Conquering subzero egg collecting


As the days turn colder, things slow way down on the farm.

Hens lay fewer eggs, the ground turns frozen and becomes like concrete and my attention turns to keeping water pipes flowing and not freezing solid. The birds spend less time outside in their grazing space and more time in their cozy coops, staying out of the wind and gorging themselves on all of the cracked corn that can be provided.

The first winter I had hens, I thought these things and keeping the hens warm would be my biggest concerns.

I cringe when I think of that first winter, my ignorance putting a 250 watt heat lamp in a roost space that was roughly the size of an oversized dog crate. When the snow fell that year, I remember looking out and seeing the falling snow was literally melting off of the roof of the coop. I am incredibly lucky I didn’t end up with roasted chicken that year.

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Over the years, I have learned so much on what chickens truly need in the winter months. A coop with protection from the biting winds of winter, plenty of food and fresh, nonfrozen water.

I have abandoned the need for a heat lamp these days, relying on what is called the "deep litter method," which basically means I just keep adding bedding to the nesting/indoor living space every week or so and allowing nature to take its course in the decomposition of the bedding.

As the bedding "ferments," it creates warmth for cold chicken toes. Yes, it’s gross, but remember, these are chickens who would crawl through bovine manure piles to get food. They don’t mind.

Chickens have lots of downy feathers they puff up in the cold to trap warm air between the outside cold and themselves, and when they’re really cold, they’ll nestle those downy feathers over their feet and stay just as toasty as can be.

That brings my attention to another matter: Eggs. Yes, there are fewer that are produced in the colder months, but besides the lack of shell nuggets in the nesting box, there is another concern. Once the egg is laid, the hen usually hops off of the nest and goes about her business, which means that freshly laid egg is now subject to freezing itself when the temperatures are well into the 20s and below.

My first winter on the farm, I noticed the hens’ eggs would freeze solid if I didn’t collect them fast enough from the nesting boxes, resulting in eggs that couldn’t be sold or even sometimes used because of the cracks that developed from the expanding yolk and white.

I found myself collecting eggs twice a day (once in the morning and then again in the evening) just to try and prevent the mishap. This, however, resulted in the discovery of another problem.

What I found was if I collected eggs in the usual egg basket, especially on days where the temperature was hovering around 0 or below, the eggs would still freeze on the walk back to the house from the barn. What was I to do?

Undaunted, I started putting eggs in the pockets of my faux fleece barn coat. I thought I was a genius. All I had to do was put the eggs in my pockets, the eggs would stay warm and I could go about my usual chores until it was time to go back up to the house. Great, right?

Well, let’s just say the first time I had eggs in my pockets and bent over to fill a chicken feeder, I felt a solid squish as the eggs smashed up against each other. I rose from my bent state, reached my hand into a pocket and instantly felt a lovely slime of mixed egg yolk, white and shell in my wonderfully warm coat pocket. Yuck.

Let’s just say there are few things less disgusting than reaching into coat pockets with ungloved hands in subzero temperatures digging out pieces of slime-covered shell and flinging those pieces upon the frost-covered ground.

As is usually the case, nowadays, I’ve learned my lesson that carrying a small fabric lunch bag down to the coop to collect eggs in subzero weather results in nonfrozen, nonbroken eggs on the short trip from barn back to the house.

If I do happen to put an egg or two into my pockets here and there, I never have the coat zipped up and certainly don’t do any calisthenics that would require stooping, bending, etc.

Ah, the things they don’t tell you about farming.

Until next time…

Stephanie Strothmann owns Purple Shamrock Farm LLC in rural Seymour. Read her blog at Send comments to [email protected].

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