Winters are a time to rest, recharge, plan, and prepare for the upcoming year.
For some of us, though, winter is longer, and can feel like yet another challenge, mentally and physically.
Here are some helpful tips and tricks I have picked up from my new friends and neighbors and from personal experience. I’ve already made it through my first two winters as a homesteader in the brutally cold and snowy northwestern corner of Montana.
Keeping Your Livestock Healthy
Keeping Your Animals Warm
One of the best ways to keep livestock healthy during the winter is to provide their bodies with the nutrients they need to care for themselves. A good feed regimen is nearly as powerful as a warm barn and fluffy bedding when it comes to keeping them warm.
First, increase the amount of feed your animals have access to. This allows them to pack on fat to stay warm. Some creatures, like chickens, dogs, and cats, can have access to free choice feed all the time without causing themselves harm. Other animals, such as horses, goats, sheep, and cattle, cannot be given access to 24/7 grain, but they can benefit from a constant supply of hay.
Ruminant animals (cattle, goats, and sheep) create heat when the microbes in their bodies ferment their forage to digest their food. Feed as much as you can to the animals without wasting roughage. Creep feeders and hay bags are reasonable solutions for animals that tend to be wasteful.
Give them treats too, it’s enriching, and they deserve to have “fun” foods too.
Ensure their environment, especially their indoor shelter, doorways, and immediate runs, is clean and free of mud. I know this can be difficult at times, but it will prevent many issues for you and your animals.
You can toss your wasted hay, excess straw, tree bark, mulch, or sawdust in these areas. You can also add rock, limestone, lime dust, concrete, or stall mats to high trafficked areas to slow down the creep of mud.
Once the area is clean, add litter to their shelters, such as sawdust or straw, so they have a dry bed to warm up in.
Some animals, such as chickens, benefit from the deep litter method. This is similar to composting.
Simply start your layering with a carbon-based material, such as hay, straw, sawdust, pine needles, leaves, or mulch. Next, allow your animals to use the facility. Take a pitchfork or shovel and turn it over in the carbon-based litter as they leave manure. Keep adding your carbon materials throughout the winter as your animals supply the nitrogen (manure). Chickens will naturally pick through the litter to aerate it. For other animals, you will need to do this manually and regularly.
When done correctly, you will smell no ammonia. There will not be an odor. The composting process will produce heat for your animals and delicious compost for your garden that you can immediately use once spring rolls around.
I will warn you; this takes a lot of trial and error to perfect. Make sure your doors are rolling or open outwards rather than in. Deep litter can become a real hassle if you don’t have the space for your floor to “rise up.”
If your barn has several windows, cover them with protected glass, plexiglass, or plastic. You can also temporarily board some, or all, of them up for the winter.
Next, cover the cracks where a draft can get in. Board up the holes if they’re large, or use spray foam insulation if they are smaller and not within reach of your livestock.
If you’re feeling generous, you can use standard insulation to hold in heat throughout the shelter significantly.
One of my favorite hacks for keeping your animals warm is to use livestock curtains for the doorways. You can buy a livestock strip curtain, or you can hang a plain, cheap curtain from the store in the doorway. This helps maintain the heat while still allowing your animals the freedom to venture outside whenever they want.
Keeping Your Animals Happy
Many animals choose to huddle up indoors or under shelter through the winter, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t bored. Make sure your animals have a companion or two to keep them company. If you have a more extensive operation, consider changing up their friend groups occasionally, so long as they can get along.
For instance, if you have a lone dairy cow, consider letting her overwinter with your beef heifers or move her to a paddock with your lonely but gentle gelding.
Few things bring me as much joy as seeing a herd of cattle or horses chasing a giant yoga ball through the snow. Find ways to bring entertainment and enrichment to your livestock whenever you can. Companionship is the best form of entertainment, as most farm animals want to be part of a herd or family.
Winter is an excellent time to work with your animals.
Train your cattle how to lead on a line, put your young goats on a milk stand, and handle your rabbits a lot so they don’t fight you when you pick them up or move them around.
Training is a great way to provide your animals with a companion (you) while busting boredom and teaching them something new.
Caring for Your Garden
Winter is a great time to walk through your bare garden with a notebook and sketch out what you want to do differently next year.
Some plants, such as tomatoes, should be rotated to keep the soil healthy.
Other vegetables may not have had the best placement last year. For instance, your sweet corn may have been blocking too much sunshine from your cantaloupes.
You may enjoy seeing sunflowers from your kitchen window, so take the time to plan for their new placement in a more optimal position in the garden.
If you’re adding or removing certain plants from your garden, figure out how that will work and what your garden will look like after the change.
You may want to add more space to your garden or create a brand new garden, such as a cottage garden or food forest, in a new spot on your property.
Regardless, using the blank slate of winter is an exciting and helpful time to plan and prepare for next year’s garden.
After you’ve planned your garden for the upcoming year, take an inventory of your seeds.
You may have enough saved from previous years to plant, or you may need to order more. Winter is a great time to look through seed catalogs, browse online, or shop in-store for what fruits and vegetables you want to add. This is one of my all-time favorite activities! I’m a huge fan of Botanical Interests too (not sponsored, I just like them).
Starting Seedlings Indoors
Do a little bit of math to figure out when you want to put certain plants outside in the garden to calculate when they should be started indoors. Create a calendar, and go from there, starting your seeds indoors at the right time.
Some plants, such as eggplants, tomatoes, and herbs, can be grown exclusively indoors. Consider keeping a few plants going inside all year if you really love gardening.
Improve Your Self-Sufficiency During the Winter
Countless books cover ranching, homesteading, animal husbandry, gardening, composting, off-grid-living, and self-sufficiency. Find a few (bonus points if they come from a thrift shop, the library, or digitally) and take the time to read.
Some of my favorites include:
- The Rodale Book of Composting
- The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
- Cut Flower Garden
- The Backyard Homestead
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living
- Dirt to Soil
- Farming on the Wild Side
- How to Not Go Broke Ranching
- 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste
- How to Go (Almost) Zero Waste
Slowly Second-Hand Shop
Keep an eye on your local bulletin board, newspaper, Facebook marketplace, and Craigslist for items you need. It’s usually cheaper to find items used than new; you just have to be patient, which is why winter is a great time to scour the ads.
Winter is also an excellent time to look for summer items that usually go up in price as the weather warms back up. Gardening tools, chick starters, bush hogs, greenhouse supplies, box fans, hoses, and more are usually cheaper in the winter, whether you buy them new or used.
Learn How To Make New Recipes And Cook from Scratch
Now that your family is cramped inside the house with you, now is an excellent time to test out new recipes and try new things you usually wouldn’t have the time to cook.
Try new recipes that feel fancy, too. Try ratatouille, which sounds too french for a farmer, but is just a few vegetables sliced up and thrown in the oven. Try new soups, salads, desserts, entrees, and breakfast items. I just learned three new recipes as a result of the winter: chocolate chip banana pancakes, apple pie pancakes, and chicken gnocchi soup.
You can compost inside or outside. If you’re composting indoors, you’ll likely use aerobic composting or vermicomposting methods. Rest assured, if you carefully follow the instructions and use the right tools, it won’t smell bad or attract any pests.
If you’re not sure about composting, dip your toes into it with something as simple as saving eggshells, tea leaves, banana peels, and coffee grounds in a sealed ice cream container under your sink. These items go great in your garden and are very easy to keep.
Switch to Cloth
If you’re still using paper towels, switch to cloth.
They cut down on your grocery bill, your waste, and they’re cheaper.
This can also apply to feminine hygiene products (go to cloth pads, or try silicone menstrual cups) and baby diapers. I assure you, modern cloth diapers are easy to use, easy to clean, cheap, and they even smell better than disposables because the urine isn’t reacting with icky, smelly artificial chemicals.
I am wildly in love with Buttons Diapers. I exclusively cloth-diapered my now three-year-old daughter and 23-month-old son in their products. I can count on both hands how many blowouts they had during this time. My daughter is now potty trained, and my son is almost there. Again, this isn’t a sponsored post; I just love this company and its products.
Many animals are in season during the winter, so take this time to become acquainted with your bow or firearm, get your license, and go hunt.
If you live in a rural area, you probably won’t have to venture far to find your next meal.
Take the time to educate yourself on effectively removing all of the usable meat (and organs, hide, and other articles) so nothing goes to waste.
Winter is also a great time to learn how to tan hides if you’re interested.
If you aren’t a confident shot, practice now.
Line Dry Clothes Indoors
If you have a wood stove or fireplace, indoor clothes drying is fast and easy.
Pick up a cheap drying rack, or run a line or two throughout your house if you have the space. Attics and basements are an excellent place to start. If you have elevated ceilings that you can access from upstairs, you can run the line there too.
Find a Way to Generate New Income Streams
Start researching how to create more income for your homestead. See if you can make every type of animal pay for themselves.
For instance, raise a couple of extra hogs to sell to cover their feed bill. Or raise additional rabbits along with yours to sell for meat or as pets to cover their costs. You don’t necessarily have to pick up new work to make money.
If you are interested in new endeavors, try raising honeybees, selling excess eggs, selling fertilized eggs, putting up a produce stand, or selling cut flowers.
You can also make income online too. Find remote jobs, freelance, write ebooks, become an affiliate, learn to trade, or become a creator on profitable outlets like YouTube or TikTok.
How to Care For Yourself
Eating healthier really is a mindset shift that takes time to make but becomes effortless after a while.
Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” If you eat a portion of “unhealthy” food, enjoy it, savor it, and don’t bash yourself for eating something you want. Creating a stigma around a particular food is what makes you crave it even more.
Cook all of your meals from scratch. Don’t worry; it gets faster and easier the longer you do it.
Dig into your stash of canned goods from your garden and eat those.
Make a conscious effort only to eat foods that are unprocessed or processed by you.
Simply put, you can eat anything you want; you just have to make it yourself.
Read books, listen to podcasts, contact local homesteaders, and watch videos.
Teach yourself something, whether it’s related to homesteading or not. You’ll simply feel better knowing that you’re actively working to make yourself a better person.
This is key. Getting a full night’s rest, eating healthy, and staying active will give you so much energy, mental clarity, and pain-free days.
It’s easier to work in twenty minutes of movement than it is to fit in eight hours of sleep (even though both are equally important). So even if you’re in a stage of your life where you can’t get a full eight hours of rest (hey, that’s me with the busy freelance business and two small kids), make time to move your body.
Consider lifting heavy weights, going for long walks, or doing laps on your stairs. You don’t need a gym membership or a workout DVD; you just have to make an effort to move your body consistently. Even deep cleaning your house or sweeping out the barn counts, so take advantage if you can.
If you live in a cold, snowy region, try snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or snowboarding. If your area doesn’t get much snow, enjoy walks, more strenuous hikes, or bike rides.
Make Time for You
If winter is your slow season, like it is for so many other homesteaders, take advantage of the time. Take afternoon naps, catch up on TV, read some books, visit a few friends, video chat, make time for your hobbies, and set some time aside to reflect on yourself.
Think about where you are, how things are going, and where you want to be.