Life in Deep Winter

While the daylight is slowly lengthening, it’s still dark when we bundle up for the brisk walk down to Farmstead Creamery in the morning. A dim blueish glow is just enough to illuminate the snowbanks and black, barren tree branches. It’s 28 degrees below zero out, and I’m wrapped and bundled, with only my eyes peeping out. Instantly, my glasses frost over, and now the dim light is even more obscured. I mostly use my feet to feel the compacted lane and avoid faceplanting in the snowbanks that are nearly taller than me.
Up North, the polar vortex is an expected part of January. With the recent milder weather after the holidays bringing plenty of snow and some ease from the cold, that trend abruptly changed this week for the deep freeze. Fortunately, this came after all the snow, so the soil and perennial roots are well insulated against the blast.
On the farm, we’re grateful to have secure barns, sheds, and coops to help keep all the animals warm and protected from the wind. I’ve kept the birdfeeder stocked for our wild feathered friends (and the stalwart squirrel who has found a way to climb the pole). It’s still too cold out for flying yet this morning, and the feeder sits empty, awaiting the onslaught of beaks and feathers. We’ll wait to let out the poultry and animals today too, until the sun is out and the air warms (relatively).
In the milder stretch, the skies remained cloudy. We remarked how we hadn’t used our sunglasses in weeks! Snowpack mixed with ice (rain in January in our region is definitely not part of a normal winter, but we had some this year) kept the pack stuck on roofs and sheds, creating its own set of problems and threats of structural collapse. A good stretch of sunny days usually helps these buildings shed their snow. With the newly arrived cold, the sunshine has returned, causing me to wonder where I might have stashed those sunglasses as I face off with the brilliant light refracting off crystalline snow.

Polar Vortex is a phrase that has entered our meteorological vocabulary within the last decade. As climate change shifts the Jet and Gulf Stream’s movement of warmth around the earth, the typically circular blob of cold air that usually stays hovered around the arctic wobbles and dips, sending a blast southward. Here in northern Wisconsin, that’s a usual event. But as the wobble increases, the polar vortex reaches much further south, causing havoc and damaging crops in areas not accustomed to the deep freeze.
Too much cold in a climate not accustomed to it can be disastrous and receives most of the media’s attention. But, alternately, not enough cold in regions that are accustomed to it can equally be a problem. On our farm, we’ve noticed that insect pest populations are intricately linked with the conditions of winter. Mild winters mean a host of munchers in the garden the next year, while a bitter winter appears to beat back the pest population. Invasives and competing species also take advantage of a mild winter, effecting local wildlife populations. In our region, we’ve watched this happen with the boom in wild turkey populations, which compete with the Ruffed Grouse. Deep snow and freezing winters can help keep the turkeys in check.
Homesteading in the deep winter involves making good choices for facing off with the polar vortex. For instance, we select heritage breeds of chickens for our laying flock known as “heavy breeds”—sturdy, husky chickens with dense feathering and chunkier bodies to make and retain their own heat better than commercial laying breeds. We also select for birds with smaller combs and wattles that are less likely to suffer frostbite.
For our ducks this year, we added a heated water bowl and an outdoor heated mat to their winter regimen, and they love it! One year, I had a duck fall asleep in an outdoor water dish, and her feathers froze in! It was a serious project to break her free! Fortunately, she was ok, but now we’ve changed our methods to help avoid such calamities.
Our sheep are good and wooly going into winter, making them an excellent animal to raise in the north. Often, snow will accumulate on their backs and not even melt! That’s how insulated they are! On mornings like this, however, even the sheep are happy to be inside, away from any wind. Our stout heritage Kunekune pigs are furrier than most breeds, and their winter houses are full of fresh straw for burrowing and snuggling. In deep winter, deep bedding is a great friend to all the animals.
As people on the homestead, we learn to work smart and bundle up with layers, protecting exposed skin and taking warmup breaks. We also plan activities on the farm to work smart with the weather, including milking. While cow dairies continue milking all year and must contend with protecting udders from frostbite as well as your own frozen hands in the parlor, sheep have a shorter lactation period and times of dry status. Kara’s has timed the fall lambing season such that she’s wrapped up her winter milking season by the end of December, with the next round planned after spring lambing. The sheep are happy not to have to navigate the parlor in the deep winter, and we’re happy to have a break from the rigors of the milking season.
This week, bundle up, work smart, stay warm, and remember that the polar vortex is part of the Northwoods adventure. Here’s to fewer pests in the garden this summer! See you down on the farm sometime.