15 Winter Survival Tips For The Farm

Keep your land, animals and yourself in good shape this winter with this helpful advice.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Allen/Flickr

Winter can be a relief for many farmers, who welcome the much-needed rest after a long growing season, but it can also be a trying period. Freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and ice can wreak havoc on your land, home, outbuildings and animals, and make you feel isolated from the rest of your community. However, not all has to be lost during the cold season. Here are some ways to survive until spring’s thaw arrives.

1. Cover Plants and Use Cover Crops

You may be surprised to see how long your fall garden can hang in there with a little bit of row cover. This material is designed to keep the cold off of the plants and to keep heat around them, and it comes in a variety of thicknesses. In ­really cold spells, place row covers directly over the plants, and then another section over hoops for double protection.

The parts of your garden that don’t have edible crops for harvest should have crops that nourish the soil. Cover crops cover the soil and provide root systems for the microbiology below the surface to gain and retain nutrients. Bare, wet soil in the winter loses soil nutrition, but cover crops keep the soil alive and healthy until spring.

2. Avoid Ice Water

Keeping water from freezing is one of the biggest and most important challenges when overwintering livestock. Livestock need a lot of water in the winter; snow is not enough. Fortunately, many affordable devices can help lift that concern off your shoulders—some that float, some that heat the container itself and some that circulate the water like a creek.

If access to electricity is an issue, you can use some tricks: Larger tanks, for instance, have more thermal mass, and thus the water will retain more of its own heat. You can also insulate the tank or place it in a shed protected from the wind, so long as the animals can get to it.

3. Block The Wind

Most livestock can handle pretty low temperatures; it’s the wind that they can’t handle. Whether or not you’re rotating your livestock, provide wind breaks during the colder dips in temperature. Plant thick edges of trees along your fencerow or use physical barriers, such as barns or gates with blankets, so your animals can get out of the wind.

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4. Provide Dry Shelter

As the saying goes, “A goat can get wet, or a goat can get cold. But a goat shouldn’t get wet and cold.” Or put another way: Livestock need a dry place to go. This doesn’t ­necessarily have to be indoors; hay works well for bedding down. It should be available to them when a rainstorm blows in right before a cold snap.

That said, it’s also nice to have some form of shelter to keep the rain off your animals. There are many sad stories of farmers finding their livestock frozen to the ground after ice storms, but that can be avoided. The shelter can simply match the herd size, such as a mobile shelter that could double as a shade shack in the summer, or it could be a small barn. Lots of farmers are also turning to fabric structures as cheap alternatives to barns; imagine a large greenhouse with a white plastic covering.

5. Raise Hardy Breeds

Like nearly all things farming, the best way to avoid livestock issues in the winter is to breed for or purchase hardier animals. For breeding, this will take observation of which animals grow the best coat and lose the least condition after the harshest spells. For purchasing, this may simply include buying hardier stocks of animals. Always remember, though: You can move cattle north and west, but never move them south and east––the implication being if you want a hardier cow, don’t go too far north to get them or it may be the summer where you will have issues. Concentrate on genetics, not location.

6. Feed Hay In Fall

A lot of rotational grazers are realizing the value in feeding hay early to retain better grass during the winter. The idea is to stockpile your fall grasses, so by providing hay in August, September and October, you are actually saving fall grasses from being eaten. This will save you on hay in January and leave you going into the winter with fatter animals.

7. Rotate Animals Regularly

Too much impact in one place by your livestock can damage grass for a whole year or longer. Concentrations of animals create mud spots that may keep your animals wet and cold and turn into weeds come spring. Rotate your animals in the winter as much as possible, or give them more room to roam as to stop them from staying in any one area too long.

8. Feed At Night

Winter nights can be difficult on animals, but according to North Dakota State University Extension Services “Winter Management of the Beef Cow Herd”: “Feeding cows late in the day during severe cold will increase heat production during the night by the activity of eating and ruminating.” That’s a great tip from an area that knows a thing or two about hard winters!

9. Protect Your Feed

Rodents have a greater need for food in the winter, as much as any other animal, and they can easily destroy and invade feed supplies that are not kept safe. Make sure to keep any supplemental feed, minerals or grain in rodent-proof bins so as not to encourage (and propagate) more advantageous critters.

10. Think about Fencing

Freezing rain is the probably a greater danger than almost any other type of winter weather—not just on your livestock, electrical wires and trees, but on your fencing. Freezing rain can flatten and short out electric fencing, freeing your livestock to the world. If the forecast calls for freezing rain, consider adding a little extra support in the areas most at risk. A call for freezing rain may just be reason enough to bring your herd into the barn and away from downed fences, falling tree branches and icy fur.

11. Set Up Birthing Centers

If you’re expecting baby animals this winter, prepare a warm, safe spot just in case the little ones decide to come during subzero weather. Almost nothing is more ill-prepared for freezing temperatures than a wet baby. It will need a dry area to snuggle up with momma, so keep back a little straw for bedding and at least construct a makeshift shelter now, so as not to have to do it on the fly. If cold and babies are coming at the same time, you will already have plenty to do.

12. Ventilate Your Barn

Storing a bunch of animals in one place also means storing a bunch of moisture, ammonia, pathogens and dust there, too. Any barn in which you plan to house animals for the winter must have proper ventilation, or the animals may wind up with severe skin, eye and respiratory issues. Ventilated doesn’t mean drafty, though. Make sure the air can move but that animals still have a way to stay out of said movement if need be.

13. Exercise Your Animals

One other big downside to keeping animals indoors is the lack of exercise. It’s good for their health, muscles and general well-being to get them moving. Even just allowing them to go into a snowy pasture for the day can have a big impact on their ability to handle the cold and start the spring in good condition.

14. Secure Backup Power

Whether it’s for electric fences, water heaters or just the house, having a backup source of electricity to keep any or all of them running is never a bad idea. In fact, few things can get you out of a jam faster than a good portable generator.

15. Mind The Hearth

Finally, we can’t forget to keep ourselves warm. Always make sure to stuff towels under the doors, caulk your windows, install weather stripping where appropriate, keep cabinet doors open during cold spells and replace your furnace filter. Otherwise, same rules apply to winterizing you as your farm: Drink lots of water, exercise, eat a lot of hardy food and take care of yourself. Your farm needs you!

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