These days it’s fashionable to throw around WINTER IS COMING, as Game of Thrones lumbers bloodily forward and its enthusiasts meme it out on to every ironic doom scenario under the sun. But here in New England, that feeling is very real, each and every year around this time. Sarah and make our list, as the house and grounds need to be prepared before the first snowstorm flash freezes everything in to place. Gaps must be filled, insulation rammed, and the whole house must shimmer in a fresh layer of caulk that forever entombs untold numbers of insects within the walls.

Of course, that’s all for the humans. For the chickens (our darling girls Shirley, Shirley, Red, and The Other One) winter means irritable molting and retiring from the open field to an enclosed run. This will be especially loathsome to Shirley #1, who has recently taken to escaping the fence to follow us around the yard like a pet.

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Last year our enclosure was a crappy frame with wire around it. It was functional, but tiny and prone to filling up with snow.

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This time around I wanted something that could shrug off the snow and give them a good amount of room, without having a huge footprint. To begin, a few weeks ago I threw together a crude frame over where I wanted the chicken run to be. Leveling it against the decline of the land was a pain in the butt. For a while it just had a janky collection of random wood and metal stacked on top, but the chickens seemed appreciative for the new shade area. They dug themselves a nice big hole in there and took dirt baths every day.

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Some time later, I cut slanted beams for the roof, and made a very durable back section out of pallets. As for the roofing material I was lucky to find some steel roofing at the edge of my swamp that the previous owner had left. Cutting that up in to 4 foot sections worked nicely, and when it was all done our little chicken fortress looked like it could hold off a horde of barbarian raiders:

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Hinged glass door for easy access

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Ah, but we’re not done yet! With the summer allowing the chickens to forage for food outdoors, I got used to the nice reduction in feed costs. In an attempt to keep that bonus, at the end of their run I decided to add a Hay Igloo.

What’s a Hay Igloo? Basically it’s a large compost pile surrounded by hay bales and covered with a tarp. If all goes as planned, the compost pile will keep hot enough to keep from freezing, and the hay bales complement that by providing insulation. The purpose of the Hay Igloo is threefold:

  1. Supplement chicken’s winter diet with whatever bugs/worms they can scratch out of the pile
  2. Create good compost for use in planting next year
  3. Proof of concept for getting hot water out of the compost pile (for possible household use)

Bullet #3 is something I’ll explore more in future posts, as I’m really get in to the chemistry and engineering of compost. For further info you can check out this LINK.

Creation of the hay igloo got a big boost from my friend and brother Jeff Davis, and all the hay bales/manure were donated by a neighbor ally of mine. Planning and execution of the hay igloo could be a whole article unto itself…instead, pictures.

Chickens enter the igloo from the back, where a narrow opening was left between the two bales depicted here.

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Inside the pile we coiled some poly tubing…cold water is fed in the top, gets heated as it travels through the core of the pile, and (with luck) comes out hot at the bottom.

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The finished pile

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Soaking the pile to get the hot composting process started

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Driving rebar through the bales to shore up the walls

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Adding the roof

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A tarp over the top as a final touch. The completed igloo is comprised of ~40 hay bales and is roughly 8ft. x 8ft. x 5ft.

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This project was a lot more fun than most, and I gave myself plenty of time to let it unfold leisurely and rework things that needed improvement. A few hard frosts in late October lit a fire under my ass to hurry up and get everything done, but then the weather flip-flopped and gave us two weeks of 70 degree temperatures so I finished with ease. When it’s this warm this late in the year it feels really strange, but mostly I just feel lucky, because I know hard frosts and harder are on their way.

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