This past storm that blew into the desert may have come and gone, but we can be sure another one is coming with even colder temperatures. It’s easy for us desert rats to forget how harsh the winters here are after the extreme heat and sunshine of the summer. Sure it’s not a Vermont winter, but it can still be tough on both farmer and farm animal.
Batten down the hatches
While ‘batten down the hatches’ is an old shipman’s phrase referring to covering grated openings in the ship’s deck (hatches) with a tarp secured by wooden strips (battens) to prevent water from getting in during a storm, it still is good advice. Today it means prepare for trouble when trouble is imminent. Well, winter on a farm is trouble.
It seems every year without fail, we are not prepared for winter. Maybe it’s denial. Usually the bad weather hits and we are doing everything in the pouring rain or freezing cold. My advice would be to try to avoid this as it’s much nicer on a rainy day to be drinking a cup of tea inside and smiling at all the silly farmers who are outside kicking themselves.
Animals are much more sensitive to being wet and wind blown than to the cold temperatures, particularly since our winters in the desert aren’t nearly as extreme as other places. Of course you should make sure all of your animals have shelter with enough room to fit everyone in comfortably. The shelters need to be as leak proof and wind proof as possible so you may need to fix the roof, build shutters for windows, etc. Even something as cheap and easy as stapling chicken feed bags across window openings will make a difference and should last you through winter.
Cover feeders or bring inside
Often forgotten in warm and sunny southern california is that rain can get into uncovered feeders and ruin all that expensive feed. Wet feed goes bad quickly and can kill your poultry or other livestock. Even wet alfalfa can produce a toxin, not to mention mold. At our ranch, we just have open tubs with no protection whatsoever from the elements, so this time of year we bring the feed into the coops and make sure all hay is kept in the barn. If you don’t have a barn, poor unfortunate, invest in a big tarp. It’s way cheaper than replacing all that hay.
Make sure your coops and shelter floors are lined with a nice thick layer of straw. At Flip Flop Ranch, we do deep litter composting where we clean our coops out only in the spring. This means the compost is breaking down all winter long and letting off heat which can make a significant temperature difference in the coop. Straw helps to maintain the nutrient content of manure by absorbing nitrogen. This helps to keep smells away and provides an insulating layer between animals and the cold, wet ground. Additionally, straw keeps the ground from getting muddy and mud is a nice breeding ground for worms.
Animals go through their energy much quicker in the cold season, which means they need more food. Instead of wasting money, invest in deworming all your animals before cold weather hits. This way, feed is going to your animals instead of the parasites.
There are of course commercial dewormers that you can purchase, but herbal and organic ones are available as well. For large livestock, farm guru Joel Salatin uses Shaklee’s Basic H, a surfactant that he swears by and has used successfully for years. It is very cheap and a non-pesticide. For poultry and waterfowl, Diatom can be put in feed and Apple Cider Vinegar and fresh crushed Garlic can be put in water. Garlic cloves were a common remedy before wormers were invented and were believed to make the gut a bad environment for worms.
Cull animals you don’t need
For the hobby farmer who keeps their animals just because they love them, this sounds pretty cruel. However, for those of us trying to turn a profit and be sustainable, keeping unnecessary animals is an unnecessary cost financially and environmentally. Because of my broken arm, I haven’t been able to do my fall chicken butchering and we have so many extra birds running around. Not only do they go through feed like it’s water in a heat wave and have eaten plants to the ground, but the roosters are also pretty rude to the ladies. All the hens are running around with tons of missing feathers, which is a bad thing with the cold coming. Too many roosters, or animals period, is a bad thing on the winter farm. If you don’t want to butcher the animals, consider selling or giving away any animals you don’t need.
Get that to-do list done
There’s no end to what needs to be done on a farm. Get all those tools and equipment put away so the rain doesn’t destroy them. Insulate pipes so they don’t break. Consider getting a generator in case the electricity goes out (our’s always does). Keep extra feed on hand in case the weather prevents you from going out. Take a walk around your property and your animal pens. What needs to be done before the cold hits?
Don’t forget about yourself
Lastly, don’t forget about taking care of yourself this winter. Farming is difficult and you have to make self-care a priority over everything else. If your roof is leaking or if you need a jacket, do what needs to be done now to prepare for winter because it is miserable to realize your needs in the middle of a hailstorm. Also, if you can’t financially meet your needs, but you have animals, realize that it’s ok to sell them to someone else who can love and enjoy them. I know so many people who cannot take care of themselves or their animals properly because of the economy, but are guilt-ridden over the idea of selling a beloved chicken, horse or even dog. Remember that you and your family come first and that there are many wonderful homes out there who would be happy to care for your critters.