How to Get a Small Homestead Ready for Winter Freezes...Are You Ever REALLY Ready?
I love that saying "Winter is coming," from the show, Game of Thrones. It sounds foreboding, doesn't it? Well, when you have animals to care for, and it's your job to protect them from the elements, it sure can be a foreboding and stressful feeling. You need to be sure shelter, water, and predator control is in place. Although we are new homesteaders, just under four years, we have learned to start thinking about the upcoming winter in June or July! And still----we are never really ready, it seems.
Here it is, Winter already, and we continue to make changes in our Winter Set Up. This post may seem a bit untimely, but I hope it will show how around a homestead, you really need to be on your toes at all times!
How We Get Ready for Winter on Our Little Homestead
1. Food for the Animals
We tend to try to stockpile food as much as possible anyway, but animal feed is a big deal in the Winter months. Hay, especially, can be problematic if we haven't planned ahead. This past summer, we purchased an old box truck for only $400 and removed the box from the frame and cab. This is similar to a connex box, and it works perfectly for storing 2 to 3 tons of hay out of the elements.
For our other animals who are able to eat feed in bags, we just try to keep a good month's supply on hand. There have been times we can't get out of our neighborhood because of the snow drifts, so we have discovered we'd better have some extra set aside.
When we got our two horses last Spring, we did a lot of research about what we should have prepared for them. They have an open three sided shelter they can go into as they please. What I have noticed is that they most often choose to stay out of it, even if it's raining or snowing. I have to remember horses have pretty thick skin and don't feel cold like we do!
One of our biggest questions was whether or not we should blanket our horses, since our temperatures can drop into the single digits off and on during the winter. So we spoke to seasoned horse owners from different parts of the country who experience cold winters as well as gathered information from written sources.
We were told by horse owners in Las Vegas that we should blanket them (but Vegas winters are not cold at all). We were also told by a rancher from Minnesota to NOT blanket them, so their winter coat will grow in as thickly as possible. Since we have many herds of wild horses up here where we live, and they are not blanketed (obviously), we have noticed they have well-primed winter coats. Thus, we decided to try to go the natural route with our horses and not blanket them.
As of right now, their coats have come in quite well. It's been a warm fall so far, but I do think they will be fine as more snows come through. In fact, my little Bud has such a thick coat, he sometimes sweats!
We are now two snow storms into the winter at this point, and we have discovered our horse shelter is not comfortably adequate. We are extending it to make it larger (about 264 square feet when done), with a larger overhang for wind protection. Our winds up here can be absolutely brutal. We definitely guessed short in regard to horse shelter! We are fortunate our horses get along so great! Nobody bullies the other one out of the shelter--- But we are working on building onto the horse shelter even as I write this post! My poor husband is out in the snow and wind, building away! I really appreciate him....and so do the "kids."
Shelter for Chickens & Turkeys:
We have two chicken coops. Our first one is not insulated, and that first winter we were up here, we needed a heat lamp inside it to keep it warm enough. Our second coop is larger, and very well insulated too. We also have more chickens, and boy, do they generate some good body heat! We are using a solar light for a few hours in the evening---but that's to help with egg production, not heat. (The solar light works because in the second coop, we have a reclaimed bullet proof piece of glass as a sun roof, so they get sun during the day in the Winter---unless the snows are too thick.)
Shelter for Dogs:
Our dogs come into the house at night, but their dog houses have thick insulated walls like the coop, so they have warm places to go during the day. One of our dogs uses it quite often, most likely because he is older. Our big labrador retriever seems impervious to the cold.
My husband and I have gone round and round about water for the animals during the winter time. He used to think they could get enough water from eating snow, especially the dogs. I just didn't have a good feeling about this. For the dogs, we break up the ice every morning and that seems to be working just fine. The chickens' water we have moved inside their coop, and it just doesn't freeze because of the residual warmth in the coop from the sun roof and the body heat.
The horses, however, have a large metal trough, and the water sure does freeze thick! It's not even breakable sometimes! So we have a de-icer that we plug in early in the morning before I go to work for about an hour while I get ready. I unplug it when I leave because it puts a huge drain on our solar power. Since we are on solar, we try to keep electrical items off as much as possible, especially in winter with the short sometimes cloudy days.
New update on the de-icer: We have resorted to keeping it plugged in all the time---we just run the generator every single evening (rain or shine) for an hour or so.
4. Predator Control:
During the winter, natural predator food sources shrink. This tempts some of these predators to try to get into areas containing poultry and other food sources. In fact, we even have to worry about elk! The elk out here jump fences as high as six feet in order to get to hay (or fruit trees). One of our neighbors actually had an incident in which one of his horses was gored to death by a bull elk in search of hay! Now that is tragic!
For us, predators haven't been too much of a problem since we have been in our home. However, we do have lots of coyotes and an occasional mountain lion skulking around. But do you know what our personal biggest problem is? Feral cats!
Our neighbor next door feeds these cats, and they are absolutely the meanest things. We have found them in our chicken coop in the dead of winter, and boy, are they wicked! The chickens are too big for them to mess with much. However, those ferals killed four of our heritage breed turkey chicks early last spring! All....gone.
We use a tension wire along the top of our fence around the whole property. This cuts down on the elk jumping in. Our dogs keep the coyotes and the feral cats at bay as long as they are running the property, too. Our chicken run has natural trees and bushes, and that has alleviated predator birds swooping in for an easy kill.
We don't have great problems with predators, but we are as prepared as we can think to be right now!
5. Garden Prep
I'm a lazy learning gardener. Once school starts up in the fall (I'm a teacher), we just don't have time for much more. So, what I do with the garden is open it up to the chickens & turkeys! They serve multi-purpose tasks: 1) Till the soil (they are amazingly wonderful at this); 2) Spread the chicken manure love without me having to touch it! and 3) eat and/or turn under all the leftover plants!
Once the chickens are finished this year, I plan on trying out deep mulch. I already have extra old alfalfa, straw, etc. Between snows, I'll be packing on several inches of it over the gardens!
Oh, yes. the days grow shorter and the nights longer. All of a sudden it feels like I just don't have time to get everything done while it's light out! My husband gets home later than me by up to several hours, since his drive is so much longer. That means I'm doing the homestead animal chores in the morning before work and also in the afternoons when I get home. At this time, I just use a headlamp to see where I'm going. But it has become very clear that we need some type of solar lighting system along the paths tread often around the property---especially when dealing with ice!
The Bottom Line on Getting Ready for Winter:
I think being completely ready for winter (or any type of weather) is a matter of years of experience coupled with a Plan A, B, and C for just in case. As you can see, we have made changes every single year! We constantly have to adjust--even while Winter is in full force! And as we add more animals to our small homestead, we continue to learn and yes---make more changes and improvements. Are you ever really completely ready?
How do you get ready for winter? What are the things you think about where you live? I'd sure love to know, and if I can learn something new from you, that would be awesome! Besides your comments make this all worthwhile!
Hugs, Self Reliance, and Learning!
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