Freezing Temperatures and Extreme Weather on The Farm

Winter months and freezing temperatures provide new winter chores on the farm along with time for new skills like woodworking, and for garden planning and ordering seeds for sale.

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by Fotolia/chelle129
A couple of hens venture out of the warm coop into a snow-covered landscape.

For many homesteaders, it seems there is only a short reprieve from soaring summer temperatures and long hours in the garden until winter stalks the home place. The battles being fought against bugs, humidity and heat turn into new ones: those against freezing temperatures and shorter daytime hours. While most of us know better than to be surprised by the stark change in daily routines, there is always a winter chore or two that seems to trip us up, requiring more time and energy than it should.

Knowledge and planning are the best bets against Old Man Winter and his tricks. And, since the cold snap will come every year, it’s best to prepare months in advance with our surefire tips for winning the war against common — but annoying — winter dilemmas. Here are some of the more grievous — and curable — seasonal issues, and a common-sense approach for fighting back.

Foul odors in animal outbuildings

On days when the already-freezing temperatures are extremely low, the moisture and mess that can become trapped in bedding layers may not be as noticeable. If your chicken coop or barn is well-insulated and kept at reasonable temps, however, the wet, muddy conditions can make things less than fresh for your animal friends. Many have turned to a deep-bed style waste management — for chickens, in particular.

Angela England, author of Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less), encourages this practice and recommends deep layers of bedding, with fresh bedding continually added to the top — which allows composting naturally underneath.

If you have an enclosed chicken coop with hard floors, expect to factor in some extra time for cleaning chores. “The bedding will need to be refreshed more often — especially under the roost areas,” England says.

In addition to feathered fowl, this method works well for goats and sheep. By adding thick layers of straw continually during the winter months, it’s possible to keep things cozy and sanitary for your animals. England adds that the wet seasons may require more drastic action to improve drainage of moisture. She’s partial to putting down wooden pallets filled with gravel between the slats, then covering that with thick layers of straw bedding. This method keeps the animals up off the floor and away from their own waste until spring.

light brown goat standing in front of a barn in the snow

Lack of animal shelters

Not all animals and livestock need basic shelter from winter conditions, but it is wise to have at least rudimentary buildings available for extreme blizzards and ice storms. Since aging animals and new offspring can easily lose their lives when caught off-guard by rapidly approaching cold fronts, it’s a good idea to construct basic livestock shelters for all the animals on your homestead. England, who is a fan of the three-sided shelter, agrees that this can be especially useful for goats and cattle, since they are known to birth later in the winter months and need the added protection.
Other basic livestock shelters can be made from unused livestock trailers, with extra protection over the window areas, and even a simple lean-to against the side of a steel machine shed is better than no protection. In addition, small wooden calving huts can often be found at farm sales during the summer, and will only need a little work to make them last half a dozen winters or more. If a structure significantly limits exposure, is sturdy and safe, and fits within any zoning ordinances in your area, it should be considered as a viable option for winter shelter.

Light-layers in the hen house

Because the amount of daylight will be significantly less during the winter, some chickens — especially the older ones — may not lay at all during the season. This can be tied to factors other than sunlight, as some breeds keep a fairly strict spring-through-fall laying schedule.
For those breeds that are bred to lay year-round, however, it’s a good idea to add a light source for the days when it’s too cold to venture out. A light on a timer that reflects summer daylight hours typically increases egg production, though some folks prefer to let their hens have the winter “off” to recharge. Not only can using a light offset some of the production losses experienced during the winter, it provides a source of warmth and can help control pests that tend to avoid light — such as rats and insects. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions for your particular light to ensure safe operation and appropriateness, and place the light high enough so it won’t come in contact with flammable materials.

Frozen outdoor spigots and frozen water tanks

billy goat standing in front of a round bale

While food is rarely an issue for outdoor livestock, assuming you stocked up in advance, water is a commodity that must be refreshed day after freezing day.
I recommend:

• One floating tank heater per tank, plus extension cords. There are solar-powered versions, although your daylight hours may affect their effectiveness. If you have horned animals, such as bulls or horned goats, look for a submersible heater. The floating plastic models are easy for more mischievous critters to pull out with their horns. For farms with just one or two animals, it’s possible to get by with a heated bucket, although they are less sturdy and more expensive to maintain.

• Faucet covers on each of your outdoor spigots attached to your home or building. These don’t have to be fancy; the simple foam covers available at most hardware stores for under $4 will do the trick. Be sure to put them on your faucets before freezing temperatures hit, and put them back on each time you use the faucets.

• Consider a heated water hose. They aren’t cheap, running $75 or more for a single 30-foot length. The hoses, however, don’t require you to empty them between uses, making the chore of filling water tanks much easier during extreme cold spells. Another option for keeping hoses from freezing and cracking is a heated water hose case, which requires you to place the hose into a temperature-controlled holder when not in use. Alternatively, you can drain the hose after each use.

• You can also keep ice from thwarting the watering of smaller animals, such as fowl and rabbits, by implementing a simple “exchange” program. Keep an extra of each container on hand in a heated shop, utility room or garage, and switch out the frozen waterer with a fully thawed one twice a day or more. Be sure to allow for the mess that will occur when the frozen containers melt. Some farms have found unused showers in the mudroom to be the perfect solution to this problem.

• And finally, don’t be afraid to chop ice that forms on any larger stock tanks. Remove the floating chunks with a silage fork and refill. This old-school method will get you through a power failure, assuming you use electric tank heaters, and will work in all but the most brutal of sub-zero, windy conditions.

shetland ponies eating hay in the snow

Not enough to do

In comparison to the summer months, the winter season can seem somewhat relaxed. One way to use the extra time is to do much of your warm-weather planning during the darker months. For instance:

• Learn or perfect a new skill. Popular choices include woodworking, needlework, fiber arts, hunting, soap making, knife making, blogging and cooking.

• Shop sales and online outlets for good bargains on summer supplies. Canning jars, cookbooks, garden tools and summer clothing are all good purchases.

• Plan your garden and order seeds. Take this one step further by washing pots and organizing seedling supplies, as well as referring to your garden journal to see what worked well, what didn’t work, and what changes you’d like to make.

Many sons and daughters of farmers fondly remember the winter months as a time to reconnect with their hardworking parents, who seem to always be on the go during the warm seasons. Remember, too, that when the chores are done and all is well on the farm, up north the cold is a normal part of a natural cycle and can be just what you need to take a breath, start a fire, and admire a year’s worth of accomplishments.

Born and raised in a small Nebraska town, Linsey Knerl has experienced first-hand just how complicated the “simple life” can be.