Snow, ice, sleet, and wind. Darkness at 4 p.m., rock-hard ground, frozen water-troughs, frostbitten ears on calves, milk frozen in buckets, salt feeders buried under snow… wintertime on the homestead is not for the faint of heart. While farming is an enjoyable diversion on temperate spring days, wintertime is what separates real farmers from those who just are pretending. Of all the seasons, here on my homestead, winter is the one that makes me question my sanity in choosing this lifestyle.
Why am I slopping through slushy ice to water the sheep while all of my friends are in the house curled up by the fire with a book?
Why do I have chapped hands and lips from working outdoors when my friends are at the mall getting facials?
Why are the most-worn boots in my collection a mud-encrusted, steel-toed pair of Red Wing insulated lace-ups and my friends are wearing the latest trends?
Wintertime on the homestead is not about snow angels, adorable scarves, and sleigh rides. It’s about work that was already difficult getting much, much harder.
One thing we’ve learned after 12 years of homesteading is that you can’t wait to prepare for winter until the first freezing night. You have to be thinking ahead, planning, and preparing for whatever Old Man Winter throws at you, way before the snow flies. If you do your homework, your animals will ride out the storms as comfortably as possible and you will be able to do the minimum of work in the winter. If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll be worrying about finding enough feed, thawing frozen water troughs, and trying to crowd too many animals into your barns while it’s snowing, sleeting, and just plain miserable outside.
Here are some of the things that you should keep in mind during wintertime on the homestead.
Adequate water can be the most difficult aspect of keeping critters alive in winter. First, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your animals can lick ice or eat snow to stay hydrated. Cattle can drink between 10 and 15 gallons of water per day, and that number rises when they are lactating. Sheep may need up to 3 gallons per day. These animals eating dry fodder (hay), need that water to function even when it’s cold. They’d have to lick ice 24/7 to even come close to staying hydrated. Also, ice and snow will lower their body temperatures, meaning that they’ll need to eat even more to stay warm in the cold.
To be a good farmer, you have to provide free choice of unfrozen water to keep your animals healthy. This can be done in several ways. Livestock troughs work well in warm months, but in winter, you have to be able to keep the water flowing. In the past, we’ve used electric, submersible tank-heaters to keep the water thawed. If you don’t have these, you’ll have to go out and break up the ice at least twice a day to allow the animals to drink. We’ve used a heavy, metal pry-bar to break the ice. It works best if you dislodge all the ice and toss it out of the trough.
Also, be careful if you use other kinds of plastic tubs for watering. We’ve cracked many of these improvised water troughs in winter when breaking the ice because the plastic gets very brittle in cold temps. So, if you have a plastic storage bin pulling double duty as a waterer in winter, be really careful with it as you break the ice and move it around.
Farm ponds are also a decent choice for watering. Again, though, you will have to go out and break the ice for your animals. If you live in a somewhat temperate region of the country, you may be able to use ducks to keep the pond free of ice. These feathered friends swim on ponds even in winter which keeps the water from freezing.
Insulated automatic waterers are the most expensive but, for us, the most reliable water source. Ours tie into a waterline linked to our well. They keep the water thawed and flowing for our animals to drink as much as they like. However, don’t take it for granted that they are always going to work exactly as you plan. We check ours regularly to make sure they’re operating correctly. It’s easier to resolve a malfunction before you have 20 thirsty cows standing around the waterer aching for a few drops. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.
Also, don’t forget that, if you plan on filling troughs in winter, you can’t always rely on hoses. If you use a water hose, you’ll want to drain it every single time you use it. If you have one of those “frost-proof” water faucets in the ground, be sure that it doesn’t drip. A dripping hydrant means that the pipe is still full of water and at risk of bursting. Also, if it gets REALLY cold, we try to avoid using these hydrants unless we have electrical heat tape on them. That’s because we worry that the water will drain out of the pipe so slowly that it will freeze inside it.
Before winter closes in, figure out how much feed you will need for your critters to get them through the winter. This can vary widely depending on the weather and climate in your area, but you can talk to your local extension agent if you’re unsure about how much feed you need.
Don’t wait until it snows to source your hay, because everybody in the county will be hunting for it then. Prices will go up, and if it’s been a dry year, hay may be scarce.
Also, for your grains, be sure that you have a store of things like chicken food and supplemental grain for animals. If a storm traps you for a few days, you’ll want to be able to take care of your animals. Store these in a dry place out of the weather. You probably want to put out a few mousetraps too, since mice love gnawing through bags of grain and spoiling the contents with their feces. Since we have barn cats who could be caught in traps, we put our spring traps inside a shoebox with a mouse-sized hole in it to catch the rodents without hurting our pets.
In some parts of the country, many animals can spend the whole winter outdoors, provided they have a place to get out of the wind. If you don’t have a tree line to act as a windbreak, you can line up large rolls of poor-quality hay behind which the animals can bed down.
However, still keep a close eye on your animals. While many are tough enough to handle the cold, some more delicate animals, like dairy cows or older horses, will really be better off in a shed or barn on stormy and/or extremely cold nights.
Additionally, if you have animals who are going to give birth in the cold, watch them carefully for signs of impending calving, lambing, or kidding. Many animals do fine giving birth in the cold, but you do entertain an element of risk by leaving them outside at this vulnerable time. A lamb or calf that has a difficult birth may be too sluggish in the cold to get up quickly and warm his belly with life-giving colostrum.
If you put your animals inside when it’s cold, be sure to have a manure management plan in place. You will have to muck out stalls if they stay inside very long at all. It’s not healthy for the animals to live in their own waste, so invest in a good pitchfork and a cart or wheelbarrow to clean up after them. Also, be sure to stock up on good bedding, whether it’s straw or wood chips.
Be sure that your buildings have good ventilation too. Even in the winter, your animals need good air flow to stay healthy. Without ventilation, animals will develop breathing issues from dealing with the fumes from their waste and dust from their feed.
Livestock: Making the Hard Choices
It’s hard to talk about, but good farmers have to make hard choices before winter sets in. If you don’t have enough feed to get them through the winter, you are going to have to let some of your animals go. Evaluate your animals for which ones are the most productive and sell the ones who are less productive. On small homesteads, this is sometimes emotionally hard, since many of these animals have names and distinctive personalities. However, we’re not doing our animals any favors by skimping on feed to get them through the winter. Sell them while they are healthy and fat from summer grazing. Two or three fat cattle sold in October will bring in more money than half a dozen skinny, sickly, half-starved animals in late February.
If you have wool-sheep, you may be pleasantly surprised at how well their coats protect them from cold. The oils in their wool repel water and the fleeces are toasty warm. However, hair-sheep or sheep that were shorn late in the year may need some shelter from the cold, especially if it’s wet and cold.
If you don’t get much snowfall, keep an eye on your sheep’s delicate feet. Our sheep tend to get footsore from walking on uneven, frozen mud. We examine them carefully for cuts that could lead to infection or foot rot. If they start limping, we take them off the barn lot into a well-bedded, clean stall where their feet are cushioned. If there is a cut or bruise, we try to soak the foot in a warm Epsom-salt bath to get ahead of any infection that could be cooking in the cut. After 4-5 days in a stall and several footbaths, our sheep are perfectly fine and ready to rejoin their mates in the barn lot.
Beef cattle are surprisingly tolerant of cold temperatures, but only when they are well-fed. The rumen is a giant fermentation vat in a cow’s digestive system that generates enormous heat to keep the cattle warm. To keep the rumen functioning normally, your cattle need forage. You can give grain as a supplement, but they do need hay or something fibrous for the rumen to break down and generate heat. When beef cows are well-fed, they will have ice and snow frozen to their backs, but they’ll still be just fine.
Dairy cows are often less tolerant to the cold weather, just because they don’t have as much fat on their bodies. While our beef cows never come into the barn because of the cold, my dairy cow is usually inside on really cold and stormy nights. Be sure that you feed your dairy cow well, especially giving her excellent quality hay. I’ve noticed that simply upping my cow’s grain ration only makes her produce more milk. However, giving her excellent hay, especially good quality alfalfa, helps maintain her body condition when it’s cold.
Like sheep, cows may struggle with their footing when the mud freezes. Their feet aren’t quite as delicate as the sheep’s, but you still need to pay attention to their feet and how they are moving. If you have to move them, do so slowly. Let them take their time when crossing uneven, frozen ground. Hurrying them can leady to strained muscles or bruised hooves.
Most horses do okay in the winter. Nature has equipped the animal’s body to adapt to cold weather; in fall, they put on subcutaneous fat and grow in a nice, thick, fur coat. We don’t blanket our horses, because doing so short-circuits their body’s natural preparation for winter weather. Neither do we put our horses in the barn. They do just fine outdoors if they can get out of the wind.
That said, there are exceptions. If a horse is old, or struggling with poor body condition, or has some other health issue that prevents their bodies from handling the cold, it’s better to err on the side of caution by helping them stay warm. A horse blanket, or coat, and a warm, indoor stall will make fragile horses more comfortable. Also, if you buy a horse in the fall or winter and they’ve been blanketed or kept inside by the previous owner, you’ll want to continue that treatment. It takes time for a horse to develop the fat and fur that they need for protection, and just sticking them outdoors when their bodies aren’t prepared is cruel.
Also, you have to feed horses well for them to manage the cold. Horses don’t like scrubby, crummy hay and if all you can find, or afford, is of poor quality, you may want to find a new place for your horses. You can supplement with grain also, but good hay is essential for horses.
Do keep an eye on your horse’s feet. Walking on the frozen ground can lead to bruising and abscesses. These can be resolved easily, but only if you treat them in a timely manner. If an abscess or a limp persists for more than a day or two, call your veterinarian or farrier and have them come take a look; a horse is only as good as its feet.
Our chickens have done very well in winter. However, at times, we’ve had frostbitten combs and wattles. They look a little funny after they heal up, but it doesn’t really seem to affect the chickens too badly. In places where you have extra-cold winters, you may want to choose a breed of hen that has smaller combs. I like the Dominique chicken with their lovely rose combs.
A few things about chickens and wintertime: water is the biggest problem for us. This is the time of year when we put away the plastic water fountain because it will freeze and crack. Some people buy heaters for their chicken waterers, but we simply buy 2-gallon plastic buckets from the farm supply store. We have several and bring one or two inside to thaw every morning, carrying a filled pail from yesterday out for that day’s water. Another thing to remember is that, while you need to keep them warm, you can’t completely seal up your henhouse. Chickens are very susceptible to respiratory illnesses and the dust and fumes that they generate can irritate their lungs.
We don’t muck out our chicken house every few days. We use a deep-bedding system, piling fresh bedding on top of the old stuff. Every few days I scatter a handful of grain on the floor of the henhouse so that the chickens can turn the bedding for me. After the winter, I’ll have a thick layer of excellent, rich compost for my garden. Additionally, the decomposing manure and bedding generate heat to help the hens stay warm.
All of our animals live outdoors. In the fall, we feed them extra and they grow thick fur coats and a layer of body fat to help them deal with the cold. Our cats find cozy spots in the barn, usually in the hayloft, burrowed into the hay.
Our dogs love the cold. They are Great Pyrenees livestock dogs and they never come indoors. They are happier in the cold than in the summer. In fact, when it snows, we love watching them roll in the snow just for the fun of it. However, if you have a dog with short hair, a small body mass, or is elderly or infirm, keep a close eye on them and bring them indoors if needed. Some friends of mine with a Mastiff usually hang a heat lamp in an outbuilding to keep him comfortable when it’s cold.
Also, if you somehow end up with an indoor dog in the cold months, don’t assume that they’ll be fine outside. Dogs need time to build up the subcutaneous fat and heavy fur coat to keep warm.
Be sure that you keep a supply of liquid water available for your outdoor animals and feed them well. On particularly cold nights, we’ll feed our dogs a rich mixture of beef broth, eggs, and milk to warm them from the inside before we go to bed.
Prepare yourself and any family members who will be helping you outside by buying the proper gear. Heavy gloves (buy extras because they always seem to disappear), and a heavy work-coat are just the basics. Insulated, water-resistant boots and a pair of insulated coveralls make a big difference in how comfortable you will be outside. Don’t forget to buy a good, warm head-covering, too. Long underwear and flannel-lined jeans are also excellent clothes to have in your stash of winter gear, and don’t forget some heavy socks.
Remember that it’s not as important how your winter farm gear looks as how warm it is. In fact, the cuter, more fashionable hats, scarves, and gloves are usually not as warm or durable as the ugly stuff you find at the farm store. These items are an investment. If you buy a good brand, your winter gear will last for many years before you need to replace it.
When it’s super cold, you should be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia (shivering, nausea, hunger, breathing quickly, difficulty with speaking, confusion, dizziness, lack of coordination, fatigue) which occurs when the body’s temperature drops too low. Mild hypothermia means that you need to get inside as soon as possible and warm up. Even if it means that you have to go out several times to do chores because it’s too cold to get them all done at once, it’s better to work in shifts.
While winter is not my favorite time of year, it is a time of rest for the land. Good, hard freezes can reduce the numbers of pesky insects that hang around from year to year. Winter is a nice time to take a break from the active growing season, evaluate the successes and failures of the previous year, and create a plan for next spring. And, when March and April’s warm breezes blow and things begin to green up, winter makes you truly thankful for the joys of nature.