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!