For those who have been following the saga of Henny Penny, our intrepid Buff Orpington who made up her mind to hatch a brood of chicks out of season, yesterday brought a new development: I decided to move her back to Gen Pop from Ad Seg (that's prison lingo for "general population" and "administrative segregation."). She'd been in the upstairs (hay loft / basketball court) portion of the barn, confined to a 4' x 8' chicken tractor with her brood since mid-November. The chicks are now seven or eight weeks old, fully feathered, and no longer need her body heat to stay warm even on the bitterly cold (single digit temp) nights we've been having here in Michigan. And even if they did need her body heat, they're now much too large to fit under her wings. She liked playing mother hen, and clucking the brood around the pen, but I could tell she was getting cabin fever with the confinement. Once I dropped her through the trap door and into the main portion of the barn, she went running off without so much as a backward glance.
The chicks, however, are going to remain upstairs for awhile. The big issue is water: they aren't big enough or coordinated enough to jump onto the edge of a bucket or 40 gallon water trough and get themselves a drink. In the past, we've had many chicks their size plop right into the bucket or trough and drown. At this age, they really ought to be taking their water from a ground-level dispenser, and the big ones freeze solid within hours of being filled up. The six of them don't seem to mind hanging out together in the upstairs pen, and I can easily keep them supplied with a quart jar of warm water each morning. Even though their jar freezes each night, it's a simple matter to take it in the house, thaw it in the sink, and refill it for them.
Water is definitely the biggest struggle on a farm in the winter. We've never been comfortable with the electric water heater units that can be placed in big troughs of water; it may be an irrational fear, but there's something about placing an electrical appliance directly into water that makes us nervous. And at least in the sheep area (which the ducks and geese and chickens also have access to), we can go through 40 gallons of water before it freezes. The big problem is getting the faucet and hose unfrozen, so we can fill the trough back up. It is critical to disconnect the hose as soon as you finish using it, and drain all the water out before winding it up; otherwise, the water freezes in the hose and the whole thing has to be taken to the basement of the house to thaw. The faucet, on the other hand, always freezes solid. Fortunately, it's very close to the ground, so only a small portion is sticking up and needing to be thawed. About every other day or every third day, I take a quart of very hot water out to the barn and pour it over the faucet until enough internal ice melts and it can be opened. Sometimes it requires a bit of shaking to dislodge the rest of the ice, so the water can flow freely, but we've always been able to get water eventually.
Simply having a barn with water is a huge blessing, and if you're looking for a farm of your own this is definitely a feature you should check on. Our old farm did not have water in the barn, meaning we had to carry five gallon buckets from the house; needless to say, this got real old real fast in the dead of winter. (We had a rainwater collection system to supply the animals with water in the summer, but had to drag a hose from the basement if the rainwater ever ran out.) If, for some reason, we ever had to move to a different farm...I'm not sure I could go back to having a barn without running water.
With weather reports indicating another arctic blast is coming in tonight, I'd better stop typing and get started actually filling water troughs and battening down the hatches in the barn...