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What absolutely must get done on the winter homestead

Cold snow
"Hubby asked me yesterday 'When it's THIS cold out, what ~has~ to be done outside, and how long do you think it will take?'"
--- Karen B.

Great question, Karen (especially since it gives me an excuse to include lots of snow photos in this post)! The answer, of course, will depend on where you live and on what kind of homestead you have. Presumably, if you homestead in Alaska, you've worked out systems to deal with all of the cold-weather issues, and -22 is just par for the course. So, for the sake of this post, I'll assume that you live exactly where we do and homestead exactly how we do.

Snow-covered creek

I've spent a lot of time over the past week wondering how homesteaders managed before the era of 10-day weather forecasts. Luckily, modern homesteaders have quite a long heads-up and tend to know when cold spells are coming. As a result, Mark and I prepared extensively before our current deep freeze:

  • Splitting lots of firewood and stacking it on the porch for easy access.
  • Pouring out our old stored drinking water and refilling the jugs, then filling a few buckets with wash water to sit on the kitchen floor for animal hydration and dishes. (This assumes that your water, like ours, reliably freezes around 5 Fahrenheit, but causes no problems except requiring water rationing.)
  • Measure snowCooking lots of easily reheatable meals for simple human nutrition when the power goes out.
  • Making sure the top layer of deep bedding in the goat barn and chicken coop is very fresh since the animals won't want to go outside and will be adding more manure than usual to the bedding. (Plus, fresh bedding will keep them warmer during those frigid nights.)
  • Filling the goat manger with hay up to the brim. (Remember, a belly full of hay is the best way to keep your goats warm.)
  • Moving any inside plants a little further away from the window and/or closer to the fire. Lifting anything perishable (like sweet potatoes) that are sitting directly on the floor up onto a counter so they won't freeze.

If you messed up and didn't prepare, some of these tasks can be done on sunny afternoons during the deep freeze. But I'll assume they're not part of your daily chores for the sake of this post.

Snowy homestead

Okay, so the mercury has plummeted --- what do you absolutely have to do and how long does it take? Starting at dawn, I make two quick trips into the outside on ultra-cold mornings. The first involves bringing a bucket of warm water and their morning ration to the goats, and taking in yesterday's bucket of ice. The second involves bringing a chicken waterer full of warm water to the chickens, tossing a bit of food into their coop, and then taking in any eggs. Actual time spent outside: two 5-minute sessions, with glove-warming lulls in between.

Snowy hillside

The second trip is similar to the first and occurs right after lunch. Once again, everyone gets warm water swapped out for the morning ice, and I've noticed that this is when the goats go Snow melting around a tree trunkcrazy drinking, having spent the morning filling up on hay. This is also when I tend to gather our eggs on cold days --- some will have frozen solid and cracked if the night got below 0, but often I'm able to nab them in good condition as long as I get there by early afternoon. Finally, while my boots are already on, I bring in enough firewood to make sure I can keep the wood stove raging until the next morning, while Mark often takes this time to bring in a bucket or two of water from the tank so we can catch up on dishes. Actual time spent outside: 20 minutes, with more dawdling to enjoy the snow.

Snow-covered vehicles

Of course, I can't survive on a mere half an hour of outside time per day, so as long as the day gets above 20, I tend to trick Lucy into going out for a walk with me in the afternoon. She and I take turns breaking trail through the thick snow, and we do all the things that don't actually need to be done. We carry in more hay to top up the manger, check the mail box, and brush snow off the sap-bucket roofs. Then we settle in for a well-deserved rest in front of the fire. Cold and snow are a great excuse to take it easy!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The weather in central Ontario, Canada is a lot colder, and the winter a lot longer, than your location. Homesteading here is completely different in its day-to-day manifestations. My partner works out of doors, away from home, at least eight hours a day, six days a week, and the proper clothing is essential to survival. The snow is too deep to walk through, and if one wants to travel far in the bush snowshoes are another essential bit of outerwear.

I grew up visiting my Grandparents, who lived a rural life in central Ontario. They did not have indoor plumbing until I was more than eighteen years old. The outhouse was a thrilling and memorable trip at -30C! I thought I remembered that you have a composting toilet on the homestead, but you don't mention it as one of your outdoor "visits". Just wondering if this was a polite omission, or if you have some cold weather alternative to nature's call?

Comment by Maggie Turner Sun Feb 22 10:35:36 2015
Maggie --- Not mentioning the bathroom trip was a polite omission. I started to write about how to stay warm when visiting the composting toilet at -22 F, but figured that most people either already know or never want to know! :-) Just tuck your bare hands into your knee pits, folks, and you'll be fine even at -22! Your residual body heat easily holds up to several minutes of a naked bum. But only do that once a day --- you can pee into the snow.
Comment by anna Sun Feb 22 11:40:24 2015

Your day is very similar to mine. I have had to shovel out the chicken run... they cant free range with the almost 8 feet of snow we have had, but I have been able to keep a small area shoveled out, and then I take a hay fork and try to sift the straw to the top of the remaining snow, and then add more straw to both run and coop. The most effort goes to keeping clean unfrozen water available. Even the frost free hydrant froze this year, so I carry water by hand. Eggs freeze unless I get them before about 8am. Even in this weather, my young pullets are laying every day. I make sure they have plenty of food, and a treat in the late afternoon so they hit the roosts with a full crop at bedtime.

Comment by deb Sun Feb 22 15:12:33 2015
I meant to add that access to the animal pens, doors, etc. have to be kept shoveled out, lest they freeze shut. That is often the first thing, since sometimes the overnight snow has drifted and blocked the doors. One morning I couldnt even get out of the house on one side, so had to snowshoe around from the other side and shovel out the door!
Comment by deb Sun Feb 22 15:43:18 2015

Anna, Deb, Maggie: Thank you for your valuable insights! Very informative and encouraging. Cheers!

Comment by Karen B Sun Feb 22 17:07:41 2015

Maggie's comments remind me of the old northwoods saying,"There's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes."

Keeping paths passable and providing water are the only extraordinary challenges to the usual routine in winter.

Comment by doc Mon Feb 23 06:24:52 2015

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