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!


chickens in snow

Winter Wonderland = Winter Woes

It’s January 31, 2019, which may be known in history as the tail end of the “Polar Vortex” that has wreaked havoc on North American weather, causing record low temperatures across the Midwest United States and Canada. Here in Southern Ontario, we are experiencing lows of -25 degrees Celsius (-13 F), with windchill making it feel another 10-15 degrees colder.

Winter, even without this incomparable frigidity, brings some unique challenges for homesteaders. If you’re doing this part time, like us, you’ll find yourself doing chores in pitch darkness before and after work. Things that were so easy in spring and summer take longer or become downright impossible due to snow, ice, wind and cold.

For example, one of Y’s brilliant (not sarcasm, it’s genuinely awesome) projects this year was to get water running from our workshop building to a spigot in the barn. This made it easy to fill animal buckets on site. When temperatures started to dip, we shut that water off so it wouldn’t freeze and crack the pipes, and went back to lugging buckets to and from the workshop. Well, as temperatures dipped even further, the pipes in the workshop became frozen too. This means we now lug water from the house, leaving frozen buckets to thaw in the mud room and switching out for fresh, hot water at least once a day (twice when it is below -10).

Chickens

People have asked, with these temperatures, how the animals have managed to stay warm. In the case of the chickens, they continued to go outside, wandering in the snow, perching in the trees, until about -10 C, always wondering back inside at night. Below -10, we have been keeping the coop door closed (though, honestly, they’d still like to leave, and I had to climb on top of the run to rescue one in -20 winds, but that’s not the norm).

Our chicken coop is an old playhouse/dog kennel that we converted for their use. It was solidly built, with a shingled roof and insulation piped into the walls. It sits a bit off the ground and has windows for ventilation. Though it gets below freezing, it is noticeably warmer inside than out.

Generally speaking, chickens are fine in winter when the following conditions are met:

  • They have deep, dry straw bedding. If you are using a deep bedding method, turn the straw weekly to keep it clean, and remove any large frozen chunks.
  • They are able to get out of the wind and rain. Dry chickens can regulate their own temperature.
  • Their coop has sufficient ventilation. Moisture is more likely to cause chicken death than cold, dry air because it leads to frostbite, respiratory issues, and hypothermia. Heat from their breath, water, and manure can cause condensation which becomes dangerous when it freezes.
  • They have liquid water during the daytime. If the water is freezing it must be replaced in the morning.
  • They have high quality feed. Chickens will need more food to help keep them warm, and you can supplement with scratch and cracked corn for added nutrition.
  • They are active. During the daytime, your chickens should be behaving normally – eating, drinking, strutting about – and may continue to lay eggs. If your chickens are lethargic, there is likely something wrong.

Chickens can be brought indoors if your coop is not sufficient in winter, but they are very smelly! We do not recommend heat lamps for any barn or outbuilding except in extreme cases, as they are the number one cause of farm fires and animal deaths.

Exciting news for us though! We had essentially given up on our chickens laying eggs until spring. They hadn’t laid any at all, and we assumed they wouldn’t in winter because of the shorter days and cold weather. Well, when doing the weekly straw turnover, I discovered almost a dozen eggs in the nest boxes! Most were frozen as we had failed to collect them, but we have been getting 2-4 eggs every day since. Collect twice a day to keep eggs from freezing. Frozen eggs can be fed back to the chickens once thawed, as it gives them vital nutrients back!

Eggs of many colours from our “Easter egger” chickens!

Goats

People have been adorably concerned about the goats in this weather, and I don’t blame them! If Y didn’t insist against it, I definitely would have brought them inside by now, and they’d be destroying every inch of the garage.

If goats are left to their own devices, they will usually do fine. They grow thick winter coats, eat more to keep their rumens active for warmth, and shelter themselves from the wind. With appropriate wind breaks, shelters, and access to food and hot water, goats can manage at temperatures most humans run from.

I go into some detail in our YouTube video, “How cold is too cold for goats?” You’ll see our healthy, chubby active goats enjoying some food and attention in -23 C weather.

The general rule is, if you can stand to hang out with them where they are, all bundled up in your own winter gear, then they are probably fine. I was out in the barn with the goats for 20 minutes yesterday, and because I was playing with them and heaving water around, I was actually sweating a bit! They were a bit slow to get up this morning and out of their cozy beds, but frankly, so was I.

With a little more care and attention, winter doesn’t have to mean woes for your animals. It definitely presents unique challenges, but, as usual, nature seems to know best! That said, we are definitely looking forward to some warmer weather starting tomorrow!