Lessons from the Polar Vortex
There’s nothing like an extreme weather event to get you rethinking your chicken-keeping practices.
The polar vortex event that hit the Midwest in late January sure had me rethinking mine. I spent a week trying to keep my small flock of chickens alive during record low temperatures and insanely wicked wind chills. Fortunately, we all survived. And I learned a few important lessons about caring for chickens during extreme weather.
Caring for Chickens in Winter
My first six winters raising backyard chickens had their share of sub-zero temperatures, wind chills in minus double digits, and all the snow and ice one might expect during an Iowa winter. And I did pretty well by my chickens during those winters.
I kept the chickens in sheltered location next to the house with easy access to water and electricity. I took steps every autumn to winterize the chicken coop and pen. And when cold weather arrived, I was vigilant about maintaining the flock’s health and comfort.
In six winters, I never lost a chicken to the cold, much less had a case of frostbite.
But then the polar vortex blew into town.
Tips for Winter Chicken Care
As detailed in my prior blog post, Caring for Your Chickens in Winter: A Guide, I believe a few factors have contributed to my past winter chicken keeping success:
- Raising cold hardy breeds. In particular, chickens with rose combs, like my Dominiques and Easter Eggers, are less susceptible to frost bite.
- Choosing a sheltered location to keep chickens. My pen and coop are located next to the house, with the deck and screen porch protecting from above and the house serving as a wind block. Water and electricity are nearby, and I have easy access to the pen from the basement door.
- Winterizing the coop and pen. I add a thick layer of straw over the bottom of the entire pen and inside the coop, cover the large windows in the coop with cardboard, and cover the top of the coop with a tarp to provide protection from drafts and blowing snow but still allow for ventilation. Inside the coop, the chickens have a cozy place to huddle together at night with a wooden roost positioned in a dry, draft-free spot with ventilation above.
- Maintaining the coop. I make sure the coop stays dry and draft free by regularly removing droppings and adding more bedding material.
- Providing fresh water and extra food. I use a small electric water heater to keep the water from freezing. To help raise the chickens’ body temperature, I provide special treats like warm oatmeal on cold mornings and cracked corn before bed.
- Providing outdoor access. To entice the chickens outside to their water and food, I keep the pen clear of snow. I provide hay bales and outdoor roosts so they can get up off the ground. And I toss scratch grains and meal worms in the straw to encourage exercise and prevent boredom.
A note about heating the coop
During my first couple of winters with chickens, when I had only three hens, I heated the coop. I used a brooder clamp light with a 60-watt infrared bulb. The lamp was plugged into a thermostatically-controlled outlet set to turn on when the temperature in the coop dropped below freezing. When I added two more hens to the flock, I abandoned this practice. I became too concerned about the risk of fire or burns to the chickens with a heat source in such small quarters, and I felt that five warm bodies in a small, protected coop could generate enough heat to keep them all safe.
What is the Polar Vortex?
Midwesterners have grown all too familiar with the term “polar vortex” over the last few years. To us it means extreme winter weather. But the term actually refers to a circular band of winds around the earth’s poles, miles above the earth. This low pressure system normally acts as a wall that keeps frigid air trapped near the poles. But sometimes the winds weaken enough to allow extremely cold air to escape to the south.
As the climate changes and the Arctic sea ice melts, we likely will see more and more severe polar vortex events, like the one that occurred over much of North America during the last week of January. That week, we experienced weather unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime. And I learned a few important chicken-keeping lessons for when the next extreme weather event occurs.
Polar Vortex 2019
It was a shitty week for a polar vortex. Mr. CMC was out of town all week for work. (In Nashville, which was calling off school due to a half-inch of snow and where people were grousing about temperatures in the 20s – above zero. I mean, come on.) Meanwhile, I was at home with six chickens, two dogs, two cats, a broken fireplace, and a furnace that ran non-stop for three days but couldn’t manage to get the house above 62 degrees.
I may or may not have gone two straight days without changing out of my snow pants or bathing.
On Monday, things weren’t too bad. The temperature was in the 20s, which is normal, and the sun was out. But the forecast for Tuesday evening into Thursday was downright scary. Temperatures would drop into the negative double digits, and strong winds would bring dangerous wind chills.
I started to worry about the chickens – a lot. About my three elderly hens. About Bernice, my young resuce hen, whose large comb was at risk of frostbite. You can say I was a little obsessed.
By Monday evening, I came up with a plan.
Calling in Reinforcements
In the garage, in my quest for anything that my be useful to me, I found two extra-large sheets of plastic that my husband had been using for some sort of garden project. Between the two of them, the sheets were large enough to cover the entire top and sides of the chicken pen. They would serve as an additional wind block.
Thrilled with my find, I contemplated starting the project that night, while the temperature was still above zero. But I decided to wait until daylight.
The next morning, Tuesday, the temperature was in the minus single digits and the wind was howling. I bundled up and went out to the pen. While the chickens huddled together and watched me with bemusement, I wrestled that plastic against the wind for hours, sometimes crying, sometimes swearing, and wishing I had a second set of hands to help.
But, finally, somehow, the pen was covered. I managed to weigh down the plastic sheets with snow, boards, shovels, buckets of snow – anything I could find – to keep them secure in the wind. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but I was pretty damn proud of my one-woman job.
Inside, the sun gave the plastic sheets a greenhouse effect. Protecteed from the 20-35 mph winds (and the minus 25-30° wind chills), the back of the pen seemed almost balmy, and the chickens were happily pecking and scratching away.
Record Low Temperatures
The next day, I was relieved to find all six chickens had made it through the night in good shape. The plastic over the pen held, and the enclosure was out of the wind.
As each hen popped out of the coop, I smeared Vaseline on her comb – paying extra attention to Bernice – to prevent frostbite. For an extra bit of warmth, I secured a heat lamp above the outdoor roost, where the hens like to huddle on cold days.
I bundled up every hour or so to go out and check on the chickens, but as the day progressed and the sun moved away from the pen, my confidence faded. Two of the older hens seemed lethargic, Bernice’s comb had some darkish looking spots on it that I was concerned was the beginning of frostbite, and the forecast was calling for a record low of minus 30° overnight, with minus 55° wind chills. I didn’t think the hens would survive another night.
Extreme temperatures called for extreme measures. I decided I had no choice but to move the chickens inside.
I knew my unheated but insulated attached garage was a good place for the chickens to ride out the vortex. They would be out of the extreme cold but not experience a drastic temperature swing that could stress their bodies. But I had to figure out the logistics. While I wanted the chickens to have sufficient space to move around, I didn’t want them loose in the garage full of crap where they likely could find some way to hurt themselves.
I won’t talk about the hour I struggled to set up an old tent with disintegrating poles in the garage, but when the tent proved to be a bust, I settled on using an old dog crate and a large cat carrier. Quarters would be tight, but I figured a taste of factory farm living for a few days would be better than freezing to death.
The chickens remained in the garage until Friday afternoon, roosting on a broom handle in the dog crate. I covered the crates with a moving blanket at night and provided a lamp during the day to simulate sunshine.
The chickens seemed a lot happier. Bernice even laid eggs throughout the whole ordeal. (The other chickens are still on winter strike.)
By Friday afternoon, temperatures returned to normal, and I returned the chickens to their pen. And I had learned a few important lessons about caring for chickens in extreme weather.
Five Lessons Learned from the Polar Vortex
1. Have an emergency response plan for extreme weather events.
If you are ever faced with having to move your chickens in a hurry, know how you will do it. This lesson doesn’t apply just to extreme cold; it also comes into play with wild fires, hurricanes, flooding, and other natural disasters. As the climate continues to change, extreme weather events will become more frequent.
Anticipate what your weather emergencies may be and how you will need to respond. Do you have a place to confine your chickens if you need to bring them inside the garage or even the house? Do you have enough crates and pet carriers for all of your chickens if you need to move them in a hurry? If you rely on electricity to heat the chicken’s water, what is your plan if the power goes out? Plan ahead so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute in an extreme weather emergency.
My tip: Have enough pet carriers on hand to hold/transport all of your chickens in an emergency situation. (Click on the image for my Amazon affiliate link – disclaimer at bottom of page.)
2. In an extreme cold event, no matter how well protected the chicken pen may be, it can use more protection.
Wrapping my chicken pen in plastic was a brilliant idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it six years earlier. Not only did the plastic block the wind and provide a greenhouse effect against the cold, it keeps the snow out. No more need to clear out the snow that blows in.
3. Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for extreme weather.
I always got done with my normal winter preparations for the chickens before winter got down to business. But it sure did suck trying to get those plastic sheets installed as the polar vortex was bearing down! I will be adding the plastic installation to my list of regular winterizing tasks from here on out.
4. Keep a small pop-up tent on hand for confining the chickens inside during extreme weather.
I saw this idea on social media during the polar vortex, and I gave it a try with an old tent I found in the garage. Unfortunately, the tent was too big to set up in the garage and the old poles kept snapping on me. The tent went in the trash and the chickens went into crates. However, I am considering investing in a small one to have on hand for the next polar vortex event.
My tip: A small pop-up tent offers a place to confine chickens indoors during extreme weather. (Click on the image for my Amazon affiliate link – disclaimer at bottom of page.)
5. Plastic food containers used for packaging mushrooms and other produce make great chicken feeders and waterers in a pinch.
This lesson may not be earth-shaking, but it’s a great tip that I wanted to pass on. With the hens confined to tight quarters in a cat carrier and pet crate, there wasn’t enough room to put a small feeder or waterer inside without the chickens knocking them over. I especially didn’t want spilled water in the crate in the cold. So I improvised.
I had a few blue plastic food containers on hand that had been packaging for purchased mushrooms. (Fortunately, I tend not to throw stuff like that away, and instead find ways to use them in the garden or for the chickens.) I punched holes in two sides of each container and threaded 6-inch lengths of coated wire through the holes, which I used to secure the containers to the corners of the crate. I filled one container with food and the other with water, and the chickens could eat and drink without making a huge mess.
Are you prepared for extreme weather?
Was your backyard flock affected by the polar vortex or another extreme weather event? Do you have an emergency plan to keep your chickens safe during extreme weather? Share your stories and ideas in the comments section below.