If you read my last post about our new, open-ended, tarp-covered, layer hen hoop house, you may have wondered how we sheltered them for winter.  One option is to move them into another shelter for winter.  We didn’t like that idea, though, so we opted to kill two birds with one stone (but we didn’t kill any hens, don’t worry!).  We chose to recycle some old hay bales someone offered us, and use the natural heat supplied by the sun and by compost to protect our girls through our bitter winters.

When the temps got cold enough and the grass died off enough, we pulled the Hen Hut up to a spot near the barn, and parked it for the winter.  We then brought in around 120 bales of old, moldy, rotting, otherwise useless hay and straw.  Unfortunately, we were so busy building the structure, I totally forgot to take photos, so the “after construction” photos will have to suffice.

First, we jacked the skids of the hoop house about a foot off the ground, to allow us room to build up deep bedding over the course of the winter.  Next, we stacked the bales in a rectangular shape around our hoop house and feeder, and secured them with cattle panel and t-posts to ensure they didn’t fall on any chickens as they decayed over the winter.

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The winter fortress, as viewed from the outside. S is walking towards it, for scale reference. The peak is actually the top of the hoop house inside.

On one end, we left a small gap between two hay bales for a chicken and dog-sized entrance, and then stacked a few more bales around the hole to provide a wind block.

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The chicken entrance, hidden under these bales, allows our hens to still come and go as they please through the winter, while still protecting them from the elements.

Then, we added a man-sized door made of scrap lumber to the other end, so we could easily get in and out to tend the birds and collect eggs.

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The man door, open, with the view to the inside of the winter “solarium.”

Finally, we built a simple rafter system out of scrap lumber, and covered it in plastic sheeting–nothing special, just some scrap stuff we had in the barn.

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The simple plastic roof can be seen here, spanning the distance between bales.

The layers did absolutely awesome with this design!  We added fresh bedding about twice a week, and watered the old bedding down a bit every other week or so to keep it just damp enough to compost.  The combination of composting deep bedding and composting bales, kept the interior of the fort-style structure a very comfortable 60+ degrees F on even the coldest (negative temps) winter nights.  The plastic sheeting provided a small amount of insulation to keep the heat from escaping out the roof, in addition to allowing solar heating during the day.  In fact, on warmer winter days (over 20 degrees F), we had to actually open the man door to ventilate the structure, or it would reach over 85 degrees F in there!  In addition, the large expanse of clear plastic and the white roof of their hoop house allowed them to get as much natural light as possible during the winter months, which is critical for egg laying.  As a result of the heat and insulate qualities of this design–ugly though it may be–the hens layed steadily throughout the winter.  There was about a 3 week period in January and early February where S added a solar-powered light (seen in the photo above) to give them a couple more hours of lighting, as a result of our egg count declining somewhat.  This popped it right back up where we needed it to get us and a few customers through the winter, without going overboard.

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Happy hens (most are outside free-ranging when this photo was taken). Notice the heated waterer hanging from the ceiling–which never froze once, and thus never had to be plugged in! What a waste of $40!

When winter was over, we simply disassembled the structure, recycled the bales once again to build water-retention berms on steep slopes in our pasture, and hauled the coop back out to pasture.  The system worked so great for us, that we are already working out a source for old hay/straw for this winter!

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