I've been trying hard not to write about the weather, but the nights have been below zero for a week now and my frontal lobes, which is where I mostly write from, have been taken over by the state of the thermometer.
The farmers around here have been busy keeping their livestock from turning into deadstock. Driving past big dairy farms I notice that the veal calves, who are kept in individual plastic igloos away from the rest of the herd, are wearing snug little coats. I'm sure the coats help some, though they can't compare to the warmth and comfort they would get from their mothers' bodies.
I have my own livestock concerns. How do you keep nine hens comfortable in such frigid temperatures? I've read that using heat lamps weakens chickens' immune systems and makes them less resistant to bad weather. So I'm limited to simpler techniques, such as delivering bucketfuls of warm drinking water laced with cider vinegar, and bowls of hot powdered milk thickened with laying mash. Also extra "scratch"--chopped grains that you throw on the ground so the hens can scratch for them, an activity which gives meaning to their lives. On sunny days I open wide the shed door so they can at least stand on the top step, the rest being snow covered, and get some vitamin D.
It's a kind of miracle that they have all survived so far. Just before Christmas the black hen developed an impacted crop. I won't go into detail, but the standard treatment for this condition involves getting the chicken to vomit. I did this several times but it didn't help much, and I was sure she wouldn't make it through the late December cold spell. But she is still alive, even though I suspect that her problem has not gone away completely.
A couple of red hens have chosen this particular time to molt. Chickens molt every year, usually in the fall, and they temporarily stop laying. My two molting hens are a pathetic sight: their long tail feathers are gone, and their heads are almost bald. Their backs and bellies are sparsely covered in the downy feathers that normally constitute a chicken's underwear. How would you like to go out in this weather in just your long johns?
This is not a young flock. Three of the hens are three years old, and the rest are two. In an industrial egg farm they would be slaughtered. But despite advanced age, impacted crops and inopportune molts, I'm getting five eggs a day from this hardy bunch. True, I turn on a light for them for several hours in the evening, which helps to keep them laying, but it shows remarkable enterprise on their part that they're laying at all.
Last night when I brought in the eggs, one had frozen in the nest. The expansion of the contents had made a long crack in the shell, through which I could see the intact inner membrane. I left the the egg in a bowl on the counter to defrost, thinking I would save it for the dogs.
This morning when I picked picked it up, mirabile dictu! the crack had disappeared. The contents had shrunk as they defrosted and the edges of the break had mended so perfectly that there was not a sign of the crack.
For all their apparent fragility, eggs are tough, and so are chickens.