Shortly after we moved from a suburb of Washington D.C. to our rural homestead in North Carolina, a surprise snowstorm hit. Weather reports had said there would be 1-2 inches of accumulation, but we got about 6 inches overnight. Then another surprise storm hit and dropped more snow.
Our steeply sloped, north-facing driveway became utterly impassible. At first, it was fun to be “trapped” in our little holler. We drank cocoa and played in the snow.
After a week though, as the goat and chicken pellet supply started to dwindle, and our pasture remained inaccessible as a feed source, fun turned to fear. Luckily, one day before we would have run out of livestock feed, warm weather prevailed. And I learned a valuable homesteading lesson.
Homestead Winter Preparation and Provisioning
When you homestead, you don't just have to plan supplies for the people in your family, but for all of your livestock too. If you start your homestead in a rural area, you may not have the same services as in cities (such as speedy snow removal). Long distances to town may also make winter travel more difficult.
If you are new to homesteading, new to living in places with inclement weather, or have recently moved to a rural location with fewer public services, I encourage you to give extra careful consideration to your winter homestead provisioning. Here are a few ideas to consider.
Winter Water Provisions
Even among the homesteader set, many of us don't take into account all of our water needs when planning for winter weather emergencies. Winter weather can lead to power outages that make our regular water supplies inaccessible. Freezing temperatures can make it difficult to use water from outdoor cisterns.
1. Store Enough Water
How much water does it take to run your homestead? Between the three humans, ten mini-goats, 45 ducks, 15 chickens, four farm cats, one dog, and one turkey on our property, it takes us 22 gallons of drinking water a day to keep us hydrated.
Those 22 gallons don't include water to wash dishes, hands, or anything else. That's just the bare minimum to survive! Realistically, we need more like 30 gallons a day to keep from descending into chaos.
Be sure to plan enough water storage for livestock, cooking and cleanliness, house pets, and your family's daily consumption. Also, prepare for your worst-case water outage scenario. Power and water outages of 2 weeks (or more) are no longer out of the ordinary – even in big cities and fancy suburbs.
2. Keep Water from Freezing
Storing water in places where it will remain unfrozen makes it much easier to use than having to heat it to drink it.
– Store Water in Greenhouses and Root Cellars
– Be Ready to Stockpile Water Indoors
Before severe weather, I fill the bathtubs in our house for watering livestock. For human use, I fill lots of food-grade 5-gallon buckets. The buckets stack nicely.
Also, because we need 3 gallons of water to drink and 2 for cooking and cleaning per day, each bucket equals a day's supply. Using these buckets makes calculating and rationing water easy.
3. Know Your Resources
Hopefully winter water needs don't extend beyond the few weeks of water you have readily stored. However, if they do, it's important to know where your nearest winter-accessible water sources are. Also, be ready with the tools necessary to make water potable.
Winter Food Provisions for People
Most homesteaders know a thing or two about putting up food for the winter. We can, ferment, dehydrate, freeze, and store our excess foods during the growing season. However, we don't always think in terms of providing a balanced winter diet.
Did you know a pint jar of tomato sauce only has 140 calories? Even if you have 100 pints on your shelves, that's only 14,000 calories. At best, that's a seven day supply of calories for a person not doing manual labor on a homestead.
4. Count Calories
Don't just look at your full pantry and assume you have enough food for winter. Count your calories. Make sure you have plenty of protein and fat in the mix. Nuts, meat, cheese, beans, and high-calorie, long-storing vegetables are excellent choices for winter food provisioning.
5. Keep Ready-to-Eat Items
Similar to storing water in warm locations, make sure some of your food supply is ready-to-eat. If your woodshed cover falls in and all your firewood gets wet, then cooking food on a wood burning stove gets a lot harder. Being able to munch on a chunk of cheese or a handful of nuts, while you dig out and dry your wood again is a lot easier than cooking.
6. Make Your Calories Count
A 21-pound country ham hanging in your shed is the calorie equivalent to 100 pints of tomato sauce. However, because of the fat, protein, and salt content, that ham is much better body fuel source in winter weather.
Simple carbohydrates like sugar and white bread can give you a short-term energy boost. But they are like lighting a match to stay warm instead of starting a wood stove. The energy they provide burns out quickly.
Go for high-protein, slow-burn food as fuel to keep you going in cold weather.
Winter Food Provisions for Livestock
If you are trying to keep livestock naturally, then having year-round pasture is probably part of your feed management plan. This is great in theory. When it snows, sleets, or ices over, though, pasture can become inaccessible to livestock.
7. Plan to Replace Your Pasture (Temporarily)
Omnivorous livestock like chickens can eat people food in an emergency (if you have enough to share). However, ruminants like goats, cows, and sheep need roughage every day to stay healthy.
We use hay bales to insulate our goat shelters in winter. The hay not only keeps our livestock warm, it also becomes an emergency food supply during extended extreme weather periods. If we don't end up using that extra hay as a feed source, it makes good livestock litter, or mulch for the garden, come spring.
For poultry, scratch isn't a great food source from a nutritional perspective. However, in a winter weather emergency, scratch not only helps keep your birds warm, but it keeps them feeling full. Since scratch costs less than poultry feed and keeps longer, I store several extra bags in our feed shed through winter as a precaution.
8. Increase Your Livestock Feed Calculations
Livestock eats more food in cold weather. I estimate my goats consume almost 30% more per day when temperatures drop below freezing. Chickens are a bit less active in cold weather, so they only eat about 10% more.
Pay attention to your livestock's eating habits in winter. Increase the quantities you keep on hand to adjust for their increased consumption.
9. Pump Up the Protein
Consider keeping stores of higher protein food on hand for livestock too. For goats, I keep a few bags of alfalfa pellets around for cold days to give them an extra boost. For poultry, I have organ meat from our pig processing — cooked, minced, and ready to serve — in our freezer to see them through their insect shortages.
Winter Heat Provisions
I can't stand to be cold. So, when it comes to staying warm in winter, I say overkill on your preparation is the best method!
10. Ready Redundant Heat Sources
For us, being ready with multiple ways for staying warm is critical. For example, we have an electric heat pump as our primary heat source. If the main power goes out, then we have a few personal size heaters we can run using our solar panel energy.
If we have a few days of cloud cover (e.g., a blizzard), and our solar panels don't charge our batteries, then we have propane tanks and heaters. If we run out of propane, then we have a wood stove and lots of dry wood, stored in multiple locations.
We could rely on only a wood stove and keep lots of wood. But, wood stoves take work to load, stoke, and keep hot. In severe weather, since we spend more time on animal care, being able to use electric and propane heat means less stress for us. Plus, having the wood stove as a backup gives us peace of mind.
11. Fuel Up!
What good is a generator if you don't have gas? Heat takes fuel. Whether it's electricity, gas, propane, wood, or sun – some form of energy is required for sustained warmth.
Make sure you know how much fuel you need on hand to keep you warm during your worst-case scenario. Then double it!
If you are calculating your fuel needs based on what you use in normal conditions, you are probably underestimating. In your worst case scenario, factors like wind, extreme cold, and other factors would mean you need more fuel than usual to maintain sufficient warmth.
12. Light your Fire
Stay stocked up on the stuff you use to start fires too. Matches, flint stones, lighter sticks with extra butane, lots of dryer lint, cardboard, junk mail, dry leaves, twigs, and more make firing up your wood or rocket mass stoves a lot easier!
Other Winter Provisions
Beyond water, food, and fuel make sure all your general emergency preparedness and winter go-to comforts are in good order.
13. First Aid Certified
Restock your first aid kit before winter weather hits. Brush up on your skills and certifications too if it's been a while.
If you or your family members take medications, make sure you are well-stocked on those too.
14. Battery Back-ups
15. Let There Be Light
16. Work That Winter Wardrobe
It takes less energy to stay warm than to warm up after getting chilled. Every homesteader needs a winter weather wardrobe suited to their conditions. Jackets, jumpsuits, scarves, gloves, hats, and layers are musts in cold weather.
17. Warm Beverages
18. Know Your Neighbors
If you live in remote areas, maintaining good relationships with your neighbors can be really important. In my area, clearing trees, warning of downed power lines, and sharing supplies are the norm in weather emergencies.
19. Snow Shovels and Such
Depending on your conditions, special equipment may be necessary for snow removal. We use a snow shovel and shelter in place if the weather is too bad. However, some of our neighbors have snow plows.
Supplies of salt can also help if ice is an issue.
20. Exercise Intelligence
I wish this one were obvious. But lots of people take unnecessary risks in winter weather or fail to prepare for emergencies.
Plan ahead. Be prepared. Be safe. And stay warm!