The troubles with winter

Brrrr! It’s cold here today! There is a storm warning, and the sheen of white on the ground isn’t frost, it’s ice! Of course, it’s winter and all to be expected.

But winter brings more trouble to a farm than just a low thermometer.

Bedding for animals becomes necessary. Rabbits live on wire floors which become ice cold when the temperature drops. So hutches get a layer of straw for bedding to give the animals somewhere to stand that doesn’t suck the heat out of their bodies.   Of course, that adds to the chore list because the rabbits tend to soil it. And wet bedding doesn’t help them stay warm at all. So it must be removed and replaced on a regular basis.

Freezing temperatures freeze hoses. So the setup that works so well in summer – running long hose lines out to the animals – doesn’t work most days of the winter. The hose freezes solid and doesn’t defrost until at least two days of above-40 temperatures. So water must be toted out to the animals in gallon (or larger) containers. Now, there IS an easy way to fill a five-gallon bucket when the hose doesn’t work. But it’s still harder work than just using a hose.

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

And not just hoses freeze in winter – water in bowls freezes too! Leaving animals with nothing to drink. In summer one bowl of water per day is enough, but some days in winter are cold enough that the water freezes before the animal can drink enough to sustain it for the day. So water must be toted more often the colder it gets. And don’t fall into the trap of trying to use hot water to make it stay wet longer. Did you know hot water freezes faster than just moderately warm water? It’s true! http://chemistry.about.com/od/waterchemistry/a/Can-Hot-Water-Freeze-Faster-Than-Cold-Water.htm

I even had eggs freeze once! In the shells, in the chicken coop. There is so much water in the egg white and yolk that freezing forces the shell to crack, making it unsafe to use the egg even after it thaws. When I get those, they get fed back to the chickens.

Then there are the cold-weather diseases. Cold weather reduces the body’s ability to fight disease, even in animals. So just like humans have cold and flu season in the winter, animals are often more susceptible to illness in the winter as well. I had a rabbit die just yesterday that was apparently healthy the day before. The main culprits in winter are the sheer cold, dehydration, or bacteria/viruses.  You can give your rabbits warm places to go, but you can’t make them stay there. You can give them water repeatedly, but you can not force them to drink. And you can maintain a closed herd, but you can not give 100% protection against bacteria and viruses. Animals are often just more susceptible to dying in cold weather than warm.

Shorter days make chickens stop laying. Their egg-laying cycle is affected by the length of the day. You can put lights in the chicken coop, but that has a fire risk attached to it. And then there is the thought that while you *can* make a chicken lay year-round, does that have an effect on how many years they can continue to lay? I’m not sure of that, but figure that nature is often correct when it wants to take breaks, so I do not light my chicken coop. And instead of four eggs per day, I get five per week in the winter. Oh well. They’ll lay more often when the longer days return.

Wintertime also interferes with breeding. Rabbits even slow down in winter! (Not that they “breed like rabbits” any other time – or at least any time you *want* them to breed.) Whether it is from instinctually knowing that kits have a lower chance of surviving in the cold temperatures, or from the fewer hours of sunlight making them lose interest in doing anything but eating and drinking in those few hours of sunlight, the result is many fewer litters born in the winter.

Winter even freezes compost piles! At least it can if they’re not built large enough or if they’re not working hot enough. Don’t try plunging your turning fork deep into a pile of compost, with your body weight behind it, without first testing to see if the pile is frozen. From experience, suddenly hitting a layer of ice when you expected the fork to keep moving can be painful! A few pots of boiling water poured on the pile is often enough to defrost the ice and get the pile working again.

There is no snow here (or rather, very little) so at least I don’t have to dig my way out to the animals before I can care for them. I had to do that in Colorado, and it adds an extra level of aggravation and danger to everything. Shoveling, not slipping, getting doors open in spite of layers of snow and ice – blech!

So – carry bedding, carry water,  collect eggs more often, check for disease, track water consumption to spot problems approaching, carefully monitor breeding instead of assuming they completed it, watch your footing, and tote pans of boiling water around without slopping it on the pathway … winter is full of chores one doesn’t have to do in the summer.

Nothing alters the rate at which the days become longer, but it’s always a pleasure when the warmer weather returns, even if it’s sporadically at first!

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