In Winter, Even Hens Need a Heater

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chickensfurnace_post.jpg

Photo by Carol Ann Sayle


Winter dropped in on the farm with dramatic finality just the other day. The leaves of the pecan trees fell in unison, without the benefit of even the slightest breeze. The event was over in minutes. Apparently, the season's first, hard freeze the night before was the substitute facilitator.

In addition to the sudden denuding of the trees, the prospect of a 20-degree hard freeze instituted "improvements" to the Hen House as well. The 70 young pullets, living in the "nursery" side of the Hen House and mentored by the matronly hen, 7-year-old Aunt Tootie J. Tootums, are the hope for abundant eggs beginning in February. (The most productive season for eggs in Central Texas is from February through June.) Needing those potential eggs for our farm stand customers, we didn't want to lose any youngsters to the sudden cold.

Aunt Tootie, also mystified, checked out the new situation. She climbed up, pecked at a lamp, and proclaimed it odd, but safe.

Larry installed a couple of red-light heat lamps over the perches to keep them toasty. Proudly we flicked the lights on as the chilly night grew near. But the pullets were alarmed! Their bedroom looked like it was on fire and they refused to climb the ramp leading to it.

Aunt Tootie, also mystified, checked out the new situation. She climbed up, pecked at a lamp, and proclaimed it odd, but safe. She retired to her corner, as far from the lights as possible, and urged the girls to come to bed.

No way, they peeped worriedly. After all, Tootie is their aunt and not their mom, as they are orphans. Maybe she was just "dotty," like some aunts are. So Larry and I rounded them up and lifted each little hen to the perches. Some flew down in panic and others huddled nervously, wondering how they would sleep in this furnace. But, some acknowledged that, yes, it was warm, and they stuck to the perches. Their auntie continued to assure them. Finally all were on the perches, wide awake.

Later I checked on them and found most still awake, some with their necks stretched upwards as if they were wary of sparks.

The freeze came, with the low temperatures destroying the left-over summer crops, but sparing the winter ones and the sensitive plants like chard that we covered with floating row covers. In the morning, the farm was white with frost. But there was no ice on the perches. Warmed through the night, the pullets, hungry after a night in the furnace, discovered that while it was still dark everywhere else on the farm, the "fires" lit their way to the breakfast pans, so they were able to start eating earlier than ever. And that's very important to a hen. Eating constantly, especially when it's 20 degrees in the dining hall, is, after all, another way to stay warm.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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