Free ranging your chickens is a wonderful thing for them. They can wander around all day, eating up a variety of goodies they have found in your lawn, gardens, and under the trees. Free range chickens rarely suffer from boredom and they typically have stronger immune systems. All good things, right?
But what about those free range chickens that live where winter hits hard? Where do they range? If you have a small flock, it’s easy enough to shovel away the snow in a small area for the chickens to graze. You can even snowshoe little paths for them (something my kids and I have done in years past). However, the larger your flock is, the harder the task of supplying adequate space becomes.
Space is just as important in the winter as it is anytime of year, maybe even more so. If your chickens spend more time in the coop during the snowy months, it is vital that they have room to spread their wings when they go outdoors.
Last year I had assembled a polytunnel off the back of my chicken coop. For my eight birds, it worked quite well. If I didn’t get right out to shovel or snowshoe, they had an 8′ x 8′ space they could mull about it. The sun coming through the plastic warmed it, making it sort of like a three season porch for the ladies. Everything was hunkey-dorey until a huge load of snow came off the garage roof and flattened it. At least it was nearly spring…
So this year I have more than twice as many birds, no polytunnel, and the snow has started falling (you can hear about my girls’ reaction to it on Facebook). The way I see it, I have a few options.
Shoveling or Snow Blowing
I can choose to shovel of snow blow a large area. I’ll be honest, the idea of shoveling that much space is far from appealing, but a farmer has to do what a farmer has to do. Snow blowing is a bit better (since it’s faster and easier on the arms), but remember, the worst snowfalls always seem to be at night and these chickens want out at the crack of dawn. No one wants to feel rush to get out of their jammies to deal with snow.
So, shoveling and snow blowing will work, but neither is ideal.
So you have to deal with the driveway anyways, why not let the chickens range there? Since I live in the village and my mailbox is right by my front door, I have until 9:30am to clear my driveway or I don’t get my mail for the day. Since I have to take care of the snow there, it makes sense just to let the chickens out the front door of the coop and let them hang out there.
Well, there are a few flaws, but they don’t make-or-break this plan. First, my rooster seems to take issue with the mailman. When the rooster has the whole yard, he leaves the poor man alone, but in the confined space of the driveway, this could be asking for trouble. Second, chickens like to perch, especially when the ground is chilly on their feet. I prefer they not perch on the ski rack of my car. Third, what chicken poop is not smeared down my car windows ends up on the deck, walkways and all over the driveway. This means when you take off your snowy boots in the entryway of the house, it melts into a yucky poopy puddle. No thank you!
So driveway ranging is an option as well, but has some stinky flaws.
A Tarp or Temporary Roof
A temporary structure might be the best option for your free range chickens during the winter. You can use a tarp, plastic, canvas or even plywood to create a “roof” over an area. The larger the flock, the more work and cost involved in this system, but once it’s set up, it requires little maintenance. Just be sure you account for snow load, clearing it off regularly or making sure it has an adequate pitch.
So a temporary structure requires little work once it’s in place, but there is cost and maintenance to consider, as well as a risk of collapse.
If you have other livestock on your homestead, their grazing area might be a good place to range your chickens, even if you usually keep them separate. Cows, horses, pigs and even goats seem unfazed by snow and they make quick work at clearing large areas. You may have even trudged a path between the coop and these livestock pens already. Tossing down some hay on the path and allowing the chickens to mull about in this cleared area might be the best free range option.
Everyone who maintains a farm during the winter knows how hard it can be to provide thawed water to their critters. This task is even harder for those of us who free range our birds. You cannot use water heaters in uncovered areas. Water heaters must be kept in dry conditions. That limits you to the coop if you don’t have a run, which isn’t ideal since the moisture from the warm water can create respiratory issues with your birds.
You also can’t identify where your birds will choose to range. You may have cleared a great area for them, but they have decided to range in the treeline. Keep an eye on your birds on cold days and make sure water is provided in the areas they are spending their time. Often if you located water near their food, they will access it. I like to use these rubber tubs for my chickens and ducks during the winter because you can kick out the ice blocks without damaging them and the black keeps them thawed a bit longer than with other containers.
Free ranging your chickens in a snowy climate is definitely doable, but it does take a bit of planning and certainly more work than confining your chickens. Don’t wait until the first snowfall like I did. Plan ahead so you are prepared. Happy winter!