Winter is upon us here in the Rockies. The worst of it is yet to come, but we have had several cold snaps the last month that have reminded us to get into gear for taking care of the animals through the cold.
Spring, Summer, and Fall on the high-altitude homestead are busy and productive times. While winter does have its own version of productivity, it is more a time of survival. In general, time is not spent building or creating new things around the farm, and most of the time there is no new life or new growth to tend. Most of the effort and time is spent just keeping everything alive.
Our winters are cold. During our coldest times we get to -30F at night, and have daily highs in the negative single digits. Most of the winter is spent anywhere from the single digits to the 40s, with lows from 0F – 20F at night. A lot of the winter includes a bitter wind, that brings the windchill temperatures down even farther. And we get a good amount of snow, but it never sticks around for more than a couple of weeks usually, because we will get a few days in the 40s every-so-often to melt it off. My favorite part of the winter is that we still get plenty of beautiful blue-sky, sunshiny days. The beauty of snow covered mountains and forests in the bright sunshine, snow glittering like a fairy tale, and deep blue sky above us is breathtaking…and that is how the majority of our winter days look.
So as we head out to the barn each morning our breath is taken away in two ways – by the beauty, but also by the bitterly crisp cold air as it enters our lungs and bites hard.
The main differences in farm management during the winter have to do with keeping the animals warm, and keeping water thawed and available to them. These are time consuming tasks in the cold weather. Having high-quality outerwear is a must.
Keeping the Livestock Warm
We use the deep bedding method in both the chicken coops, and the sheep stall, to help keep the animals warm. In the coops we use about 1.5 feet deep of pine shavings. In the sheep stall we use a 1.5 foot deep layer of pine shavings, and it gradually gets covered with scraps of hay that the animals leave. We leave the hay layer and let it get deep too. The sheep and the dogs enjoy making “nests” and bedding down into the depth of the shavings and hay on cold winter nights. And, don’t tell the cats that I know this, but they often secretly climb in there as well, cuddling up with the barn dogs or the sheep.
We also use a heat lamp on a thermostat in the coops. It turns on when the temperature gets below about 15F.
Another way we help the animals stay warm is to feed them warm mash. At each feeding when the temperatures are below 20F we take out a large bucket or two of hot water with us. We pour the chicken feed into a planter base and add the water to it to make a hot-cereal type warm meal for the birds. We also pour it over the dogs’ food in their dishes, and the cats’ food dish. Over the years we have seen that this really makes a difference for the animals and gives them a boost to keep going in the extreme cold.
As for the rabbits…they are a tougher matter. Thankfully, rabbits do very well with cold weather. We offer them all nesting boxes lined with lots of hay to cuddle up in if they want it. Some do, most don’t use them at all, or just use them as a toilet.
Keeping the Water Thawed
Water is the biggest struggle through the winter. It is everyone’s least favorite job. It is a demanding task, and on the really cold days it has to be dealt with at least 3-4 times throughout the day.
The water trough outside provides water for the sheep, dogs, and chickens (only when the chickens are in the barnyard, in their pen they have another option for water). Most of the winter the de-icer that we keep in the trough keeps the water thawed. But when temps go below about -5F even the trough freezes, sometimes with a thawed little circle of water right around the de-icer. On those days we haul buckets of hot water from the house and pour them in there and stir it around the thaw it all out. We also bring buckets of room temperature water to the sheep and dogs and let them drink directly from them if they want. Re-filling the trough (when we aren’t needing to use buckets of hot water) is difficult in winter because the closest hose-bib is 50 yards away and we have to use a torch to thaw the hose bib, then run a hose to fill the trough, then blow out the hose and hang it so it doesn’t freeze and crack.
We use an electric heated gravity-feed chicken waterer. It too, like the trough, can’t handle the coldest temperatures. So when it is really cold we bring the entire thing inside, and use the hot water from the bathtub spout to clean out all the ice and refill it for them.
We have previously tried the chicken nipple spout-type waterers on the underside of 5-gallon buckets in the winter, with bucket de-icers in them. The water stays thawed, as do the spouts, but we had a huge increase in frost bite on our roosters’ combs, so we had to stop using those. We do use those waterers all summer though because they are so much cleaner and easier to maintain.
Rabbit Water Bottles:
We have double the amount of water bottles we need for the rabbit cages. We keep one set inside, thawed and ready to go out. We rotate the frozen water bottles out with the thawed ones 2-4 times a day, depending on how fast they are freezing.
The cats avoid the trough because they have learned the dogs will come over and knock them in. So we have a gravity fed water dish inside the barn for the cats. During the winter we have a strip of heat tape dangling into the dish portion of it, which helps keep it thawed pretty well. We also pour a little hot water from the hot mash water bucket into the dish each morning and evening to help keep it thawed.
As you can see, having electricity in our barn is an integral part of keeping all the water thawed. Many people are against electricity in barns. I am glad to have it. I am sure we could make it without it, but it would mean at least twice as much work every day through the winter, and it is already a lot to handle.
We have discussed getting a solar-powered trough de-icer, and at some point we would like to do that. But for now, we rely on our electric to help us out.
Winter on a High Altitude Homestead
All this work keeping the livestock warm and with thawed water may sound pretty miserable to you. And I must admit, winter is definitely not my favorite season. But we wouldn’t trade living here for anywhere else in the world. We absolutely love the Rockies and how each season has its own splendor here. So we continue to push through, keeping everything as warm as possible, and safe & sound. 🙂