goats in snow

What do Farmers do in Winter?

A few people have asked me what farmers do in winter, when crops are under a cover of snow and nothing grows. While the answer varies depending on the operation, the answer is always “a lot.”

Animal Care

Any farm with animals will still have to care for those animals in winter, and often this becomes more difficult. While animals in summer may spend most if not all their time outdoors, eating what nature provides, animals in winter require shelter, feed, non-frozen water (it’s own little nightmare) and constant care and attention. For dairy and egg farmers, it’s often business as usual, as cows/goats/sheep must still be milked and birds continue to lay throughout the winter months.

On our farm, we have chickens and goats year-round, having processed our meat birds just before Christmas. The goats are in the barn, with access to the outdoors when they want it, and the chickens have a sheltered, fairly insulated coop with a fenced run. Keeping everyone warm and safe has been our number one farm priority, and fortunately, it’s going well so far. The barn is in rough shape, so we’ve added some shelters and tarps to give the goats wind and snow protection. The chicken coop got a door we can open and close depending on the weather. The biggest hassle has been lugging water buckets from the house to their shelters twice a day, as water freezes quickly in the frigid Ontario winters. We’ve had a few very sunny days where everyone has free-ranged, but for the most part, everyone’s staying inside out of the cold.

Breeding often occurs in winter, though it can be more difficult if animals are more seasonal. Our goats go into heat every month regardless, so if we had a buck, breeding now would mean lovely late spring baby goats. As it is, we’ll be getting our buck next month, a bit later than we hoped but we love him, and that’s worth waiting for. Hope to have some exciting news to share in late March/early April!

Infrastructure & Equipment

While most farm building happens in good weather, a certain amount of infrastructure building and maintenance happens in the winter. Many farmers will take advantage of every not-so-bad day to build or repair sheds and outbuildings, tune or repair equipment and vehicles, and/or cleaning up indoors. The absolute last thing a farmer wants to do once the weather is good is discover their tractor isn’t working.

Purchasing

So many things to buy in winter! Seeds must be ordered so they can be planted early. Livestock and poultry doesn’t just appear, specialty breeds in particular have to be reserved early so they’re the right age when spring comes. Lots of equipment and raw materials become more and more difficult to find as the season progresses, so early ordering is crucial. Farmers will be hard at work planning what they want to produce and sell for the next year, and what needs replacing from the year before, and ordering those items.

For example, a “nuc” or starter colony of bees should be ordered in January or February, to ensure breeders have enough time to split hives and create the conditions for the necessary number of queens. Most are sold out well before the season begins. Fruit trees are grown a year or more in advance, so securing the species and types you want needs to be done early.

Seeds

Produce and flower farmers will often start seeds indoors, if they’re not already greenhouse farming. Different seeds vary in start times, from 2 to 8 weeks ahead of growing season, which means most small farmers are busy starting seeds indoors from late February on.

Winter Products

There are plenty of things farmers sell that can be produced in winter. In Ontario, maple syrup/sap can only be produced in late winter as the temperature fluctuates around 0 degrees C. Homesteaders especially may produce soap, textiles, dried or canned food, and more in winter to maintain revenue streams.

Research & Paperwork

So boring, but there’s no time (or desire) to do this when the weather’s nice, so it better get done now. We’ve been working on our farm ledger, compiling information for our taxes, registering our purebred goats, researching regulations around products we want to sell, pricing supplies, and basically learning about homesteading all over again.

There is a lot that happens on farms in winter, even as the fields lie fallow. Depending on where you live, some things may still grow in February! It’s certainly not the case here, at least not until we get our greenhouse, but we are in full-fledged planning mode and can basically smell spring coming. The best years come from the best winter preparation!


A Tale of Livestock Misadventures

One of the “lessons learned” from 2018 was that animals are unpredictable. Well, that has never been more clear than this weekend.

With Y out of the country for work, the farm chores have fallen to me, which hasn’t been easy in this polar vortex -37C with windchill weather. I was looking forward to this weekend because warm weather moved in, and the animals were able to free range more.

Well, Saturday afternoon I was setting up some things I bought for the animals: a modified patio swing for the goats, and a clothes rack as a perch for the chickens. While hanging out in the coop, I noticed one of the Silkies (the white, fluffy chickens) was bleeding from his head feathers. Not much, but enough to be noticeable. I stayed in the coop for awhile to get a sense of the dynamic. It turns out, this rooster was trying to mate with the hens, which apparently made the Alpha rooster quite jealous. As soon as the Silkie was on top of a hen, the big rooster would charge over and start pecking at him to stop. Clearly, this dynamic isn’t going to work.

I brought the injured rooster inside to camp in our bathtub for the evening, to make sure the bleeding was minor and he was still doing okay. He seemed unaffected by the whole ordeal, but I think our best option is to re-home him. I’ll be listing him for free to good home today, in hopes he’ll find a flock that’s a better fit.

Saturday night, as I was driving home quite late from a party, I noticed the oncoming car was driving very slowly, and they flashed their high beams at me. I slowed down and proceeded with caution, to see two cows at the side of the road, well outside their enclosure, happily chewing their cud only feet from traffic. The farms at the four corners of that intersection are all owned by one family, one of whom is my neighbour, so I raced to his house and knocked on the door. No answer! Fortunately, some of his relatives (who we’ve met, if only in passing) were listed in the phone book, and I was able to get a hold of someone. She was naturally upset, but thanked me profusely for calling. Since there were no signs of roadkill the next morning when I drove by, I really hope it all worked out and those cows are back where they belong!

Sunday was “normal,” if that word has any meaning at all. The Silkie rooster went back out to the coop, since the weather was beautiful and they could free range again I figured he’d have space to escape if he was getting picked on. Goats were playing, chickens were pecking and laying and crowing.

Fast forward to this morning, Monday. Before work, I went to feed and water the chickens. I’d left the gate open to encourage free ranging the night before, so I wasn’t surprised to find fewer chickens indoors. I was, however, surprised that I couldn’t find more than half our flock anywhere.

I feared the worst. Perhaps someone had come on the property and stolen the birds? Perhaps an animal had entered through the open gate and absconded with them? I walked the whole property looking for them. A dead animal on the road caught my eye, but it turned out to be a skunk. Where the cluck were these chickens?!

Eventually I heard the rooster crow, and it was coming from my neighbour’s yard. I ran over to find the rooster and seven of his favourite ladies camped in heavy brush under the neighbour’s front window. The rooster was crowing loudly and with reckless abandon, which, I can only assume, annoyed our neighbour to no end. I crawled through the brush to herd the chickens back to the coop. I spent over half an hour getting them back where they belonged, making me disheveled and late for work.

We already planned some netting/chicken wire around that area, to keep the poultry from wandering off the property or onto the road. Clearly that plan should be accelerated. I’m also planning an apology note and some freshly laid eggs in the neighbour’s mailbox – Chris, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry!