Robert is our manager at Vital Farm and a real thought leader in the art of pasture-raising hens. From time to time, he’ll be providing farm updates and answering frequent questions we get concerning pasture-raising. With the rough cold season we’ve been having, many people wonder how the birds handle cold weather. Here’s Robert’s take:
This winter has been incredibly rainy and cold for this part of Texas. While this bodes well for the condition of the pasture in the coming spring, it can be a little trying when you work outdoors. You just come to accept being muddy, cold and wet all the time as a normal state of affairs, and console yourself with memories of the 107 degree temperatures of last summer’s drought.
A lot of people ask me if the cold weather is bad for the hens, since they live mostly outside. They actually do quite well in the cold, as long as they have a way to stay dry and sheltered. They are, after all, birds, and the forests and meadows all around the farm are full of thousands of birds who seem to survive each winter, even when temperatures dip into the teens, as they did last month. Birds are provided with excellent insulation in the form of feathers, which we actually use to make winter clothing and sleeping bags.
Each of our flocks has a mobile coop in which they spend their nights, and where they can shelter in inclement weather. These trailers provide the essential protection from precipitation and wind that they need to get through the winter. On colder nights, they huddle together for warmth. When I make my rounds of the flocks at night, if I stand in the doorway of their trailer, I can feel the heat radiating from the sleeping hens.
Chickens get into trouble when they are exposed to a bad combination of elements, such as wind and cold, or cold and wet, or wind, cold and wet. In these conditions they are unable to retain their body heat, and can die from simple hypothermia. It is very important to make sure that the flocks have plenty of places to go to get out of the wind and rain. As with everything else in pasture-raising, if you give the birds the resources that they need, they will figure out how to use them.
Generally speaking if the temperatures do not dip into the twenties and teens regularly, and the winters aren’t too harsh where you are, you shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping your flocks on pasture in the colder months. As long as they are properly provided for, a cold, sunny day on pasture will always beat a warm day in a cage.