Even though the afternoons continue to be dappled with warm sunshine, the evenings are getting shorter and nights continually colder. The urge to stock the farm pantry, fill the nesting boxes with straw and get some extra feed lined up for the cattle bubbles up inside, growing stronger with each passing winter day.
Each season brings its own set of struggles and blessings. The warmer months are meant to be spent digging through the dirt as we plant, water and weed our gardens. But autumn and winter allow the weary soul some time to slow down and turn thoughts to inside the home.
Of course, chores will still need to be done and animals need to be cared for. But most of the time can be centered around indoor activities.
A good habit to put into practice toward the middle of autumn is to make a list of tasks that need accomplished before the snow starts to fall. From putting the garden to rest to preparing the animals and stocking up on hay, it’s best to take a walk around the yard and make notes of any odd jobs that need completed.
A variety of problems can be alleviated if proper care and maintenance is done ahead of time.
The same well-prepared mentality should be applied inside the home, from filling the pantry with shelf-stable goods in case a trip to town is unable to be made to loading up the wood racks with firewood earlier in the year. Learning what is needed to batten down the hatches before winter comes knocking on your door is helpful and practical and can often be fun as you check things off your list.
Yard & Garden
A variety of simple jobs can be tackled when you spend an afternoon cleaning up the yard. By now, most of the garden likely looks brown and dead. Large dead weeds can be pulled and removed, but a nice canopy of smaller dead plants can be left on the ground to rot and provide nutrients for the soil.
If you’ve noticed any signs of disease in plants during the previous season, remove and dispose them properly.
Otherwise, the remaining dead plants can be left as they are. Throughout the winter, they’ll act as a haven to a variety of small insects, from butterflies to bees. Foraging birds will also often visit your garden to look for hibernating insects on which to snack.
If your soil needs amended, fall is also a good time to go ahead and add any supplements or fertilizer (such as manure), so that it can soak in and mellow over the next few months. If it’s not too dry, tree limbs and debris can be piled up and burned in a brush pile (of course, following any local ordinances).
During the busy summer season, it’s easy for items to be scattered around and left in the garden or near where a project is being completed. Tools should be rounded up and put in their proper places.
Axes and ice picks for breaking ice, pitchforks for hauling straw or hay, snow shovels, heat lamps (and extra bulbs) to put with poultry, extra extension cords, etc. should all be put in easy-access locations. That way you won’t have to hunt for them later when needed.
Hoes and rakes can be cleaned off, sharpened (if needed) and tucked away in storage. Garden hoses should be emptied of any remaining water to avoid freezing and splitting in cold temperatures, then coiled away in the shed.
Some perennial plants (whether in the garden, orchard or flowerbeds) can also be carefully cut back during the fall, although it’ll depend on the individual plant, as some do better if pruned in the spring. Perennials that flower and have dried seedheads on them can be left over the winter as a farm ood source for foraging birds and wildlife.
If you have bulbs planted around the homestead, autumn is also a good time to dig them up. They can be separated and dried for a period before being carefully packed in lightly moistened sawdust and stored in a dry, dark area such as a basement.
After the garden is cleaned up and everything is stored away, write a review of how things did the last season. If you don’t keep a journal already, note the things that grew well, what didn’t thrive, what varieties you might try next year, etc. Even if you think you’ll remember things next spring, you might be surprised how a few months can make you forget!
Sheds should be checked for any signs of disrepair. Broken or missing windows can be replaced and sealed with caulk. Drafts should be closed while keeping in mind a means of proper ventilation. This will be especially important in smaller buildings such as the chicken coop.
If you’re questioning how much ammonia has built up already inside a coop, do a quick sniff test. Lean over within 10 to 12 inches of the floor (around the height of your chickens), and give it a sniff. If your eyes and nose begin to burn, then the ammonia level is already too high and you’ll need to clean it and provide a fresh layer of bedding.
Even if you don’t have a problem with ammonia level, consider cleaning out and disinfecting the coop again in the fall.
Some poultry-keepers prefer to implement the deep-litter method of bedding inside their coops as it can provide more insulation and a barrier between the poultry and cold temperatures outside. This offers thicker bedding on the floor, and as the soiled bedding is turned over and new bedding is added, the old bedding and droppings will decompose over time, producing some heat inside the coop.
Nesting boxes should also have new (or extra) material added to them. Roosts can be checked for any broken boards or problems that could cause chickens to start roosting on the floor where it’s colder.
Waterers and feeders can be cleaned out and left to dry thoroughly in the sun before using again. If you use heat lamps in your coop, they should be checked to be in working order and extra bulbs can be purchased and stored away until needed.
For your poultry, keep extra feed and grain on hand if you have a good way to store it away from moisture and pests. Consider purchasing a heavy-duty plastic trash can with a lid or even a plastic tote to premix the feed and supplements in, and then store it.
Farm livestock can generally handle winter temperatures better than people, if cared for properly. Body condition is especially important when entering the colder months.
While it isn’t the same for all cattle—for instance, cows won’t need grain but rather a protein supplement and plenty of good quality hay—cattle such as feeder steers should be fed plenty of grain during the colder months to give more energy and generate body heat.
It isn’t just a matter of feeding farm animals plenty of grain during the cold months but in the time leading up to winter. They should be fed enough to be in good body condition when entering winter, with enough fat to withstand colder temperatures comfortably.
Water is just as important on the farm during the winter as it is during the summer. While dehydration is a great danger in high temperatures, it’s also a danger when frozen water isn’t broken or fresh water quickly freezes over. If heated waterers are available, make sure to thoroughly check them over and see that they’re in working condition.
The structures that your livestock inhabit are also important to give a look over. Check for drafts and any damaged areas to the building that might need repaired to help block the cold wind. Keep in mind that proper ventilation is necessary to avoid too much ammonia build-up and keep the air from becoming stagnate.
Broken or weak (sagging) fences generally need tended to quickly regardless of the season, but they can be especially important when there is a threat of cattle getting out in bitter cold weather or a snow storm. It’s best to stay on top of them and mend problems before the weather turns nasty.
Other things to look at include:
- feed storage (such as bulk or overhead grain bins)
- proper places to store any supplemental cattle cubes
- a nonfreezing location (such as inside the house) to store cattle medications
Plenty of feed and hay should be stocked on the farm in the months leading up to winter to avoid a shortage and price hike. During summer, cattle can graze on grass. Options are much more limited during the winter months when farm growth goes dormant. Grain, supplemental cubes, and round and/or square bales can all be rounded up from farm supply stores and local farmers or ranchers, then stored away until needed.
Keeping the equipment on your homestead in good working order during the colder months (or at least able to be stored away safely) can help eliminate costly mistakes and problems. Once the temperatures get cold enough, fuel can gel and machines might not be able to run without a good amount of effort unless proper maintenance is done ahead of time.
The kind of preparation needed will vary from machine to machine, depending on if you plan to use them throughout the colder season or if they’ll be stored away in a shed. Implements such as lawn mowers and rototillers will likely be put away until spring. Larger equipment that might be needed for feeding livestock, moving hay bales and running power generators should be serviced for continual use.
Here is a basic checklist of things to look over on your equipment.
Mice and rats love to look for cozy spots to make a nest in, and they don’t seem to mind at all if it’s in your machinery or vehicles.
“The last thing you want is to open the barn in the spring to find a flourishing rat population,” says Nicole Williams, chief strategy officer at SenesTech. “Just two rats, a male and a female, can produce 15,000 descendants in about a year.”
We try to get the equipment with cabs cleaned out so there are no extra reasons for them to crawl inside and make a nest. A blow gun and air compressor can be used to blow off any dirt, chaff or trash inside and outside of the machines. The cab can be dusted, and the floor brushed free of debris. While it’s possible that some dust will accumulate over the winter months, do a thorough cleaning before farm machines are tucked in the shed.
Antifreeze should be checked in all engines on the homestead, for the level of antifreeze in the motor and the concentration or strength of the formula. This will help prevent the motor from freezing and causing engine issues, with the most extreme case being that the engine block could crack and break.
Hydraulics & Air Systems
On farm machines with hydraulics, change filters before winter hits to avoid very slowly moving oil if a filter becomes plugged. Air systems can also have airline antifreeze added to the lines if in a very cold climate.
On vehicles with air tanks, drain the air tanks to avoid condensation, which can eventually freeze and break air pop-off valves. In cabbed farm machines, heater valves should be turned on and a winter front or canvas can be put over the radiators. This can help trap enough heat to the help the engine operate properly and heat the coolant enough that it will blow warm air into the cab.
If you plan to park a farm machine for the winter, don’t change the engine oil as the temperature change from outside in the cold to inside a warm shop (when changing it) could put condensation in the crank case. This would cause water in the oil for when you go to run it next spring.
Instead, just consider it one less thing to do this fall and change it next spring.
As for fuel, a good quality anti-gel fuel additive can be added to machines to help remove water from the fuel and prevent gelling in cold climates. For farm equipment you plan to park over the winter, make sure it has winterized fuel in it.
Double check the batteries and battery connections to make sure they’re not broken or too corroded. If there is a good connection it will help machines start much easier.
If you plan to still use the farm machine quite a bit throughout the winter, test the battery with a load tester or find someone that is able to do it for you. By putting a load on the battery, it’ll tell you if it’s considered bad and needs replaced or not.
If there is ever a time that the farm house is busy and full of activity, it’s during the winter months. Families spend less time outdoors and more time together inside. While there can often be bouts of cabin fever or winter blues, they can be made less prevalent with a few simple practices!
Make a few plans earlier in the year for fun activities that be done while everyone’s inside. Games and books can be purchased and tucked away until later, crafts or other mind-challenging
projects can be saved, and produce stored in the freezer during the busy summer months can be pulled out and turned into delicious jams and jellies to gift.
(Plus, it’ll feel better to heat up the kitchen now, too!)
As far as your physical home goes, you can check several things around the farm before winter hits.
- Exteriors should be examined for damaged or rotten wood that needs repaired.
- Drafts can be sealed, and windows might need covered or sealed with caulk.
- Gutters should be cleaned.
- There should be proper drainage around the home to avoid water pooling up and causing issues.
- Water wellheads should be covered if exposed to the elements (you can even use just an old blanket).
- The fireplace and chimney should be cleaned and prepped for use.
- Trees around your home should be checked for low-hanging or potentially hazardous limbs that could come down in an ice or snowstorm.
- The heating system should be tested to make sure it functions properly.
- Ceiling fans can be switched over and reversed.
- Exterior faucets (and hoses) can be drained and turned off.
- If you heat with wood, firewood should be cut and set aside to cure earlier in the year.
- If fuel (such as propane or natural gas) is used to heat with, contact your supplier and have the tank filled at the beginning of the season. While they might contact you with a reminder in the fall, it’s good to check the tank every once in awhile to stay on top of the fuel level and avoid the risk of running out during a cold snap.
Filling Your Pantry
If I hear that there is a nasty bit of cold weather headed our way, I do a quick mental search for anything I might need to pick up in town before it hits. Usually, we keep a well-stocked pantry and do a majority of shorter shopping trips for fresh produce or other random items. Here are some items you might check to make sure you have plenty of in case of bad weather.
- basic cooking and baking ingredients
- bottled water for drinking and humidifiers (if not using tap water)
- canned goods (and a can opener!)
- fresh fruit, veggies, milk and eggs
- bread (if you normally use it!)
- personal hygiene products
- laundry detergent
- lantern fluid and wicks
- plenty of warm blankets
- first-aid kit
- regular medications or cold medicine
- pet food
- baby food and supplies
- games or books and projects to pass the time
- snacks or candies (or supplies to make them)
- a full tank of fuel in your vehicles
While it’s wise to be prepared, it’s also good to learn to enjoy each season to its fullest. Do your prep work, then sit back and enjoy the calm, peaceful evenings.
Winter brings colder temperatures and more neutral-toned landscapes to the farm. But it also brings opportunities to recap the previous busy months and catch up with our family and the relationships that need nurturing, just as our gardens and livestock do. Embrace the slower routines and look for the simple blessings in each day.
Before you know it, the garden will be ready to plant again and spring will be just around the corner.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms.