Our first winter with animals brings some new experiences keeping livestock. The methods and practices we use now, in my mind, are small iterations of our long trajectory of daily care, though when explaining them to someone new to the farm, there’s quite a bit of assumed backstory. I thought it might be interesting for some to hear about our daily practices and how the cold weather affects them.
Our sheep are breeding now, so they are separated by species. Heimdahl, our ram, and his three ladies are the Icelandic sheep and live in our small lean-to. The lean-to is three-sided and approximately 20×30. It stores our straw for bedding and has plenty of space for them. There is about 300’ of electric fence that permits the sheep to have access to pasture. We’ve had a lot of snow, and they don’t graze as much as the Katahdin when the pasture is covered. I’m not sure this true to the species, or because the flock came from central Illinois and probably didn’t have as much snow, or weren’t expected to graze in the winter.
Vince, our ram, and his five ladies make up our Katahdin sheep and they live out of the medium lean-to. We keep our tractor and its implements in here, but they have access off the front to graze in our newly fenced pasture. We use electric fencing on two sides to make an alley to get the permanently fenced portion. An Amish fence builder put in 3100’ of fencing to make a large pasture of about 11 acres. It’s made of black locust poles and no climb goat fencing. We’ll put electric on the perimeter this spring and section it off with temporary to rotate most of the animals in there. The Katahdin have been great about grazing this pasture, even through a foot or two of snow. They bed down in the lean-to, where they have water in a heated bucket and a hay feeder. As the winter goes on, they find less and less on pasture and eat a bit more hay to supplement. The Icelandic also have a 2 gallon heated water bucket and rely much more on hay since they tend not to graze during the winter.
In the big barn, our layers (chickens), goats, llama, and cats live together. None of these tend to like the winter and stay in. We open the doors for them everyday, but it takes a freak temperature of forty or fifty degrees to get any of them out exploring. The big barn does not have heat either, so everybody’s water needs to be heated here. We have IBC tote in the barn that I fill periodically from the rain and snowmelt from the roof. Since we don’t have a well near the barn, I wanted to attempt a few ways to keep the totes warm so we can access to water. I insulated one rainwater setup (2 totes plumbed together) with plywood and 2” polystyrene sheathing and another setup was heated with gutter wire wrapped around it. The setup with the gutter wire works pretty well and stays warm enough to flow most days. I keep an aquarium heater in the tote in the barn and put it on for cold nights. When we have a cold spell for a week or so, it becomes a bit more difficult to get the water flowing, so we fill 1 gallon jugs in our kitchen sink. It’s a bit of process for water, and sometimes more than Molly wants to deal with on a cold morning, but I think it makes us a bit more aware of water usage.
I’m glad that our animals mostly drink collected rainwater and that we can make it through a winter through our own systems. By next winter, we should have a water access and heat in the barn, so it will change our daily practices, but I’d recommend to any beginning farmer to start with some basic methods first. The automatic floats and grazing in the warm months allow for much easier chores, but in the winter it’s good to spend some time by the animals during chores, because more of our work is inside on a cold day. We’ve had days in the snow and wind, but our planning and research for next season thankfully keeps us indoors a bit.
We are a bit deeper into winter now, and we’ve been thinking more about predators. Less food on the ground and less prey to be found make the predators a little more aware of our animals. Our temporary electric fencing does not work well in snow because of electrical shorts and the solar panels get covered and the batteries don’t charge. Our animals are trained well enough not to get out, but the fencing also offers protection from predators. Our Katahdin sheep have access to a large fenced pasture, but I also think a motivated coyote could jump it. Besides hiding in the barn, I’m not quite sure what our sheep would do. Recently, a hawk got into the barn and seemed to be happy to stick around for dinner. I tried shushing it out the large door with 16’ stud while it flew around in the rafters (which are 16’ off the ground. It didn’t take me to seriously, so I had to resort to more drastic measures. I got the BB gun and shot it, and it was suddenly persuaded to leave the barn. After getting hit, it flapped and fluttered a little like it was hurt, but then made it to the woods. I felt a little bad about it, until a couple days later, when it warmed up, I came up to the barn and saw it picking apart one of my chickens in the pasture. The chickens were a little more adventurous and the hawk got one. I scared it off and we haven’t seen or heard it since, but I have a feeling it will be back. We’re just a bit more aware of the predator issues now, and we’re wondering if there is more that we should do to protect them. We’ve read about different practices, but there is always a big gray area between what you need to do specific to your farm versus what you’ve read.
Chores in the winter are much more of a team effort, since there is always something a little extra to make it all happen. Molly and I are doing chores together much more than in the the warmer months when we just take turns. We also get to spend some time planning this spring and organizing our business practices. Reviewing the work we did last year, planning when to plant something, and how to bring more people to the farm has been fun. We will have monthly workshops to complete a project or have an experience on the farm. This is exciting because we are starting to get to this point to share our limited experience. There’s a good chance that by this time next year we’ll have a grain bin and cabins built, which will allow for even more visitors. But much like our current barebones water setup, sometimes it’s good to be thrown into a situation and make everything work with what you have.