TODD L. DISHER

Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman via Associated Press

PALMER, Alaska (AP) -- Just because your Alaska chicken quit laying eggs doesn't mean she needs to go in the slow-roaster. She might just need to see the light.

Speaking before his Chicken University class recently, Steve Brown said it is a common misconception to think chickens are wholly unproductive in the winter. With a few tricks, the Cooperative Extension Service agriculture and horticulture agent said winter months can be productive too.

Hens stop laying not because of the cold, but because of the dark, he said. The reduced amount of sunlight indicates winter is coming. Fearful about their eggs freezing, the chickens shut down production usually in October, Brown said.

Brown has four hens that produce eggs, and says he keeps the rooster for atmosphere.

Because of this, now is the perfect time to establish a flock.

About now, the backyard amateurs have lost a bit of their idealism about raising their own poultry after a summer of cleaning out coops. So when the hens stop laying eggs, the chickens get the boot.

Check the classifieds, cork boards and online forums for free chickens, Brown said. He recommended Craigslist.org and Alaskaslist.com.

"I have never paid for a chicken in my life," Brown said.

Once you have your flock of supposedly unproductive birds, it's easy to get them laying again. The only thing required is a simple white light.

"Just have enough light on to read the Frontiersman anywhere in the pen," Brown said.

His chicken pen is a 10-by-10-foot horse stall. With one 100-watt bulb, he has fresh eggs all winter long.

"It needs to be white, and the jury is still out on the compact fluorescent lights," Brown said. "I would say use an incandescent unless you're off the grid and energy is a real concern."

While light will keep the hens going, the cold is still a concern. Chickens are fine up until about 20 degrees, he said, but some simple measures will ensure a toasty winter no matter what the temperature.

The first concern are their toes. Chickens can actually cut off the blood flow to their legs, but only temporarily. Without the warmth of feathers, feet and toes are very susceptible to frostbite.

"A chicken with all their toes in Alaska is pretty rare," Brown said.

To avoid this, Brown suggested building perches out of flat boards instead of the typical round dowels most birds love. The chickens may not like sitting with flat feet as much, but this forces their weight onto their legs and down their toes, keeping them warm.

"None of my birds have ever lost a toe," he proudly claimed.

Brown also added a red light shinning on the perch for extra warmth.

Brown uses wood chips to line the bottom of the chicken pen. Chicken poop is so high in nitrogen it actively composts the wood, raising the temperature inside the horse stall 20 to 25 degrees, he said.

"Chainsaw artists are good sources for wood chips. Just don't use cedar," he said.

The natural way to keep chickens warm is to keep them crowded, Brown said. A full grown hen only requires two to three square feet of personal space, he said.

It is fine to keep the birds inside all winter long, with a couple of hours of outside exercise each week, Brown said. Just make sure there is adequate ventilation in the coop, or the chickens will die of ammonia poisoning.

With these few simple steps, chickens can stay happy and productive all winter long.

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Information from: Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, http://www.frontiersman.com

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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