Winter Prep for the Homestead
It has been a warm, long fall in Maine but winter is still coming! We cannot know if the warmth and mild weather will extend through the next season or not, so we always prepare for a harsh winter. I cannot stress enough how essential winter preparations are to a good homesteading experience and the survival of you, your animals, and your farm. Here's a few of the things we focus on before winter arrives at Hostile Valley Farm.
Winter preparations start with firewood. Heating primarily with wood heat, it is critical to a comfortable winter to have plenty of wood stacked away. At this point in time, we do not cut our own wood. We have the ability with the amount of timber on our property and we have the skill — it’s part of our ‘someday’ plan. But the other thing to take into consideration is how many other tasks we have to accomplish in a summer season, and how high on the priority list those tasks are. To harvest our own firewood at this point in time would mean work not done on our home, fields, and with our garden and animals. That’s because we’re in the middle of restoration — when things are a bit more smooth and not in the process of re-build, harvesting wood will be doable.
That said, we’re able to get local firewood from a friend and neighbor delivered ready to stack and in excellent, dry condition. We start getting our wood delivered cord by cord in July. We’ll stack a cord, get another delivery, and stack that. Over the winter we’ll burn a solid seven cords in our two woodstoves.
The stacking of firewood isn’t completely simple. You have to stack carefully so the pile won’t fall over. Set aside small pieces and scraps of bark for kindling (and save cardboard boxes or paper bags for this all summer long). If you don’t have a dedicated woodshed, make sure where ever you stack your firewood is close and accessible from the house so you can grab more wood during any kind of weather. Cover your wood so it won’t get wet, and make sure the cover is secure.
In addition to firewood stacking, make sure your stove and chimney are clean and inspect them for any issues before lighting a fire in the fall.
Garden & Harvest
The next element of winter prep that will start long before there is a chill in the air is garden harvesting. The majority of things we plant in the spring are planted with the intention of preserving them through the winter either by freezing, canning, fermenting, or storage. Here’s what we do with some of our staple crops:
Beans — canned mostly as dilly beans, a few frozen in freezer bags.
Potatoes — cleaned up and stored in the root cellar
Onions — cleaned up and stored in the root cellar
Cabbage — fermented as sauerkraut
Radishes — new addition to storage this year — see my Spicy Pickled Radishes recipe
Zucchini — Shredded and frozen
Squash — cleaned up and stored in the root cellar
We grow and preserve according to our own tastes and what we’ll eat over the winter — but many of the above vegetables could be stored in different ways, and of course the list of veggies you can grow and preserve is much, much, much longer than this!
Finally, once the garden is harvested it is time to put it to bed. For some farmers that will mean a fall till to get any organic matter in the ground and rotting, and/or the application of a heavy layer of manure. For us, it means bringing the pigs in from their summer pasture. We set the pigs to work in the garden by the end of October, and they clear out any remaining plants, turn the soil, and add their compost to the mix.
Equipment used in the winter time needs to be checked so it’s ready to use, and equipment used in summer needs to be put away correctly so it will run the following spring. We make sure anything that won’t be used all winter is stored in a safe place where it is out of the way and preferably under cover. Similarly, we’ll make sure things that see heavy winter use are in easily accessible spots. Fuel is stabilized, machinery is inspected, and tires checked. Now is a great time to schedule service for equipment.
Outbuildings need to be checked over for winter readiness. For us this includes putting heavy plastic and wooden shutters over windows that are left open all summer, patching any holes in siding on the backside of the barn, checking and securing the large barn doors and giving a thorough deep-clean to all of the stalls. We will have spent months in the summer on construction projects with the goal of them being complete by winter — and the purpose of making the farm more winter-stable.
This year those projects included painting the exterior of the farmhouse, a project that probably hadn’t been done for half a century. Because of how long it had been since the house’s last exterior paint, the project required full grinding and sanding down of layers and layers of old paint, caulking and repairing the many (many, many) cracks and holes in the siding, priming the siding and finally applying two coats of finish paint. Think paint is all about looks? Think again! For an old farmhouse like ours with clapboard siding, paint is what keeps the elements out, preventing the siding from rotting which would essentially mean you’d need to replace all of that wood to have a viable building.
Additionally, this summer we repaired the old windows on the barn and garden shed. We’re lucky that the front windows on the barn and all the windows for the garden shed were here on the farm, but they were in rough shape. Many window panes were missing, all were falling out of the frames, and every winter we’d have to block the windows with cardboard or have snow piling up in the buildings and wind wiping through. So this year we reglazed all of the windows making the barn and garden shed cozy and secure in all kinds of weather.
It’s important animals are as healthy as possible heading in to winter. During fall hoof trimming we’ll inspect the goats and sheep and give them their fall vaccinations and supplements. For us this means BoSE, copper bolus and CDT. As always, we make sure loose minerals are easily accessible and several goats will get zinc gummies as additional minerals because we’ve struggled with zinc deficiencies in the past.
As long as they’re provided with a good shelter, plenty of food and water, most animals will do well even during the harshest winter. Our responsibility is to make sure we have plenty of material (in our case, wood shavings) to bed them down with, a supply of hay put away to last us the winter (see my blog post on Homestead Hay Needs), and then continue to monitor everyone’s health all winter long.
Additionally, for the goats and sheep winter is when they are bred and pregnant. Special care is given to the future mothers, including extra helpings of grain and, as their pregnancies progress, separate sleeping quarters away from any quarrels that may happen in the herd. I’ll plan out who I want to breed based on genetics and my goals for the kidding season during the summer, and a month before the buck arrives they’ll start getting special treatment. A successful kidding season starts now with healthy animals.
Water & Snow
Finally — make sure you have a plan for how you’ll remove snow as it piles up, and where you’ll put it all if it’s a snowy winter. Have a plan for water, whether it is a freeze-proof outdoor spigot or carrying buckets from the home. Have plenty of buckets on hand.
With everything organized for winter and put away securely, you can finally relax a little bit and take some of the extra hours of darkness in the wintertime for yourself. Cozy up to the fire with a good book or a seed catalog and enjoy knowing that your homestead is safe and sound in the worst of winter weather!