all pointy parts were tucked in. The front and back frames are made of wooden beams (check out this post for the full breakdown of what was used for the hoop house, how much it cost, and how it's put together). The beams were too "sharp" on top, meaning the weight of snow could potentially tear the plastic. So what can cap a piece of wood, stay soft in below-zero temps, and cost nothing? An old glove, of course. Bam. Works like a charm.
I stuck a thermometer in the hoop, the same one I used when they were wee lil chicks, so I could keep an eye on how cold it gets in the hoop house. So far the temp has stayed about 5-10 degrees warmer inside than out. We'll see how she does in the dead of winter! And yep, that waterer can be plugged in to keep the water from freezing. We'll need to run an extension cord....I'm delaying that as long as humanly possible as I've heard these things have a short life.
I'd read straw bales are great for insulation, but can get moldy and create problems with chicken lungs. One of my favorite chicken dudes, Justin Rhodes, said you can always use the bales on the outside of the house if you're worried about too much heat loss. So that's what I did. Bonus points: the bales help secure the plastic down so the wind doesn't get under it and cause it to freak out.
Of course, one of the best things you can do to keep your animals happy in the winter is to add some warm, soft bedding to the ground. The layer of pine shavings in the hoop house is about 1.5 feet deep near the roost. Those doors help block any stray wind gusts and help hold the roosting branches in place.
It's a little dark in there sometimes, which will undoubtedly affect my egg counts, but eggs aren't my primary concern these days. I just really want to keep my flock safe.
I went ahead and purchased one of these for good measure. Next time something comes at my girls, I'll get 'em on camera.
So who wants to take bets on how well I keep these two little loves alive this winter? Anyone? Anyone? And no, if you're a hawk, fox, or raccoon, you can't join in the bet...Ruby's rules.
What are you doing to prep for the winter? Are you looking forward to the change in seasons? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!