The High Road to the Hen House

At 12:01am on Friday, March 5, our little gravel road went into restricted travel season.

Road restrictions, however inconvenient, are absolutely necessary. Every spring our gravel road quickly begins to resemble horrifically melted Hershey bars, out of a dystopian game of Candyland. The gravel turns to mud, deep ruts appear, and drivers have to be careful not to lose traction and slip into the ditch in the especially wet parts.

The reason the spring mud on gravel roads gets so bad is not necessarily because there is any more moisture this time of year, but rather because of the intense frost that forms in the road over the course of the winter. As you know, water expands when it freezes, and so the entire gravel road – which forms frost/ice nearly 8ft deep – expands and rises up nearly a foot during the winter. Come spring melt, the top layer of the road thaws, but the water in it has nowhere to go because of the solid ice a few inches below the surface, and so the top layer of gravel turns into a soupy mess.

As March and April trudge along, the ice beneath the road slowly dissipates, the road slowly sinks back to it’s normal elevation, and the water painstakingly percolates back through the subsoil. If we’re lucky, road restrictions are lifted by early May and our road is (sort of) back to normal.

The key factor for how deep the frost will go, and how much the ground will rise, is pressure (weight/impact applied to the ground). Just a few steps off the gravel road, where nary a deer had set foot all winter long, the frost might only have gone 2-3 inches deep and is completely thawed after a week of warm weather.

So what does any of this have to do with our hen house?

In the growing season, as you surely know, we raise our chickens on pasture in a mobile chicken coop. But in the dormant part of the year, we move our flock into a high tunnel greenhouse. This type of winter housing provides the hens with maximum sunlight and fresh air, but keeps them out of the cold wind and snow.

Our high tunnel is about 100ft from the backdoor of our house, and because we collect eggs and tend to the chickens multiple times each day, we wear quite the footpath between the house and high tunnel across our lawn.

Back and forth, each and every day all winter-long, our feet compact the snow and ice on our little “road” across our lawn from the backdoor to the hen house, gently driving the frost a tiny bit deeper each day. And come spring, when the snow melts, there’s always a bizarre artifact left behind, showing us exactly where the path had been.

The lawn expands where we walk on it, and creates a raised path all the way to the hen house nearly 4 inches higher than the surrounding ground, like a bulging vein beneath the surface.

It’s a surreal sight, so much so that it always looks like we are going to need to re-grade our yard to smooth it back out.

But like clockwork, as the daily temps steadily inch upward, the high road to the hen house steadily recedes back flush with the surrounding ground, and we breath a little sigh of relief.

Spring, for all of its mud, frost-heaving and unpredictable weather, is a pleasant time of year. We are gaining daylight rapidly right now, and this seems to bring a sense of euphoria to everyone. When I deliver meat and eggs on Saturdays, people are talking about getting ready to garden, getting in a good hike, landscaping and more. Minnesotan drink up spring like its an elixir, and I reckon we deserve as big of a gulp as we can get.

Thanks for reading and always take the high road!


Leave a Reply