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Dealing with Ice on the Homestead

Does your homestead have some icing issues this winter? Here in Maine we have about a 1/2” of ice coating everything, and that isn’t unusual for January weather. When it comes to winter, snow is a manageable nuisance on the farm most of the time. It requires shoveling and plowing, it can make gates difficult to open and paths difficult to maintain, but we pretty much know what to do with it around here. Ice is more hazardous: you can’t just shovel it out of the way and it can coat everything for weeks if you don’t get a warm spell or new precipitation.

Ice is particularly dangerous for your animals who can slip and fall and hurt themselves. Many animals will avoid going out on the ice at all if they have a warm barn that they can stay in. I try to get the goats and sheep out as often as possible in the wintertime, but when it’s icy I let them stay inside. But animals that do go out are at risk, and it can be very hard to completely clear a pasture of icy areas.

When it comes to clearing ice off for animals, we have a few strategies. Ash from the wood stove is a great option. Warm ash can melt some of the ice, and what remains will provide grip on the slick surface. Since we run our stove 24/7 in the winter, we have plenty of wood ash to go around and can make large areas passable for our animals. I feel comfortable using ashes from our stove because I know exactly what’s in them. While I make sprinkle some salt or sand in certain spots, I don’t put it where the animals are because I’m less sure of what it contains or what would happen if geese or goats ate it — and geese and goats are two animals that will nibble on anything.

If I don’t have enough ashes to go around I can also spread hay. Hay isn’t as good as ash but it still provides some grip on the ice, the animals love to nibble on it and it’s warm for them to sit on. Straw will work just as well (in our area straw is much more expensive than hay). I’ll use hay a lot around the geese’s water buckets, where every day they spray water around that turns to ice. And remember not to spread hay and ashes in the same spots because hay is highly flammable!

It isn’t just the animals walking around you have to be careful of! Human travel is incredibly difficult on icy surfaces, especially if you’re loaded down with water buckets and working in the pre-dawn dark. If you live anywhere with winter weather, you absolutely must get yourself a pair of boot cleats. They come in various degrees, some with very simple cleats and some with larger, sharper grips; they fit over your boots and allow you to walk on an icy surface with confidence. You can read about some of the best cleats available here:

Treacherous conditions aren’t the only thing to worry about with heavy icing. You’ll also find every bucket, feed trough and other items left out iced solidly to the ground. Keep an ice pick, narrow shovel, or even sledge hammer on hand to free things, and always empty out outside water buckets before the overnight freeze so you can move them more easily in the morning. I also carry a lighter in my overalls all winter long for dealing with minor icing issues, such as the clip on a halter that has iced shut.

And, as always in winter, keep in mind that icy conditions will make off farm travel difficult. Be prepared to stay in for weeks at a time, and have plenty of hay, grain, bedding, etc, on hand. The less you have to go out and the more prepared you are, the less stressful winter weather events will be and the more you can enjoy them and handle problems calmly as they arise.

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