Transitioning between seasons on a farm always brings new opportunities and new hurdles. Over the years, I’ve made sure that my little barn at our micro dairy is fairly weather proof and requires very few modifications for seasonal changes. But this might not be the case on all farms, so I’ve pulled together a quick list of seven steps that can help you get your barn ready for winter.
1. Ventilation. During the winter months, all barns need a source of fresh air. In my barn, all that is required for cold weather is simply closing the windows a bit but not all the way. I leave them cracked at the top for fresh air and ventilation. The stable area is also ventilated by a variable speed wall mounted exhaust fan that sucks the stale moist air out of the barn and brings in fresh air through the partially open windows. I like to keep the stable area around 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.
2. Winterize the water lines and troughs. I start by begrudgingly draining my water troughs and the 3/4-inch black PVC water lines that feed them when I know I can no longer avoid the freezing cold. I store the troughs inside but leave empty water lines out in the pastures for the winter. I then set up a trough for the cows close enough to the barn to fill with a hose. But thanks to the freezing temperatures in the winter, I have to break and remove ice nearly every day. And I’m tired of it — and you will be too eventually. I am planning to put a floating electric heater in the trough this winter to keep the water from freezing.
3. Barn yard clean up. Every spring and fall I thoroughly clean up the barn yard where the cows stand and linger when they eat at their feeder. I used to scrape off the manure regularly and put down a layer of hard-pack (a local form of crushed stone commonly used for driveways and dirt roads) in the fall and spring; however, I no longer do that. Instead of crush stone I now put down a thick layer of wood chips that I buy very reasonably from a local tree trimming and removal company. They work much better and last a lot longer than hard-pack. Plus they are easier on the cows' feet. And I'd much rather put a few rotten wood chips in my composted manure than crushed stones when I clean and scrape my barn yard.
4. Assess the barn yard shelter. Because I don't have to make many modifications to my barn to prepare for winter I try to make time to make one or two improvements every fall. One fault in my set up is the lack of a run-in shed for my cows where they can find shelter during miserable cold rainy fall weather when they are out of the barn. So, this year I am optimistically planning to double the size of my hay shed/calving pen that is next to the barn and make it available as a run in shed for my cows to seek shelter during inclement weather.
5. Have a plan for removing and storing manure. Cows make 100 lbs. of manure per day. In the winter months, I have clean the manure gutters daily just to keep up. This is a big change from the summer when I only clean the manure gutters once a month because the cows are outside night and day. But when the cold weather arrives and the cows are inside a lot more I shovel the manure into a wheelbarrow and dump it on a pad just outside the barn door. Then every few days, I use my small bucket tractor to move the accumulated manure to the compost pile.
6. Adding plowing to the list of chores. While plowing snow is a non-productive chore that takes a lot of time it is unavoidable in snow country. Make sure you and your equipment are ready for the worst.
7. Plan to change the feeding routine. During the summer and fall my cows eat outside. I will give them a little grain while I milk them but otherwise, in the warm months they enjoy the lush pastures around the farm. However, during the cold months I feed my cows inside primarily, both hay and grain. When possible, the cows do still go outside, especially when I clean the barn and I will give them a bit of hay or haylage to keep them occupied.
Finding time to make improvements on a small dairy is difficult, even on a Micro Dairy. Most improvements cost money and most dairy farmers hate to spend money even when they have it. Plus, time is often as scarce as money because of the time it takes to do routine chores that need to be done every day on a dairy. But it is important to keep you dairy moving forward by making even small inexpensive changes that make your micro dairy more efficient. Don’t adapt to your inefficiencies, eliminate them so you can improve the quality and flavor of your milk, reduce the time required to operate your farm and make it a more comfortable place for you and your cows, goats, sheep etc.
As I write, the weather outside today in central Vermont is cold, gray and rainy. Most of the leaves have fallen and the days are getting shorter. Looks like I am in store for a few seasonal adjustments myself. And for me those can be the toughest.
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