A Homesteader’s Guide to Comfort: Dressing for Winter 101

January 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Let me entertain you with a different kind of story today. Instead of dangling the pictures of food in front of you, I instead want to share how much fun I have doing the chores in the crisp 5-degree weather instead.

Note: My brain no longer understands the metric system and other European ways of being, such as peeling potatoes before frying or using the Celsius scale, so any temperature I might mention here and in the future is in Fahrenheit.

One thing that has to happen daily is feeding all the animals. For me this involves giving a bale of hay to our two little Jersey steers once a day. These days, in order to do that, I have to traverse a frozen tundra an ice-locked yard, which, after the rain we had this past week, is now practically a hockey rink. Thankfully, it snowed a little bit on top of it a few days ago, and that sort of added some traction, in some areas.

Having come from a place that knew no winter, freezing temperatures (not counting the wind chill), or even much precipitation, what with it being desert and all, I have hardly experienced icy ground in my life, and for that reason I am utterly uncomfortable with slippery surfaces that are an inseparable part of Wisconsin winters. You see, I don’t like falling down, especially since I keep hearing about people getting concussions or broken limbs having slipped and fallen on the ice. In short, this means that, instead of crossing my yard with confidence, I have to creep slowly around the edges of the yard where the snow has fallen to keep me from falling. After that, I have to walk down to the pole shed where the electric fence is plugged in, in order to unplug it, and then make my way, carefully, once again, over a frozen snow crust down the hill to the barn (technically a tobacco shed) which holds the hay, and next to which the cows are. Because it takes a little bit of time to accomplish, given the fact that I take extra care not to fall or twist any ankles, I get to enjoy the wonderfully bracing, searingly-cold air – I love how it washes against my face and I love the fact that the rest of me, well bundled in proper winter attire, is wonderfully warm.

Dressing for Winter 101

You can be very comfortable outside down to 10 below, and I definitely am! But you have to wear layers, lots of layers, and not just layers of anything, but you have to have the “thinsulate” or “thermalite” tag on much of your outerwear. Long johns are a must. Contrary to what they might tell you, silk ones are no good, at least not for me, and not for the outdoors, and what you need is the duofold kind (Duofold is a brand, and it implies two layers). Ladies are at a clear disadvantage here – their thermal underwear is rarely as warm as the circumstances of being active outside in the winter demand – I guess everyone assumes that women will spend their winters indoors, sipping hot chocolate, eating bonbons, and engaging in other kind of feminine indoor activities, but that is not true for farmwives (or women who favor winter sports and such). But you can always opt for buying the ones that are actually men’s. Don’t even dream of venturing out without them when it’s 0 and you have some work to do outside for some extended period of time. Otherwise you might wind up as one of those people who keep lamenting how cold the winters are, and, I am sorry to say, I will have a very hard time finding sympathy for you. (I also hold the belief that sportswear is sexy, so LLBean is also my Victoria’s Secret).

On the outside, my greatest fashion item is my serious Columbia snow pants, paired with the insulated Columbia snow boots. Those boots are wonderful, especially for hunting! I have traveled some considerable distances up and down the cruelly steep Driftless hills in pursuit of squirrel and deer, and that with carrying a relatively heavy (for me) gun and no sling, and my feet were not the least bit sore by the end of the day, though I would recommend using a couple of pairs of socks for waiting out in the thicket. As to socks, my socks are almost always Smartwool (it’s a brand), and the gloves are leather on the outside with thinsulate on the inside. A scarf and a hat are a must. My coat is actually not an insulated one, but its outer layer is nylon, which means that the hay or firewood fragments don’t stick to it. For that reason I like to wear a Columbia fleece jacket underneath it. If you are wondering why you rarely hear “Man, is it cold outside!” come out of my mouth, now you know why.

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Thus clad, I make my way into the hay barn. Now, I have a secret to share with you – a hay barn is a magical place in the winter! The sweet smell of dry grass overcomes you the moment you enter, and suddenly you are transported to the middle of July. This is something I discovered for the first time in the winter of 2005, the one we spent in a small apartment in town before we moved out to the farm the following May. We were house-sitting for my in-laws, and one of my jobs for that week was to throw bales of hay to the cows. Upon entering my father’s-in-law barn for the first time, I was blown away by the experience of the distinct summer aroma in the middle of January. It’s one of those truly special moments you can only experience on a farm (sorry, city dweller), much like the delicate fragrance of the sweet maple steam rising from the evaporator in the late winter. Did I mention I love farm life? I love it so, so much.

Feeding the cows, at least for me, rarely results in not getting cow dung on my boots, but the good thing about 5-degree days is that the manure is so frozen, it doesn’t smell and doesn’t really stick to the boots either. You can pretty much wear the same boots to town the same day with no damage done, and that’s what I do.

Now, the interesting challenge a farm dweller in the Northern climes might experience in the winter is the need to keep the animal’s drinking water from freezing. During our first winter on the farm, when we had a couple of cows, as we usually do, and a flock of chickens to feed and water, the discovery that nothing worked as usual once the temperatures dropped below freezing really took me by surprise. So, to keep the cow water from freezing, in November I usually start by simply breaking the ice on the surface of the water tank with something heavy in the morning, and, when it gets colder, we place electrical heaters into the tank (usually a couple to a tank), to keep them from freezing. The chicken water usually has a heat lamp hanging over it in the wintertime (which also extends the daylight hours for the chickens, thus increasing egg production), and the cats have a plug-in electrical pet bowl. Now what would we be doing without electricity? I am still not sure what the Amish are doing for that sort of thing.

Anyhow, having fed the cows, I head to the chicken coop with a bucket of feed and, if they need it, a bucket of water, which I also fill with the eggs after I’m done feeding them. Chickens lay their eggs in nest boxes, which are filled with a bit of hay or straw for bedding, and those come in various designs. And that’s where I get the eggs from. Occasionally, a chicken or two will decide not to lay in the boxes, and will create a pile somewhere else entirely, which we will every once in a while discover. That might include any number of outbuildings, the garage, or something along those lines. When there’s thick snow outside, the chickens usually spend their days in the coop, but when the weather is good, they get to roam freely all over the farm (which is most of the year) – looking for worms, eating some greens, scratching in the dirt, and doing all the things chickens are supposed to do. The interesting thing is that the chickens have a fairly limited radius, so the chance of them wandering off is practically non-existent, at least not in my experience. It is this opportunity to free-range that makes their yolks so brilliantly yellow. They also (and I am struck by how many people don’t know this) always come back to the coop to roost at dusk (not counting a couple who might occasionally want to roost somewhere else), so you don’t have to chase them or anything. We then lock the coop to keep the predators out, and for it to be a little warmer for the chickens. The chickens will hold up fine without any thinuslate in a rather cold weather (our chicken coop is unheated), but it’s good to minimize the drafts.

My flock of chickens doesn’t currently have a rooster – I noticed that roosters have this patterns where they will start out nice but grow increasingly meaner with age, to the point that they become a danger to small children, and it is usually when it’s time to put them down. The chickens don’t have to have a rooster to lay a good amount of eggs, but with a rooster they are supposed to lay a little better (I honestly can’t say if it’s true), and their quality of life is better overall from the presence of a gentleman. One rooster per flock is all it takes. I usually keep b/w 10 and 15 chickens at a time, resulting in about 9 eggs per day January through October, and 3 or 4 November through December.

My next thing to do is usually going to bring the firewood, which we pile on our deck right next to the door and from where we get the wood to fill the wood stove. The wood stove is our house’s only source of heat (we also have a back-up in the form of a gas furnace, but that usually doesn’t not kick in unless it gets below 50). Now wood heat is a very special thing that people who have to rely on forced gas or oil heat really cannot experience. I love the quality of this heat, how thick it is, how it envelops you, heating you all the way through down to the bone.

The wood heat also needs a bit more work than simply turning of the thermostat – even if you buy your wood, like we do, you still have to stack it, split the pieces that are too large to fit into the stove, and then bring it into the house/woodbox/deck in our case for easy access. The fire has to be kept going constantly, so every couple of hours I have to feed the stove, and regulate how hot it would burn with the help of a damper and a little door at the bottom of the stove.

To make a pile on my deck, I have to go to the woodshed with a wheelbarrow, which I then pile high with wood, and roll down to the front of the house, from where, a few pieces at a time, I make a lovely stack. I usually repeat that a couple of times.

Sometimes, if I need to, I fill my bird feeders. Feeding birds is a wonderful thing to do! They are fun to watch, they are fun for the kids to watch, they provide zoology lessons for you kids right outside your window, and, in the spring, they repay you with the kind of concert no symphony could compare to.

Listening to and identifying different bird songs is a big passion of mine, along with shooting and pursuing the preparation of intensely delicious food in vast quantities. I couldn’t say that I am anywhere near the people who lead birdwatching outings, but, for an average person, I have a pretty advanced knowledge of the subject. I just feel like it is so important to be aware of what animals are around you, be it by sighting, scat, or sounds, and I think it’s something important to teach your children. Birdwatching is also wonderful because it is entirely free, not counting that pair of binoculars you had to buy, and a few guide books. But those are a one-time investment, unlike, for instance, with hunting, where you have to keep buying licenses, boxes of shells, and the like. I highly, highly recommend it.

And that usually concludes my chores for the day. So… do you think you’d like to be me?

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