Even though the temperatures drop, that doesn’t mean that work on the farm stops; and in some cases the cold may mean more work to take care of the animals. So as the winds blow colder, we shift our chores and also our clothes and tools. Our chores change for each of the animals; but first and foremost we make sure that they all have shelter from the wind and elements if they need it. We were fortunate that the farm already has what are called ‘run-ins’ – aptly named, they are a 3-sided shelter with a roof where animals can run into and be protected from chilly winds, rain, or snow. Most of our pastures have either a run-in, or direct access to a barn.
One of the run-ins had been stripped down (we think some of the boards were used as fence boards), but we rebuilt it so that it is no longer an eye-sore, and it also functions well as protection in our front pasture. When the temperatures dip, we go around and make sure that there is good hay bedding in each of the run-ins to make it more comfortable and clean for the cows, horses, and sheep to take shelter in. The chickens are out in middle of the pasture, so don’t have a run-in or barn, which is why we surround the base of their mobile chicken coop with straw bales. That way they have an area under the coop that is protected from the elements – and where they have been huddling together recently to maximize warmth.
Another danger in the cold is frozen water. We are fortunate that one of the previous owners installed very nice Nelson waterers – these are automatic waterers that fill when they get low and also have a heating element. This way we both efficiently use water and can be confident that the animals all have access to fresh water even when temperatures are below freezing. We do have to check and maintain them, but they are a lifesaver as otherwise we would be carrying and/or filling water troughs and buckets daily during the winter.
One other change in winter chores is feed – in order to stay warm animals may eat more feed so that the digestive process keeps their body temperature up. You can tell with the horses, sheep and cows when they develop a ‘winter coat’ – their hide is furrier, thicker, and generally serves as a better layer of insulation. The chickens do fluff up a bit with more feathers, but it’s not quite as noticeable. So we check to make sure everyone has enough feed and hay every day and keep everything all topped off; and with the horses we bring them in at night to feed them and give them a break from the elements. Since we re-finished our barn, our guys have their own dedicated stalls. This makes feeding them easy, since they all have different needs – Valid needs more calories to keep weight on, Dude needs a tiny bit of feed to maintain weight, and Apollo only gets a tiny bit of hay basically to keep him busy since he’s still too tubby and needs to lost a few pounds. That’s why he also currently wears a grazing muzzle, which slows him down and ensures that he eats less.
I do not enjoy the cold, and thus have tried and tested many winter options for both clothing and protective gear over the past few years. I struggle to keep my fingers and toes warm enough (whether I’m farming or not!), and although we warm up as we move outside they are still the last parts of my body to retain heat. We also have to make sure that one can move in our cold weather gear … if your outfit is too heavy or inflexible it may extend the time it takes to do chores!
I am learning to make peace with the cold, and on some days I even enjoy being outside in the crisp air – it’s satisfying to know that we can provide our animals with safe and comfortable conditions even when the weather may not be so generous. And accomplishing tasks outside on the days when there is so little light also lifts my spirits and is a reminder that we can be resilient even in dark times. We maximize efficiencies on short days and get things done quickly – checking, feeding, fixing as needed.
Lastly, gear is key! What follows are our recommendations for winter weather gear – and although we don’t get super cold temps, it makes a world of difference to be outfitted for the outside all winter long.