A cold forecast comes across your smartphone: “Snowfall amounts up to 6 inches today, followed by clear and cold temperatures below zero tonight.” Winter is always challenging, but even more so for farmers who manage livestock and must continue to work outdoors around the farm regardless of the temperature.
Heavy snowfall? You still have to haul round bales. Cold temperatures? The barn chores still must go on.
Happily, there are plenty of tricks and tips you can use to help make winter farm life just a little bit better. To that end, here are some techniques, tools and time-savers that you might find helpful next time the cold wind blows in a snowstorm.
You’ll develop a rhythm after a winter or two on your farm, and wisdom from past experiences will help you work more efficiently when the weather turns cold. But here are some ideas to get you started.
In regions with frequent heavy snowfall, it’s important to remove each snow before allowing people, animals or vehicles to traverse. This isn’t always possible. But if you can plow, snow blow and shovel the paths and lanes first, it prevents foot and wheel traffic from compressing the snow.
Even one person can compact the snow with his or her boots and make it more difficult to remove, and it’s even worse with a truck or ATV. Again, it’s not always practical, but if you can get up before the rest of your farm crew and clear the important paths first, you’ll have an easier time keeping the farmyard functional all winter long.
If you live in a warmer region where each snowfall melts in between the next one, this isn’t as much of a concern.
LED lights continue to grow in popularity for energy savings and long life, and maybe you’ve considered upgrading your barn lighting to LED. But be aware of the various light “temperatures” you can choose from.
Some LED lights are labeled as daylight temperature, or about 5,000 Kelvin (K). Despite the name, this is actually a pretty harsh, very white light that looks more like a dentist’s office than a barn and may not be inviting when you come in on a cold, dark night.
To achieve the “warmer” golden glow so familiar from incandescent lighting, look for an LED with a “warm white” temperature like 2,900 K or less. You’ll get that cozy atmosphere you’re looking for.
In my barn, we don’t use LEDs at all and still prefer traditional incandescent lighting for the color and the added bit of warmth they put out.
In areas with mild winters, some people try to keep their animals’ water from freezing using a variety of passive methods. These include things such as insulated buckets, insulated troughs, black plastic to gather heat, old tires around buckets and many more.
The problem with these passive methods is that they aren’t very reliable. You may find yourself expending a lot of effort on something that doesn’t work.
When it becomes really cold out, the water will freeze anyway. Electric heated buckets and trough heaters, on the other hand, are safe, easy to use and work well. This means no more freezing water, no more worrying that it’s dipping down to 20 degrees F overnight.
They do use electricity but not as much as you might guess. A 5-gallon heated bucket only draws about 120 watts of power, controlled by a thermostat so it doesn’t even run 24/7. Why not try a few and see how they work?
Depending on your situation, you may not want your livestock spending the entire winter in their normal pastures. Perhaps you’d like to keep your animals closer to the barnyard during times of heavy snow. Or perhaps you’d like to save your pastures from hoof damage during muddy seasons.
A smaller winter corral—or “sacrifice” paddock—located on a well-draining site can serve this purpose, protecting your main pastures while allowing easy access to your animals.
Snow fencing isn’t intended to be a barrier to stop blowing snow. But it can help you control where the drifts occur.
If you live in a region with heavy snowfalls or frequent winter wind, a few hundred feet of carefully placed snow fence can help direct drifts away from driveways, buildings and livestock pastures.
Mice, rats, squirrels, voles and other critters don’t want to be left out in the cold either. Don’t be surprised if they try to move into your barns during the winter.
They often particularly seek out the feed and hay storage areas.
For the feed room, seal entrances, utilize rodent control techniques and keep your feed in critter-proof containers. It’s trickier to protect forage from critters, but trapping can be effective and so can barn cats.
It’s easy to get focused on your animals’ winter welfare, but keep yourself safe as well. Besides dressing warm in layers, insulated clothing and even heated clothes, stay hydrated.
Just like your livestock, people often don’t feel as thirsty in the winter, even when they’re working hard.
Odds are, you’ll have a bit of extra time in the winter. If you have a suitable building (ideally heated!), you can put some of that time to use by maintaining and preparing machinery for next year.
Nobody said you couldn’t change the filters and fluids on your tractors, ATVs and mowers during the winter. Close the door, turn on the lights and enjoy a cozy indoor day working on your machines while the wind howls away outside.
Everyone will have a different preference when it comes to winter gloves, and there is no shortage of modern cold-weather materials. But it’s worth trying out a pair of good old-fashioned leather gloves with added lining for winter.
Not only is leather tough enough for winter use, it’s somewhat water-resistant and looks like it belongs on a farm.
Winter nights are long, and morning and evening chores often take place in the dark. There’s no question that a quality headlamp will make your tasks easier and safer—especially when working around livestock where you need both hands to function properly.
Winter wind and ice storms can lead to power outages. Many rural residents keep a generator on hand for their homes. You should seriously consider doing the same.
At the very least you’ll be able to run some lighting and continue to pump water for your animals.
Small Snow Blower or Snowplow
Even if you have large snow-moving equipment on
your truck or tractor, small walk-behind snow blowers or snow blades on your ATV can be very handy for maneuvering around buildings, gates and pathways.
By default, if you own a farm, then you own land for snowshoeing. Have fun exploring the hard-to-reach winter places on your property with a pair of snowshoes.
You can also use them to explore wildlife trails and tracks.
Despite the cold, winter is a prime time for backyard astronomy, since the early evenings offer ample opportunity to gaze up at a dark sky. Rural areas naturally tend to have darker skies, safe from the unwanted glare of city lights.
Even an inexpensive telescope can open up literal worlds to explore. Or you can use just your eyes to discover the constellations or watch for meteors.
Feed the Birds
Non-migratory birds have to make a living in the winter and will greatly appreciate a feeder. Plus, you get the enjoyment of watching them.
Be sure to keep the feeder away from your farm buildings, though, as birdseed will attract wildlife (especially in winter).
Take a Ride
You might own a snowmobile for farm chores, but you can also have some fun enjoying your property with it during winter. Don’t get so busy you forget to have fun!
Finally, although it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, winter will come to an end and spring will be upon us before you know it. Why not take a bit of time during a pleasant winter afternoon to make some plans for next year’s efforts? You can consider new crop varieties to try, or make a plan for expanding pastures or garden plots.
Good luck with your winter farm work and play! See you next spring.
Essential Winter Tools
Sometimes the right tool can just make a job better. You might want to stock your winter tool shed with the following.
While you’re putting away your garden tools this fall, set aside a pointed shovel for winter use. You’ll need it for digging out frozen or compressed snow near doorways (because someone always ignores our first tip on “remove each snow before allowing people, animals or vehicles to traverse!”).
A pointed shovel can also help break through ice buildup around buildings and doors.
Along with your shovel, a digging bar is ideal for chipping away ice and compressed snow. Keep it on hand even after you’ve put the posthole diggers away for the season.
Dedicated snow shovels are always helpful, but that large poly scoop shovel you use in the barn can easily pull double-duty as a snow shovel. In fact, for clearing large areas of deep snow, I actually prefer scoop shovels as they make it easy to slide large squares of snow around and save wear and tear on my back.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.