December 18, 2017
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Winter means extra work when it comes to backyard farm critters

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

Creating or adding to an existing backyard flock or barnyard always seems like a good idea in spring.

Which is exactly what Hannah Voisine of Frenchville was reminding herself of recently as she broke several inches of ice off a child’s wading pool used by her family’s two resident ducks.

“This is our third winter with them,” Voisine said as the two khaki campbell ducks, Donald and Petunia, waddled around their pen. “They were really cute ducklings, and we knew when we got them winter would be coming.”

It’s something anyone who raises small batches of poultry or livestock knows.

Ingenuity and hard work

Unlike larger operations, the backyard hobbyist often does not have a large barn or other temperature controlled outbuildings for their animals.

“In winter, water is the biggest thing,” Donna Coffin, professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension office, said. “You need to figure out a way to get fresh water to the animals. There are a hundred different ways to lug water.”

Coffin, for example, said at one time she kept a garden hose inside all winter and took it out when it was time to run water to her animals.

“The hose never froze because we kept it in a mud room,” she said. “When we were done filling the water, we’d drag it back inside.”

After a few winters of that, Coffin said she installed an underground line leading to the animals and connected a frostless faucet — one designed not to freeze — on the house.

At the Voisine house, there is also a great deal of lugging.

Both the small flock of chickens and the ducks have electric heated waterers, but they still need to be filled every other day and that means trudging through snow to get to them.

Then there is Koda, the mini-horse belonging to her daughter, 11-year-old Ella Voisine.

Every other day Ella, with the help of her mom and father, Jamie Voisine, fills up a bucket from the frostless faucet on the side of the house and carries it several hundred feet to Koda’s barn.

“I’ll snowblow a path to the barn all winter,” Jamie Voisine said. “When it gets deep enough, I’ll snowblow a path around the pasture for Koda, too.”

That attention to fresh water is important for the larger animals, Coffin said.

If the water container is not heated — there are several varieties available on the market — then it means going out once or twice a day to remove the frozen water and replace it with liquid.

“If you do use some sort of water heater, make sure it is installed according to the instructions,” Coffin said “You don’t want any sparks that could ignite hay or straw and cause a fire.”

A place to call home

It’s also important, Coffin said, that animals have adequate shelter during the winter.

“With poultry, you need to make sure the coop is well ventilated,” she said. “A lot of times people want to make sure their birds are warm so they close it right up like they are sealing a house.”

Over sealing or insulating a coop prevents ventilation, allowing the ammonia created by chicken waste to build up, creating an unhealthy environment for birds.

“The rule of thumb is, if you walk into your coop and your eyes start to water, get some fresh air in there,” Coffin said.

Bedding, whether is is straw, hay or wood chips, must be dry for animals, Coffin said, as sleeping on wet bedding is also unhealthy and uncomfortable for the animals.

“Every animal — a chicken, duck, sheep, goat or horse — needs a place to lie down,” she said.

The first winter for the Voisine ducks, Donald and Petunia were relocated into the family’s garage out of the wind and into a straw-filled pen.

“They had heated water and they stayed warm,” Hannah Voisine said. “But they really kind of made a mess and it began to stink.”

The next winter the ducks moved into a lean-to on the side of the chicken coop, which worked out well, but this year the ducks will remain in their regular coop with heated water and a swimming pool for as long as the family is willing to chip out ice and re-fill it.

Meanwhile, the Voisine egg-laying chickens hang out in their own ventilated, insulated coop.

“We may cover the pens with a tarp this year to try and keep some of the snow out so the chickens can go outside,” Hannah Voisine said.

The fencing around the coops not only provides an exercise yard for the birds, it prevents predation, another important consideration, according to Coffin.

Larger animals need a dry, ventilated shelter that they ideally wander in and out of to get out of the wind and icy rain, Coffin said.

In Maine, the law requires a three-sided shelter with a sturdy roof.

Koda, the mini-horse, has a small barn to call home, but Hannah Voisine said the stocky little horse often prefers to be outside.

“His coat gets really long and fuzzy for the winter,” she said. “He has his barn, but we’ll look out and he’ll just be standing out in the snow perfectly happy.”

Happy to stand, Hannah said, but not so happy to walk around.

“That’s why Jamie has to snow blow a path for Koda,” she said. “The snow will get higher than his fence, and [Koda] won’t keep it tapped down and could just climb right out.”

To give the horse exercise during the winter, Ella Voisine will walk him down the road, sometimes to visit her grandparents.

“It’s hard work and there is never a day off taking care of [the animals],” Hannah Voisine said. “Sometimes I think we are crazy, but we really do love them.”

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