FAIRBANKS — Fall is here. There is that old sock smell in the air from the highbush cranberries, and folks are gearing up for moose hunting or a final trip to Chitina or Valdez. It’s the time of year when there is a mad scramble to get everything ready for winter — top off the wood pile, winterize the car and clean up the yard.
If you decided last spring to maintain a small flock of laying hens, then your fall chores will include preparing your coop for winter. Now is the perfect time to do some henhouse cleaning, not to white-glove standards but enough to keep your birds healthy through the long winter ahead. It’s also a good idea to set up all of your lights, water heaters and heat lamps before the daylight light disappears and the mercury drops below freezing and stays there.
The following is my fall checklist for my coop, which is home to a dozen birds. It usually takes me two hours to complete. When I clean inside the henhouse, I wear a dust mask (the inexpensive white ones sold in hardware stores) to avoid inhaling the dust from litter and droppings.
• Muck out the outside pen to extend its life and mitigate smells during breakup. If you do not free-range your chickens, your flock has been spending most of its outdoor time in this enclosure, so droppings, food remains and used litter builds up. I use a pitchfork to take off several inches, focusing on the areas beneath perches. This also is rich compost material (let it age at least two years before application).
• Clean roosts and ramps with a wire brush. A metal spackle knife is useful to remove dried chicken manure.
• Wash the inside of the henhouse with a diluted bleach solution (one capful bleach to one gallon water; for chickens, more bleach is not better and may be harmful). This disinfects and removes accumulated dust.
• Remove litter from henhouse, especially in nest boxes, and sweep it out thoroughly. Replace with clean litter. Make sure all litter — whether straw or wood shavings — is dry when added to the henhouse.
• Move feeders and waters inside the henhouse. If you heat your henhouse with a heat lamp, it is advisable to use a thermostatically-controlled water heater under your chicken waterer to ensure the water doesn’t freeze during extreme cold spells.
• Check heat lamp and bulb, make sure they are operative, and clean the fixture and bulb of accumulated dust.
• Set up an additional light source — a 40 or 60-watt bulb is sufficient — with timer, and begin giving chickens two to three hours of light in the evenings, depending on the number and orientation of windows in your henhouse. The amount of artificial light you give your chickens will steadily increase (up to 14 hours) as our natural daylight decreases.
• Finally, leave your small coop door open until your chickens no longer go outside. Then close it to conserve heat and to prevent chills.
If this is your first season with laying hens, expect some upheaval in flock dynamics as the weather cools and the chickens spend more time indoors. First-year pullets born in spring generally start laying about October or November. However, the onset of egg laying may be delayed because of the rapidly declining temperatures and natural daylight in the Interior, as well as the increased confinement. Making sure your flock has at least 14 hours of light throughout the late fall and winter will keep pullets laying well through an Alaska winter.
More information about raising chickens during winter is available in the Cooperative Extension DVD, “Winter Chickens: The Down and Dirty of Keeping Laying Hens Through an Alaska Winter.”
Mara Bacsujlaky is a community development agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. She can be reached at email@example.com or