Learn how to winter-proof your Western homestead.
The restful, relaxing days of deep winter — when nothing is growing and not much has to get done each day, besides livestock chores and keeping the wood box filled — are a welcome respite from the urgencies of the growing season.
Though parts of the country don’t always experience a true winter — like the far southwest, most of Florida, and quite a bit of the west coast — many regions must routinely prepare for air temperatures below freezing, a ground that’s frozen, and bursts of snow and ice storms. Sometimes otherwise warm winter climates face unexpected weather changes and dips in temperature.
For me, the winter season is the perfect time for catching up on paperwork, finishing indoor projects, and planning ahead for a smooth spring. Here’s a list of what to get done this winter, and how to prepare your Western homestead for the coming growing season and year ahead.
Livestock and Poultry
- Check the animals twice a day, and give them water, feed, and clean bedding. Watch for coughs, lameness, or any other signs of illness — catching problems early makes them easier to solve.
- If more than half of your hay or other feed is gone by mid-winter, find and buy some more to make sure you’ll get through until spring. Hay gets more expensive the closer it gets to spring.
- Order chicks, find out where you can get weaner pigs, or a new bull, ram, or billy if that’s what you’ll need for the coming season.
- This is the best time of year to trap or poison rats and mice. Make sure that poison and traps are placed where pets, poultry, and livestock can’t get at them.
- Order seeds now, when selection and availability are at their best.
- Review your notes from last year to plan the upcoming rotation, which vegetable varieties you liked or not, and identify where there were big insect, weed, or disease problems. Make plans for getting on top of those next year before things get out of hand.
- Order new trees for early spring delivery, as well as any needed pest controls.
- Sprinkle wood ashes from the stove lightly at the drip line around the trees.
- Begin pruning fruit trees in late winter, removing the water sprouts and branches that are too crowded or interfere with each other.
- Order or buy parts: belts, blades, chains, cotter pins, and other necessary items. Buy supplies such as grease, engine oil, lubricating oil, hydraulic fluid, and so on. Clean, sharpen, or replace worn tools.
- If you own trees (besides the ones in the orchard), now’s the time to prune and thin for better growth. Leave the best ones and use the worst — the dying, sick, crippled, and stunted — for firewood.
- If you have or can find a neighbor with a small sawmill, you can harvest some big trees and turn them into lumber.
- When it’s too wet, the snow is too deep, or it’s just too darn cold to be out in the woods, treat yourself to some time in your wood shop. For me, the best part of winter is spending time in the woods or in my wood shop.
Kitchen and Cold Cellar
- Check over pumpkins, squash, potatoes, apples, onions, and any other stored fruits or vegetables once a week and remove anything that is starting to rot.
- Herbs that were hung to dry last summer can be processed into flakes (I rub them through a colander) and put in a jar for easy use.
- Fruits that were juiced at harvest and the juice frozen or canned because there was no time to do more can be made into jelly.
One last, very important note: with the wildfire season slowing down, take the time now to protect your home from danger next season. Pick up woody debris near the house and burn it when it’s raining or there’s snow on the ground. Brush and high grasses and forbs near the house should be mowed or cut to the ground. Prune the lower branches of nearby trees and thin them so their canopies (the upper branches) aren’t touching. This will slow or even stop fires from reaching your buildings. Visit firewise.org for more information and tips on keeping your Western homestead from being burnt in a wildfire.
Ann Larkin Hansen is the author of several books, including The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner: What to Do & When to Do It. She lives with her family on their farm in northern Wisconsin.