January 2014

Cold weather care for small livestock

Cold weather care for small livestock

Small livestock are a great choice for the backyard homesteader (chickens, rabbits, ducks, etc…).  With minimal inputs, they can provide excellent sources of protein, some of the best natural fertilizers that money can buy, and in some cases (especially poultry), they can even do some work for you with pest control, grazing, and light “tilling” of your soil.  They are exceedingly easy to care for in the summer time, but when winter rolls around, some special accommodations are needed to ensure that they stay happy and healthy.  Here are some of the things that we do for our chickens and rabbits over the winters of eastern Pennsylvania.

  1. Solid walled shelter: free-ranging is great for your animals and your soil (not always your plants though ;-), but in the winter time, your animals need some solid shelter to keep them out of the elements (especially water and wind).  We prefer wood structures for their stability, strength, and availability of building materials.  Here are some pics of a coop that we built for our chickens and a hutch that we built for our rabbits, both of which were made from mostly reclaimed decking and barn wood.
    Chicken coop

    Chicken coop

    Rabbit hutch

    Rabbit hutch

  2. Deep bedding – this is a great idea for most of the year as a means of keeping down smells and creating great fertilizer, but it is especially important in the winter for warmth.  Giving a nice buffer between your animal and the cold floor of the shelter will provide the great majority of insulation that your animals need in the winter.
    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

  3. Fresh water – Clean, fresh water is critical to your animal’s health in the winter, as it plays an important role in helping most animals to stay warm and maintain proper body function.  In the summer, this is a breeze, easily accomplished with large containers and feeding nipples of some kind (we use Aqua Misers for our chickens).  In the wintertime though, this can become quite a challenge as most standard water containers will freeze quite easily, making the water inaccessible to the animals.  While options are available for electrically heated water containers for most small livestock, we instead prefer to keep multiple standard containers inside the garage and swap them out once or twice a day, depending on how cold it is.  This takes a bit of extra work, and is hard to get the motivation to do on bitterly cold days, but to us it is better than running electricity across the property and spending money on expensive units that seem to have a tendency to break/fail quite often.


    Drink up before it freezes!

  4. Extra heat/insulation for “extreme” weather.  The coop and hutch that we built are good enough to keep our animals warm and cozy down to about 20°F without any additional help, especially with the deep bedding and tighter packing densities allowing the animals to keep each other warm.  When we get those few bitterly cold days every winter, and the temperature drops below 10°F or so, we like to give our animals a little extra comfort.  For our chickens, we run an extension cord to the coop and put in a small heat lamp which we turn on mostly at night.  For our rabbits, we wrap the exposed portion of the hutch in wool moving blankets, breaking the wind and giving a little more insulation.  In very extreme conditions (wind chills below -10°F), we have also moved the rabbits into an old dog cage inside of our greenhouse to completely break the wind and for a little extra warmth during the day.


    Heat lamp in chicken coop

    Hutch with wind break

    Hutch with wind break

We have heard that most animals native to northern climates can handle these low temperatures without special care, but it is not a chance that we have been willing to take yet.  With the measures described above, both our rabbits and chickens have thrived regardless of how cold it has gotten (including the recent “polar vortex” when we had wind-chills as low as -25°F), with the chickens still producing at a rate of ~3-4 eggs per bird per week and rabbits putting on weight and staying healthy.  Hopefully some of this is useful to you, and if you have any other tips, we’d love to hear them (especially for the water bit…)!

Winter eggs from 12 birds

Winter eggs…get ’em before they crack!

– Joe

Warm and Cozy Winter Menu

I am sitting here on this bitterly cold winter night holding a cup of hot peppermint tea and browsing through my recipe binder to come up with our weekly dinner schedule.  I am sure that anyone who knows me is not surprised that I plan out our dinners ahead of time each week…I’m a tiny bit obsessed with planning ahead.  Which can sometimes lead to my downfall because, as we all know, it is impossible to plan something as volatile and unpredictable as LIFE.  But I’ll probably keep trying anyway!

So I have this hunk of a chuck roast sitting in my freezer that I bought on my last trip to our local butcher in anticipation of making my favorite winter recipe…Bloody Mary Pot Roast.  I am excited just thinking about it!  I love the way it makes the kitchen smell as it cooks all day long.  I love the way the meat falls apart under your fork when you reach in for a bite.  I love the way the gravy is thick and hearty and the perfect complement to smashed potatoes.  This is my definition of comfort food.

Sorry….in my excitement, I am getting a little bit ahead of myself.  I also wanted to post an example of one of our weekly winter dinner menus.  Hopefully one day we will have all of these recipes on our website…one step at a time, right?  So, for now, here is our menu for the week, along with the recipe below for Bloody Mary Pot Roast.  (Sorry, no pictures yet…one of my personal objectives for 2014 is to take more pictures of food!)


SUNDAY: Bloody Mary Pot Roast (see recipe below) served with smashed potatoes

MONDAY: Sloppy Joes on homemade wheat rolls served with our canned green beans

TUESDAY: Roasted Salmon with Lentils served over salad greens

WEDNESDAY: White Chili (made with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving) with buckwheat-corn muffins

THURSDAY: Pork Roast with White Beans and Cranberries served over quinoa and with the other half of that jar of canned green beans

FRIDAY (Pizza Night!): honey-wheat crust topped with feta cheese, caramelized onions, toasted walnuts, and broccoli rabe

SATURDAY: Roasted Tomato Soup (made in September and frozen) with broiled cheese toasts and salad

And now, for the feature presentation…

Bloody Mary Pot Roast

This recipe goes way back to when my friend and I used to run a personal chef service and we would make this favorite for our clients.  Back then, we would buy a bottle of Bloody Mary mix and pick up an envelope of onion soup mix from the grocery store and mix them up with some red wine to make the sauce.  But I have modified the recipe to make it more “from scratch” and the result is a much healthier and better tasting meal.  I hope that you enjoy this one as much as our family does!

  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 pound chuck roast
  • 1 1/2 cups red wine
  • 18 ounces tomato juice
  • 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce of your choice (add more if you like things spicy…I tone it down for the kids)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 6 Tablespoons wheat flour
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 1 large onion, chopped into large pieces
  • 6 medium carrots, sliced
  • 6 celery stalks, sliced

Season all sides of the beef with a decent amount of salt and pepper.  Heat oil over moderately high heat in a heavy pan (I use our Lodge Dutch oven so that I can cook it all day on top of the woodstove).  Brown the meat on all sides , taking time to get a nice crust on the outside.  (Watch out!  They spit!)

If you prefer to use a crockpot, move the roast to your crockpot at this point.  Otherwise, keep it in your Dutch oven and pour the sauce over top, as detailed in the next step. Combine the red wine, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, hot sauce, garlic, flour, salt and pepper, arrowroot powder, and honey in a bowl and stir with a whisk.  Pour over the roast in the Dutch oven or crockpot.  Place vegetables around roast and cover pot or crockpot.  Cook on low (or on the coolest section of your burning woodstove) for 8 to 10 hours.