Winter on the Farm

The garden is put to bed, the horses have donned their winter coats, the canning is finished and it is time to slow down here in the north Idaho/western Montana area. Well, for some folks. Winter on the farm is a little different.

Those of us who have animals know they require just as much attention in the winter months as in other seasons. Our horses and cattle, goats and sheep must have the proper forage foods and clean, available water as in other seasons.  Sometimes that means dealing with the occasional frozen hose or hydrant.These days most folks have traded in the old faucet/heat tape combo for frost free hydrants. I have used both and frankly, I was thrilled the day we went to all frost free on the farm. My dad was relentless in his water planning. We have frost free hydrants in the barn and the chicken house. And I hate dealing with frozen hoses so much that I unhook and hang them up to drain after each use all winter.

This year my chicken flock was joined by two Pekin ducks. They were the last two left after chick days and I like ducks so I took them. Both turned out to be males which was a bit of a surprise, but even more so, they turned out to be guard ducks. Not only will they engage any dog that intrudes into their territory, they also break up fights between hens and roosters alike. Who knew?

I have had ducks before and overwintered Pekins as well as regular mallards. But Pekins have a habit of turning the area surrounding a  water fountain into a swamp. That is OK during the summer, but in the winter it can make a real mess in the chicken house. So this year I gave them their own open water space. The chicken house already has a sand floor so I just built that up with more course gravel, with small rock as a top layer. The water pan goes on top of that with a heat lamp overhead to keep it from freezing. We are now three weeks into this project and so far, no swamp! It is draining great! The chickens have their own water fountain on the other side of the house.
This year in September we had a garden wide freeze at the farm and it took out the tomatoes as usual. I had been told that I could just pull up those tomato vines and hang them inside the greenhouse and the fruit would continue to ripen. It is true. However, damaged fruit will also continue to rot. So, in the future, I may use this method but will remove any fruit with any freeze damage. But the better way is to hang the vines before they are frosted. I have done that successfully and had ripe tomatoes well into early December.  

Also new this winter is my greenhouse experiment with growing beet greens. When I put my beets in the root cellar I noticed that a couple of them continued to send out leaves. So I planted them in the greenhouse and they are doing great, producing tasty leaves under the grow lights. The beet roots are fairly large, about 4" at the widest point. I look forward to seeing how long they continue to grow. And I wound up with three very vigorous eggplants. They bloomed in the greenhouse but failed to fruit up. Still, they are healthy right now, just drinking up the sun and growing well. It will be interesting to set them out next summer and see what they do.

Birch Creek Farm is always running an experiment of some sort. We finally won the battle of bare root tree deaths. Birch Creek is on very sandy soil. So without a lot of mulch and extra soil to hold the water, a bare root tree just will not take. So, we started putting bare roots in 5 gallon buckets of dirt from the mulch mountain and leaving them in it all summer to create a decent root ball. We have not lost a new tree in three years. (Note: these buckets DO have drainage holes. Very important.)

As we move into the true winter months we will be keeping an eye on wildlife habits and threats to the farm. I saw an owl in broad daylight the other day and coyotes continue to move ever closer to a unsuspecting meal. As farmers we have to learn to live with the wildlife around us and respect it. So, we will provide a little corn for the turkeys and some suet for the birds. Deer and elk will try to get at the hay and the salt lick.  They have already eaten what cornstalks and pumpkins we had out for decoration. We will likely find a moose in the corral one day and promptly head the other direction. They are interesting but nothing to mess with. And we will continue to enjoy winter on the farm.