If you're like me and live in a part of the country that has freezing temperatures in winter, you'll need to be prepared for the added challenges that will bring to your homestead. I'm in lovely northeast Ohio, more specifically, in the heart of the Lake Erie Snowbelt. This means that along with the frigid winds that blow across the lake straight towards me, I also have to deal with large amounts of snow being dropped more often than surrounding areas. For example, today is November 14th and my homestead received a little over 10 inches of snow in the past two days, while my parents, who live 20 minutes west of me, received barely an inch. Perhaps you live somewhere that is even more intense than that, perhaps not, regardless, if you experience freezing temperatures regularly during winter you will need to be prepared.
Cleaning Up Before The Snow Flies
I failed this year. Spring through Fall is pretty crazy for us as we raise 100+ meat chickens and 12+ turkeys that we run through the same acre pasture behind our house (I have another blog post detailing how to run so many birds through such a small area if you're interested). My point is, when you are raising so many animals in a "rapid-fire" type fashion, you end up with things like feeders, waters, wheelbarrows, temporary pens, etc all out in odd spots in the grass. I told myself repeatedly that I needed to collect everything up and store it for winter….but I didn't. Typically we may get our first snow in late November but it's usually just a dusting that melts off fast as the ground is still too warm for the snow to "stick". Not this year, over 10 inches of snow dropped in less than 24 hours on November 12th. Now, all of those things I was going to pick up and store are buried in snow, not to be seen again until we get some warm weather to melt it off (P.S. I checked the forecast and all I see is more snow coming). Don't be like me, clean up well before the snow hits!
Depending on what type of farm you have this may not be possible but since we raise some animals for meat, and it applies to us, I thought I should mention it. Winter is a hard time to be an animal. A lot of their energy goes towards keeping themselves warm which means their food consumption vs output will be weak. "Output" could mean many things but in general I'm talking about chicken laying eggs and anything you are raising for meat purposes will not gain much weight in the winter months. Side note, the changes in daylight hours also greatly impact the chickens' abilities to lay eggs but I'm certain the cold isn't helping.
If you can, consider scaling back on your quantity of animals before winter hits. If you are raising anything for meat purposes, and it's struggling to gain weight in the summer, it will only get worse in the winter. Sell that animal off or butcher it to prevent it from suffering in the frigid temps. We specifically planned to be done raising all of our meat chickens in the fall and will be processing our retiring hens in the next week (see how I also didn't do this task early enough). We have 2 heritage turkeys that truly need another 3-4 months of growing to be of peak size but we are going to process them next week. These were our first heritage turkeys and we grossly underestimated the time needed for them to gain weight and highly doubt they will be able to pack on the pounds over the next several cold months.
Have the right gear
This may seem like a no brainer but I struggled with this originally. I'm a bargain shopper and often feel guilty about spending a lot of money on my clothes. My first big "splurge" regarding shopping was seven years ago I bought a full length, -20 degree rated, L.L. Bean Winter Coat. It was beautiful and I wore it for 5 years before it had finally needed to retire to the trash. So the first year we were officially living on the homestead I asked my other half for a new L.L. Bean Winter Coat. I was thrilled Christmas morning to open that gift and a few hours later I suited up and headed out to do barn chores. My boyfriend almost lost his mind, "You can't wear that nice coat out there! You'll get dirt and dust and poop all over it!". He was right, I hadn't even considered that my beautiful, and quite expensive, coat had no place anywhere near my animals. So, the following day, I headed down to the local Walmart and bought a $20 winter coat. I now had a "homestead coat" and "a nice coat", who would've thought? I've now applied this thinking to my boots, hat, and gloves as well. I'd also like to point out that your homestead gear may actually be more expensive than your "nice" gear depending on your needs. If your homestead chores are going to require that you be outside for hours upon hours every day, better buy the extra warm stuff. Also, always fully "suit up" before going out to do chores. I've foolishly headed out with just a coat and boots to "just feed everyone real quick" only to find some sort of issue out there that requires an hour + of my time in a snowstorm. If it's cold out, put everything on, even if you think you'll only be out there a minute. (also this is a good policy in case god forbid you lock yourself out of the house).
Protecting Against Frostbite
The last section was about keeping you warm, now let's talk about keeping your critters toasty. In the winter months, I have two types of animals to take care of, chickens and rabbits. My rabbits are, more specifically, Giant Angora Rabbits so they actually do quite well in the cold months. Angora is 8 times warmer than sheep's wool so my rabbits are quite happy in their barn. However, I do need to keep on schedule with when they need sheared which will happen at least one time over the winter months. When I shear a rabbit I immediately put a little coat on it. I buy the super cheap dog sweaters online or at Walmart and they wear those for about 2 weeks before they have enough coat regrowth to keep themselves warm.
The chickens are a bit more of a challenge. Our coop is not insulated which I go back and forth about whether that is really an issue for us. Our coop does have a window so they get quite a bit of sunlight that of course helps keep the coop warm. In the summer months, I typically use 1 single bag of pine shavings on the coop floor for bedding but in the winter I will usually do 2 bags of pine shavings and some straw. Our coop is slightly elevated off the ground so while it's nice that they are not sitting on the cold ground, there is also an abundance of cold air right below the floor so I lean towards heavy bedding to make sure they stay warm. It's also important to note that chickens themselves can handle quite cold temperatures as their feathers keep them toasty. In my opinion, as long as you keep the floor heavily bedded and make sure there are no drafts, your birds should be pretty comfortable. However, I have had a few issues with combs getting frostbite. Some chicken breeds have bigger combs than others and I've found that the ones with big combs tend to get frostbite. You can try applying a small amount of Vaseline to your hens' combs to try to prevent this from happening. The biggest problem with comb frostbite is that it may cause the comb to bleed which then may result in your other hens pecking at it. If this happens you need to remove the frostbit hen ASAP and set her up by herself in a warmer location until it heals. Overall, I've had a few issues with comb frostbite and they've always healed up nicely. All and all, animals are pretty tough but make sure you research your animal's capabilities to avoid health issues caused by the cold.
Ahh yes, the infamous frozen waterer, the ultimate pain in every homesteader's butt. So, we are all familiar with the concept that water freezes when it's cold but you'd be surprised how fast it freezes. This is a huge problem because as soon as that water freezes your animals can't drink. If you are like most homesteaders and have a "day job" this can be very problematic. There are two ways to combat the frozen water dilemma, 1)change the water so often that it doesn't get a chance to freeze. This is easier said than done but it is possible if you are home at your homestead all day every day, 2) find a way to heat the water. There is essentially a heated water solution for any animal waterer however the common denominator is electricity. In previous years, we've fashioned an outdoor electrical cord from our barn to our chicken coop for a heat lamp that was pointed at the waterer. This generally worked but due to an issue we had last year with a fallen heat lamp nearly catching the coop on fire, we've steered away from that idea. There are a lot of seemly safe water heater options for chicken waterers but since I'm now working from home the majority of the time I'm going to try to just check and change the waterers multiple times per day. I'm also pursuing this method with my rabbits. The rabbit waterers are quite challenging because often the water in the actual rabbit water bottles will be liquid, but the nozzle, where the rabbit actually drinks, will freeze very quickly. My plan this winter is to buy a second set of all water bottles and just have them rotating in and out of the house.