Carrying On in the Cold

Some of the younger pigs trundling out of their winter house. Photo by Steve Barnes.

“So, what DO you guys do when it’s twenty below outside at the farm? Do you just stay in and not go outside?” I was asked recently during a virtual needle felting class.

The student continued, “If it was me, I’d be like ‘you guys are on your own until this is over!’”

I had to chuckle. “The animals need us. We go out in every kind of weather to take care of them.” No matter the season, chores just don’t get cancelled.

Prepping for a polar dip in temperatures is a large part of the process—hauling fresh bedding to all the animals, closing up barns and coops and shelters, making sure there’s extra feed available, and being creative with watering.

Our heritage Kunekune pigs live in a series of calf hutches and small huts Kara has built for them. Other than the boars, they are in small groups matched by size and gender, so they can have snuggle buddies. Before an oncoming cold snap, Kara hauls loads of straw to freshen up burrows. The other day, she had tossed the straw into all the pens, then took a warmup break for breakfast before heading back to stuff the straw into the houses.

Upon her return, she found that the sows had carried nearly all the straw into their house themselves, making a thorough nest! They knew what to do! Others, like Benji the boar had piled up the straw near the entrance of his house, creating an insulated berm. In the morning as I walk down to Farmstead, they are all snuggled up inside, snoring and grunting, sometimes completely underneath the lofty bedding.

For the chickens, not only did I haul in fresh bedding but also made an effort to supply the feathered friends with extra calories. Making heat takes considerable energy, and the combination of 130 hens and 20-odd ducks in their wintering coop creates considerable BTUs for keeping the coop warmed. We’ve been working to reorganize freezers on the farm, in the process found stashes of very old meats that are well past their human enjoyment phase. While Kara was hauling straw to the pigs, I was pulling the meat off of two large pans of lamb ribs she’d roasted, filling a bin with meat and fat and drippings torn into chicken-bite-sized pieces.

That night, I brought the bin to the coop, and the ladies were delighted! Chickens are omnivorous, so in the summer they augment their diet with worms and bugs. In the winter, this extra protein source disappears, and they can take out their frustration brutally on each other. Instead, we save the fat and organ meats from having our animals processed as well as utilizing these freezer-burned pieces to keep them happy and healthy. The ladies didn’t even fight over their prize, instead nicely taking turns to snag a morsel and find a corner to snarf it in. There was plenty to go around! Or so I thought. In the morning, the bin was entirely empty.

The sheep are built for this weather—much preferring the cold to the heat of summertime. But they too need extra calories. Kara’s worked to make sure that each group had its own round bale going into the cold, so they could eat continuously to generate enough energy. Feedings twice a day are usually just right for the animals, but in extreme cold the lack of calories between feedings can cause them to use stored energy in their bodies to generate heat. Known as “losing condition,” this situation can lead to real problems later in the winter or for fertility. Instead, when the weather’s this rugged, it’s best to keep calories handy, so the sheep can munch their way through the day.

And we silly humans without feathers or wool or fur must bundle up for the task. In Norway, they say “There is no such thing as poor weather, just poor choices in clothing.” By the time Kara is bundle up for chores in her anorak and insulated pants and insulated boots and buff and cap and scarf, all that’s left are her glasses! Somewhere, in there, is Kara!

Not only is the chore-prep process about packing on the layers to trap air, but it’s also about blocking the wind and taking warmup breaks as necessary. Cold feet, cold hands, cold cheeks and noses need thawing out before frostbite, and avoiding getting wet can also be critical. I’ll often bring along an extra pair of chore gloves stuffed into my pockets, in case one set gets soaked while handling waterers.

Not only does your chore gear need to be warm, but it also needs to be rugged. A family stopped by Farmstead the other morning to pick up their order of muffins, all bundled up for the cold in hats and scarves and puffy down coats. While the coats looked warm, I knew that one lunge at a stuck barn door would have their paper-thin outer fabric torn to shreds! Leave the puffy down vest as an under-layer for chore time, with a rugged layer on top for handling the rigors of the process.

Once we finally do make it inside, we take advantage of the heated basement floor, laying out all the snowy gear so it can dry and thaw. Sometimes my water-splashed insulated chore pants want to stand up on their own after taking them off! Brrrr….time for a fire in the wood stove. Stay warm out there everyone, and we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.