Living sub-zero: The toughest aspects of winter homesteading

winter-treesAs the mercury plunges and the cracking of frozen tree branches echo down the ridge, my trepidation returns along with winter. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes to the point of minor hysteria, if I’ve made all of the necessary preparations around the homestead for the coming freeze.

There is no end to the number of potential disasters I envision if I come up short on planning. Frozen and burst water lines, well pump failure, an insufficient wood pile, generator failure, a chicken flock in crisis and the list goes on.

The joke I heard one time regarding Maine’s climate, “Winter in Maine is 10 months long, the other 2 are spent getting ready for winter” runs through my mind repeatedly.

While winter may not last 10 months long, the getting ready part rings true for the homesteader. These are my toughest challenges:

Buildings & Infrastructure

Winter in the northern back woods of Maine can be brutal. Far from repair facilities, home improvement stores and basic services, I need to make sure my buildings, utilities and fencing are squared away. But sometimes things just can’t stand up to the weather.

winter-fenceFixing leaning porch roof supports after a heavy snowfall or the ground freezes is no easy task. Loose boards on steps, broken or frozen gate latches and metal roof patches from tree damage all have to be addressed. Mending and straightening fencing is tough too. The wire gets brittle and breaks, causing even more sections to be repaired. Trying to work in the ground when fence posts break or heave from frost is near impossible.

Regardless of the difficulty, these things have to be done, in the snow, in the ice or even sub-zero temperatures.

Water, by far, causes me the most consternation.

Because I live on a ridge, there is a lot of ledge just under the soil. My water source is a fairly shallow well with an above ground jet pump. More typical wells use submersible style pumps which greatly reduce freezing issues. Lacking that capability, I have to ensure my well house doesn’t fall into disrepair. Removing mouse chewed, soiled insulation, filling gaps and cracks from settling and making roof repairs are common (and frequent) tasks.

The home sits on piers and must be sealed off around the bottom to stop the frigid wind from whipping through underneath. This most commonly is repair work from where porcupines and other critters damage the siding in an effort to seek shelter.

If not properly done, I can be assured of frozen water lines and that makes for a very uncomfortable morning crawling through the snow and ice to get water flowing again.

Livestock

hen-snowOver-wintering animals here is yet another challenge. They depend on me for every need. There isn’t any grass, bugs or other forage for them to eat and they need a healthy supply of fresh water daily. You see, there’s that water issue again.

Keeping waterers from freezing is a Herculean task through winter. I use an electric deicer in the buckets that work well most of the time, but the nipples where the water drips from when the chickens peck them tend to freeze up within hours when it drops below 20 degrees. That means chipping them free every couple of hours.

When we lose power, the deicer becomes useless and I have to run buckets of water from the house to the waterers and monitor them for freezing.

I need to shovel out paths after deep snowfall. I also spread hay around the run over ice and packed snow so the chickens feet don’t freeze. If I don’t provide them something to walk on they will stay in the coop and that can lead to health issues. They have to get outside during the day.

Heating & Electricity

We lose power throughout winter. A lot. Having a heavy duty generator and a wood stove aren’t afterthoughts, they are necessary. While I seek to use the least amount of electricity I can around the homestead, the well pump and chicken waterer deicers demand it. No electric means no water for the home or livestock.

My generator is a military surplus diesel unit. It can power the entire homestead. But in order for that to happen, I have to stay vigilant. Because it is diesel powered, it has an electric start that uses two 12 volt batteries. These batteries need to be trickle charged regularly so they are ready when called upon. Conversely, the fuel tank needs to be monitored for condensation and fuel treated to keep from gelling.


cord wood
Cutting and splitting wood is a year round endeavor as my home is heated exclusively with the wood stove. I do have a furnace, but the high cost of fuel and dependence on electricity keeps me from using it as a primary heat source.

The wood stove needs no power, creates light and provides a cooking surface. It also requires a stockpile of cord wood. Having enough cut, split and stacked under cover is probably my biggest fear when the wind is howling and it seems we’ll never see the sunshine in earnest again. That would be February.

Once the snow piles high and the frozen tundra sets in, felling trees for firewood becomes miserable work. Green wood is by no means desirable, but if my supply runs low I do what has to be done, -10 degrees or not. Make no mistake, wood heat is the most warming of all and sure fire way to keep the chill out.

The price I pay for homesteading throughout the winter is repaid in spades. There is no place in the country that can beat a Maine autumn. Add the stars in the sky and the swirl of the Milky Way on a crisp, clear winter night on the ridge and most folks have never seen that kind of beauty.

Alas, the question remains. Am I ready? I think I’m about to find out.

 

 

John Floyd

About John Floyd

John is a U.S Army veteran and lives on a small homestead in northeast Maine. His passion for the outdoors and love of country are the influences behind his columns and blogs.