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Preparing your homestead herd for winter.

Winter's coming. Most of us don't want to think about it right now, preferring to enjoy the down time after the crops have been harvested and the garden's bounty is preserved. Yet, think about it we must, because winter, like death and taxes, is inevitable. Since we can't avoid it, we might as well prepare ourselves and our homestead herd as best we can, so when the icy fingers of winter wrap around us, neither we nor the herd is caught by surprise.

The pasture

Preparing your pasture for winter is a three-step process. First, have a soil test done. Late fall is the best time to perform this. The results you get back will be a true indicator of your soil fertility after the crops have been harvested, or the pasture has been fully grazed. Legumes, alfalfa, and bird's foot trefoil require sufficient potassium to overwinter. If your pasture is lacking in this essential nutrient, you may find severe damage next spring. It's easier and cheaper to fix it in the fall.

Second, leave enough stubble, grass or clovers, to preserve the root systems in your pasture. Once it goes dormant, about 10 days of highs below freezing, it's safe to graze without damaging the pasture.

The third step is to determine next year's rotation. If it's time to re-seed a paddock or rotate a corn field, think about the level of fertility that will be required to ensure a successful crop. If you have a paddock that is low on fertility, you may want to rotate your herd through it during the winter by feeding them in that area every so often. This way, you'll increase the fertility over the winter without lifting a finger or spending a dime.


You wouldn't think there would be a controversy about providing shelter for your homestead herd during the harsh winter months in the north, but there is. A practice known as outwintering has taken hold among larger grazing operations. While the practice is accepted among larger grazers, academics, and government agencies, it is highly unpopular with small-scale family farmers and the general public, not to mention animal welfare activists. Once again, as odd as it may seem, I agree with the activists. The practice is barbaric and cruel. We don't do it on our small organic dairy farm.

Outwintering is the practice of leaving cattle outside all winter with no shelter. While many who manage their herds in this fashion swear that their animals are healthier as a result of being exposed to sub-zero temperatures and brutal winter winds, a few well placed questions will expose the real reason behind their choice--it's far cheaper to lose a couple of cows than it is to put up a building. However, as Wayne points out, there are some things money can't buy, like peace of mind and a clear conscience. "It can't be about money alone. That's what the problem is with corporate agriculture. If the money is more important than the people and the animals, something is wrong. That's not farming."

Not only is it hard on the animals, the husband worries about his cows as if they were his children. "It's painful for me to leave them out like that. I can't imagine what it feels like for them. I just can't do it. I feel like I'm betraying their trust. I'm supposed to take care of them."

Our herd is a part of our family. All of our cows have names, not numbers. We wouldn't put a family member outside all winter with no shelter, and we won't do it to our cows, either. While we'll leave them out overnight during the winter when the conditions are mild, we bring the entire herd (young stock and dry stock included) into the barn when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

I recall one winter a few years back when the weatherman got the forecast wrong, dangerously wrong. Wayne stayed up to watch the 10:00 p.m. news because he thought it felt like a storm was brewing. That evening's forecast, however, said the foul weather wasn't coming within a hundred miles of us, so he felt fine about letting the cows out for the night. We were awakened around 2:00 a.m. to the sound of howling wind and heavy sleet pounding the house. A quick look out the window confirmed what Wayne had been worried about. Everything was covered in ice. A few seconds later, the electricity went out. Wayne went out, too- out to the pasture with a flashlight to get the cows. "There was no way I could lay there in my warm bed and listen to the wind and pounding sleet. My cows were out there. I had to go get them, for their sake and my own sanity."

As bad as forcing your herd to endure brutal winter conditions with no shelter is, confining them inside all winter is equally bad. Whenever possible, cows should be outside. "My cows prefer to be outside most of the time in winter," says Wayne. "The only time I've known them to balk at going out after milking is when it's just nasty out. I've even seen them get to the barn gate and turn around and come back to their stalls when it's been snowing and blowing hard. If they don't want to go out, I don't make them. I trust their judgment."

Of course, keeping your herd inside increases the workload. "You have to bed the stalls really well," says Wayne. "And you're out there at least three times between milkings to scrape away manure and redistribute the clean bedding. If you don't, you'll have dirty udders, and it'll take you longer to get them clean and increase the likelihood of mastitis."

Even though we don't outwinter, our cows do spend most of their time outside even during winter. As long as it's not blowing, sleeting, pouring rain, or we're not in the path of a full-on blizzard, the cows are out. However, they aren't outside without any shelter at all. We use both man-made and natural windbreaks to keep the herd sheltered from the elements.

When the wind blows from the north, our barn acts as a windbreak, and it is by far our best option. The lean-to next to the barn shelters our heifers and dry stock all winter. The adjacent paddock is perfect for the milking herd as they are shielded from the brutal north wind and blowing snow. However, in our neck of the woods, the worst winter storms and coldest winds blow from the east. This is when we run into the biggest headaches.

When the wind is wailing out of the east, we have to depend on a low-lying paddock for a windbreak. The cows are out of the wind, but there is no real protection from the snow or rain. We use this paddock during the day, but if the storm is one of those dreaded multi-day events, Wayne moves them inside after the evening milking.

We also have a nice line of pine trees that acts as a windbreak on another paddock. Natural windbreaks like this one are especially effective once the snow flies, as it drifts up around the base of the trees, completing the windbreak for us.

In the later months of winter, Wayne makes a snow bowl. This is the method he prefers. Using the skid steer, he piles the snow 8- to 10-feet high, with an opening to the south, and beds the herd inside. It works great as the sun starts to climb higher in the sky in late winter. The sun warms the cows nicely even if there is a strong breeze. And at night the bowl holds heat, keeping them warm even when the temperature dips below zero.

Taking the time to identify all of the windbreaks, natural and manmade, that are available on your homestead will pay off in the dead of winter. Your cows will be happier and you will worry less about them.

Outdoor bedding

No matter which paddock our cows are on, when they're outside they are on pack, even in the snow bowl. This is the practice of rolling out a round bale of straw or poor quality hay for the herd to lie on. Instead of moving the pack each time it gets full with manure, Wayne simply spreads another layer of clean bedding on top. The manure underneath heats as it decomposes, warming the cows from underneath.

It works well, but it isn't maintenance free. The pack has to be checked daily, and come spring it has to be removed, which usually means the skid steer will be needed. However, if the pack is moved often during the winter, it's just a matter of plowing it under. Again, it depends on the rotation schedule for the coming year, and has to be managed accordingly. If you're planning on plowing in the spring, don't let the pack get too deep. If not, let it pile high and leave it to compost.


Cows need access to water during the winter. Snow is not enough, even though some will claim that it is. "I know some people leave their cows out with no fresh water in the winter," says Wayne. "They can do what they want, but my cows have access to fresh water. How'd you like to spend all day outside without any water, with only snow to hydrate you?"

Traditionally, farmers have used electric stock tank heaters to keep the water in outside troughs open during winter. While this is a quick way to solve the problem, it's not cost-free. The heater itself runs about $50, and it must remain plugged in at all times. This can add a considerable amount to your electric bill.

Electric stock tank heaters also make it difficult to move the water trough, requiring the use of outside extension cords whenever you want to move the water trough further away than the cord will allow. Extension cords, even heavy duty outdoor ones, can be damaged by the herd walking over them, raising the risk of injury and failure of the heater. When siting your water supply for winter, keep the trough as close to the source as possible. The further water has to travel, the more likely it is to freeze along the way. Our water tank is next to the barn, out of the wind, and stays open most of the time. Although, there have been a couple of times when someone has had to go out and break a layer of ice on top. We do use an electric tank heater during the coldest part of winter, but lately, we've been exploring different options.

Solar tank heaters can be an effective way to keep water flowing to your homestead herd in the dead of winter. Gary Reysa, a retired Boeing engineer, designed a solar tank heater that can withstand even the coldest temperatures that Montana has to offer. "The climate here is tough," says Gary. "Energy bills are staggering in the winter, so naturally I started looking for ways to bring the cost down. Solar energy seemed the natural and logical choice."

In fact, as Gary experimented with different solar and energy-efficient designs, he made an astounding observation about traditional stock tanks, "Galvanized tanks are the highest heat-loss tanks. If you were trying to build the highest heat loss tank, a galvanized tank would be it."

Gary's solar-heated stock tank sits in an insulated box with a glass or plastic panel facing south. "If you have an area that doesn't get much sun, insulate like crazy and it will still work." However, Gary concedes that his solar-heated tank, along with most of the others on his website, is more compatible with a small homestead herd than a large herd. "The key is the smaller opening, which allows less heat to escape," he explains. "But if you have more than three or four animals that need to drink out of it, you'll need to build more than one." Building a larger solar-heated stock tank with more openings will allow more heat to escape.


Gary has other designs along with the plans for constructing them on his site at water_heating.htm#Animals. The cost to construct a basic solar-heated stock tank is around $183.00, but as Gary notes, "Most homesteaders will have enough scraps of lumber and other materials lying around and won't need to purchase everything new." However, Gary insists that even if you have to buy the materials at full price, it's still a money-saving project in the long run. "If you use an electric stock tank heater, and it runs 18-hours for weeks on end, it could add hundreds of dollars to your electric bill in just one year." Ain't that the truth.

Regardless of what kind of stock tank heater you're using, you still have to get water to it. Unless you have underground lines that won't freeze in winter, your options are limited to carrying the water to the tank in buckets or running a hose to the tanks-another reason to keep the tanks as close to the water source as possible. On our farm, we use a hose. Wayne keeps the hose in the barn. He rolls it up and drains it thoroughly after every watering, then stores it in the barn. This way, the hose doesn't freeze and no one has to trudge through deep snow with five-gallon buckets of water sloshing all over them with every step.


The area where your cows walk to and from their shelter, water, and pasture should be kept free of ice and manure. Deep snow is also a problem, as cows aren't particularly enthusiastic about breaking a trail. After a deep snow, a quick trudge on a pair of snowshoes will pack a trail that the cows can see and follow. After a few days, the lane will be well-worn, at which point, you could have another problem on your hands.

After your herd has traveled the lane a couple of times, it becomes slushy as manure and melting snow freeze into an icy slew. As much as cows don't like blazing a trail through deep snow, they are even more reluctant to walk on ice. And, who can blame them? The best solution is to switch lanes every so often. "It keeps your cows cleaner and safer," says Wayne. It also lessens the likelihood of a member of your bovine family slipping and seriously injuring herself.

While Wayne switches lanes, feeding areas, and outdoor bedding spots frequently, there's only one path out of the barn, and it causes him problems, especially when it freezes and becomes slippery. There are times when he can barely keep upright on it, which means it's definitely not safe for the herd. While it's only 20 feet or so, it's a treacherous walk for man and beast. "I use lime on it instead of salt," Wayne says. "Salt will eat away at hooves just like it will the underside of a car or truck. The lime works well, and unlike salt, the cows can see it." He puts on the lime much thicker than he would salt, and the cows can't see the ice. "It makes them feel safer," he says.


If you're a northern homesteader, your herd will require 10- to 15-percent more feed in the winter. Those who raise their cows on a strict grass-based diet will need to make sure to have high-quality hay available at all times. Winter is not the time to skimp on quality. On our farm, we prefer to feed some grain along with the hay. During the brutal winter months, Wayne increases the amount of corn, oats, and barley at each feeding. He feels it helps with the production of bacteria in the rumen, which in turn helps keep the herd warm. "The bacteria generate heat. It's one of the reasons cows can stay warm when a human would freeze to death."

Wayne also makes sure the cows have plenty of free-choice salt and mineral in addition to the salt he mixes into their winter feed. Keep the salt and mineral blocks close to the water source. (No, the cows' tongues won't stick to the blocks in the winter.)


The best time to check for defects in your barn or shelter is before the snow flies. No one in their right mind wants to make repairs to a leaking roof or busted window in the winter. Heavy snow can collapse an already weakened roof, causing injury to you and your cows. Even if you can't replace it, at least add some support.

Cold wind whipping through a barn or shelter will drop the temperature inside, freezing pipes, people, and cows. Check for broken or cracked windows, doors that don't close properly, and walls that let the wind through. All of these should be fixed before winter arrives. Unless, of course, you enjoy doing repairs in sub-zero weather with the driving wind and fading light to keep you company while you work.

Winter calving

Some producers prefer not to calve during the winter, opting instead for a seasonal cycle. On our farm, we try to avoid calving in the coldest of the winter months--January and February--but it has happened. Calves born outside in sub-zero temperatures or in pounding cold rain have a high risk of illness and death. If you have a cow or a first-calf heifer that will calve in winter, bring her in. This way, even if you aren't there for the birth, the calf will be dry and warm.

Allowing a newborn calf to be exposed to harsh temperatures and conditions guarantees you'll have a sick calf, if not a dead one. "I know some people do it," says Wayne. "But, I think it's heartless. Just bring the cow in and make her comfortable. If you can't even do that much, maybe you're in the wrong business."


While you're readying your homestead and your herd for winter, don't forget about yourself. Make sure you have plenty of extra barn clothes, warm socks, and a couple of good pairs of dry boots. Keep an extra pair of gloves in the barn just in case. Nothing's worse than not being able to find a pair of gloves when temperatures drop. "You can never have too many pairs of winter gloves," says Wayne. "That goes for hats and coats, too. If one gets wet, you'll need another. Wearing wet clothes in the dead of winter has consequences--bad ones."

Global warming notwithstanding, winter still comes here in the North. And, until we see palm trees sprouting up in the pasture, preparing for the cold, hard realities of winter serves us and our homestead herd well. Like Benjamin Franklin so adeptly observed, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Start thinking about winter now so you don't have to handle a pound of frozen cure with no gloves.


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Title Annotation:The cow barn
Author:Cook, Jerri
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 30, 2011
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