It is now truly winter. -30 degrees C when I climbed into bed last night. With the windchill its was colder than -40. Going outside is a chore. Taking kids outside is a chore. Keeping animals alive in this weather is a chore. Doing outside chores right now is… kind of invigorating.
It is so easy to just hunker down and hibernate this time of year. Many in the animal world are already asleep for the long, cold winter, fattened bellies and thick fur coats. And many of us in the human world would love to follow suit. But life goes on, even when life falls into the very bottom of the deep freeze. Kids still have to get to school. I still have to get to work. We still need groceries and bills need to be paid. And somebody has to go out and start the car. So we keep getting out from under the covers and pouring a bowl sized container of coffee and trying to make it.
The daily routine of having to rouse oneself enough to throw on the coveralls and toque and gloves and headlamp and sometimes even the scarf, is just the external motivation that I need to get me outside twice a day.
Don’t get me wrong, I quite often drag my feet about it. The thought of stepping out into the breath-stealing, nostril-biting, ice-in-my-lungs air, has increased my coffee consumption dramatically. There’s no procrastination quite like another pot of hot coffee. Just thinking about the cold makes me want to say the word “coffee.” Coffee (when the jitters start its time for tea). But by the time I’m trudging down the snow-packed steps in my Bogs with my milk pails or with scraps for the chickens, I already feel more alive than I have all day. Inevitably, by the time I get back inside, the house feels warm and cozy, everything smells nice, and I can feel the blood moving through my veins again. I realize this is just relative: the house feels warmer not because I jacked the thermostat before I left, but because it’s so much colder outside. The house smells the same as it did before I left, which is almost always better than the cow stall, and because my blood froze in place when I was outside any movement now feels like a blood rush. As I said, it’s all relative, the only thing that has changed is me. A change in perspective and expectation has occurred. Much the same way that travel can make one more grateful for their home (or more critical of it), I can feel cold and tired inside, but when I get a rush of what real cold feels like, going back inside is a treat.
Chores these days, are fairly abbreviated. In the morning, we have milking, which means taking two stainless steel pails and a bucket of warm soapy water out to the barn, fetching Summer (our Jersey) from her stall, and leading her to the stanchion with a little pail of alfalfa pellets. She munches happily while we give her milk equipment (her udder) a thorough washing and drying. I usually get a few cups of milk from her off the start, but she isn’t terribly interested in letting down for us still, and so then I go fetch her calf, Penny, to help encourage Summer to let down the milk. By the time I’m done, I usually have just shy of a gallon of milk, which means we are getting around 6 gallons per week. That is enough for a batch of yogurt, a couple of batches of queso fresco, all the milk we can drink, and usually a tub of ice cream (although that is less interesting to us now that the world feels like a giant tub of ice cream). Just before I start milking, I feed the cats (Dip, Rainbow, and Sunrise) and our Anatolian/Pyrenees cross, Pepper, which keeps them out of the way (and out of the milk) while I work. After milking and turning the cows out we check on the chickens, making sure that they have all the feed and water they need. We have a light on a timer so that they still get their 14 hours of light per day and will continue to lay for us over the winter. Their yolks aren’t quite as vibrant during the winter without their access to pasture, but we still love getting their fresh offerings each day. We rigged up their poultry fount with some heat tape and some of that shiny, space-aged insulation. So far so good on that front. We also have opted out of using heat lamps in the coop stall this winter after we had a heat lamp explode in our chick brooder this spring. We will avoid the fire risk and allow our chickens to acclimatize to the weather, which is a much cheaper and safer option.
Next we take a square bale of hay out to our sheep. We have a heated bucket set up for them right now too for their water. They are good with eating snow for the most part, but it seems things are a little easier on them when they have a thawed source of water. Once our Shetland ram is done doing his annual masculine duty, we will sell him and move them all back in to the winter pen with the other male sheep (a ram and 3 wethers) where they will have a heated and plumbed water bowl and that will be the end of hauling water. This concludes morning chores, unless we are doing any additional mucking out of stalls or topping up of bedding, which adds a little extra time. Generally, we can be done morning chores in about 45 minutes, as long as there are no little extras to worry about.
In the evening, we have egg gathering, and we feed the sheep some oats. We double check everyone’s feed and water. Then we move Summer and Penny into their respective stalls in the barn for the night. As long as Penny is cooperative, we can be done evening chores in about 15-20 minutes. Less if it is two of us. More if it is more than two of us, and the “more” are shorter than 4 feet. But when our little chore elves do come out, we take flash lights and add on a game of hide and seek or go for a walk up the road. Especially when the weather is less fridged.
The barn has been great for holding some warmth. It has been colder than -20 for about a week now and yesterday the barn hit its coldest at -7. Between the warmth from the cow and the solar furnace that I built last fall, we have been able to keep some good warmth inside which eases the war with ice-up.
There are days when I would love to not have to go out and do chores. In fact, that’s pretty much every day. But when I am out there, and the stars are thick, or the Northern Lights are dancing, or the coyotes are howling and the dogs are tearing after them, there is a peace and calm that seems to warm me from the inside. Even as my face freezes and my eyelashes ice up, I feel alive. And when the animals hear me coming, just as they have anticipated, they respond with eagerness and warm greetings. And then, as I re-enter my castle, it feels so much warmer than it did before, and the kids are playing and laughing (or shouting and fighting, which kind of wrecks the mood), and there is usually the smell of broth, or meat, or bread in the air, and I am warm and reinvigorated, and thankful.