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Tackling Winter with Livestock on the Homestead

We like to refer to the winter season as our “down time” because there are less demands from the land. Managing 18 acres in the spring and summer requires significant attention. Those are the times of year when we garden, tend to the orchard, clear trees, improve pasture and all the back breaking work that caring for these meadows and streams demands. With every tree you fell there is a plethora of thorny shrubbery waiting to take its place and we rely on our livestock to aid us in attending to these tasks. With the entrance of the frost and colder temperatures comes the dormancy of our green acres and a quieter time for the land.

Our attention then shifts inward to the home, our family, and of course our many animals! Barn chores and caring for the animals are of even greater importance this time of year when the cold takes a toll on the weak or ill adapted. It’s a time when you must be most vigilant with your care regardless of the weather or length of daylight hours. Our homestead is located in Northwest Connecticut. A beautiful portion of the state that remains lushly green in the summer and aflame with vibrant colors in the fall. In our little town of Harwinton we are part of hardiness zone 5b and temperatures fluctuate greatly.

Here’s a rundown of what barn chores on the homestead can look like in December...

1. Keep livestock well fed and protected from wind and cold at night. Depending on what species of animals you keep the dietary needs can vary seasonally. For our goats the winter is the time of year when we want to feed the best quality hay we can get our hands on. We feed hay free-choice, so the herd stays well conditioned and are able to keep their bodies warm. All our animals require well ventilated enclosures free of draft to bed down in at night. They will huddle together for warmth and a good thick layer of bedding prevents illness or disease claiming livestock as victims or parasites entering their bodies from poor living conditions. Drafty homes are a swift killer, so button up those barns while maintaining ventilation to avoid respiratory issues.

2. Check for signs of frostbite on chicken combs, wattles, and feet. Poultry can be fragile this time of year, which is why it’s imperative to consider cold hardy breeds for your flock if your New Englanders like us! The best way to avoid frostbite is with proper ventilation in a draft free coop as mentioned above. As the birds huddle together on the roost the warmth of their breathing must have a way to escape the coop or it will surely lead to frostbite when moisture begins to build up. This is where you see blue or black combs on those beautiful roosters and damage to wattles. To avoid frostbite on feet consider using wood roosts in lieu of metal and make the roosting pole wide enough for the chickens to bunker down over their feet for warmth. Pay special attention to the squate footage needed for birds both inside the coop and run this time of year. It may be time to cut back the flock as bored birds and tight living quarters typically leada to a host of problems.

3. Water should be kept ice free with proper heaters. The herd is housed in our barn and enjoy the luxury of electricity, so we use heated water buckets for the goats to have 24/7 access to fresh water. They also tend to drink more and stay properly hydrated when the water isn’t ice cold. The same is required for the chickens and there are a number of heated chicken waterers to choose from. The last thing any homesteader enjoys doing this time of year is slogging water buckets in the snow multiple times throughout the day. Winter calls for streamlining your process, investing in your own sanity, and the welfare of your animals who need continuous access to clean water.

4. We give our flock a mixture of cracked corn and black oil sunflower seeds in the evening to keep them warm through the night. Their bodies work harder to digest these treats and as a result they stay a bit warmer and happier!

5. Eggs must be gathered multiple times a day to prevent them from freezing and causing waste. Cracked frozen eggs must be discarded as cracks in the shell allow harmful bacteria to enter the egg. Eggs are few and far between in the winter, so protect that delicious commodity by checking nesting boxes frequently!

6. Fence lines and the property perimeter are checked periodically for needed repairs, fallen tree limbs and signs of predators. The winter is a great time to better understand the patterns of the wildlife that call your land home. They leave a vivid tale of the daily goings on in the snow in the form of tracks, scat, and discarded food. This is a perfect time to learn to identify tracks and discover who you’re sharing your land with. This will also tell you a great deal about what kind of predators you are protecting your animals from, so that you aren’t playing the guessing game after a casualty.

7. Assessing feed supplies to ensure they will last through winter is a big one this year! We received an uncharacteristic amount of rain and as a result farmers struggled to harvest second cutting this year. Quality hay has been hard to come by and stocking up for the winter was a big task checked off the winter preparation list. It’s best to keep a log of the consumption of grain and hay throughout the year to establish baseline trends and help you predict your needs for the upcoming season.

8. Butcher or sell excess livestock. Winter is when we downsize. Our flock is down to only our breeders we will need for the spring, so as to lighten our workload for the winter and ensure they have roomy housing when they are unable to free range. Additional poultry were butchered or sold leading up to this season in preparation for the shift and its been a wonderful way to fill our freezer for the winter with quality meat from free ranging birds who we’ve raised since hatching. The same concept applied to our pigs who have all made their way to the butcher. Their enclosure has been cleaned and serves as a quarantine space or additional housing over the winter for our other animals.

This is a perfect time of year for reflection. We look back on our accomplishments and failures, sew plans for the upcoming year, continue our farming education, and celebrate the holidays with our loved ones. There’s a stillness this time of year that begs us to rejuvenate and prepare. I use this peaceful time to practice self-care by focusing on my personal needs, feeding my creativity, and connecting with my family. There is a host of ways to occupy your time within the warmth of your home or workshop by repairing and maintaining tools, home cooking meals, crafting, creating homemade gifts, tanning hides or woodworking. If the chilly temperatures don‘t stop you from getting outdoors then do some fishing, trapping, hunting, or splitting firewood. Most importantly stay productive and positive no matter how short the days may be or how much you did or did not accomplish this past season!

~ Nicole

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