The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Chickens on Ice

January 21st, 2015 by Ed Bruske


About the worst thing that can happen in the depths of January is a two-day thaw accompanied by heavy rains. As sure as day follows night, all that lovely snow will be melted away only to turn into a sheet of ice when temperatures return to sub-freezing normal.

With the right gear, I manage to carry on. With metal cleats strapped to the bottom of my boots, I deliver food and water to the animals. With the miracle of studded tires, I can easily get up and down the driveway in the pickup.

I tread carefully over the gleaming surface of the farm, looking for areas of texture in the ice because even metal cleats have difficulty gaining purchase. Believe it or not, the livestock are just as bedeviled as we humans. Cow and sheep slip and slide on their way from paddock to feeding stations. Emily, the pregnant heifer, normally skips and runs when sees her bucket of grain coming. These days she picks her way on tip-toes ever so carefully.

I’ve found a new guilty pleasure watching the chickens emerge from their coop in the morning. Unsuspecting, they take wing toward their feeder, only find no traction when they land. They fall on their butts and slide, scrambling on cartoon legs to get erect again.

With so much winter still ahead of us, there’s no telling how long we’ll be stuck in this position. Just remember these images next time the mercury reads -15 and you find yourself yearning for warmer days: careful what you wish for.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

January 11th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


It was a chilly 13 degrees below zero when dawn broke the other morning and the least alarmed seemed to be our livestock. Even the chickens were out and about unfazed. It’s just us humans who take special note of these extremes.

But where would we be without electricity when the world is frozen over? The animals need water and H2O quickly freezes solid at these temperatures. Fear not: we’ve purchased special heaters that keep the water liquid even under the coldest conditions.

In the chicken coops, we place an aluminum base for our galvanized waterers that looks like a big, upside-down pie plate. Inside is a small heating element that works like magic keeping ice at bay. All you need to do is locate the coops within reach of a 100-foot extension cord that plugs into one of our outdoor outlets.

Maintaining water for the bigger critters poses a different problem. How do you heat a trough of water? But there’s a solution for that, too. We’ve found a terrific heating element, aluminum coated with teflon, that sinks to the bottom of the big plastic tub we keep in our main paddock. As long as the cow doesn’t pull the device out of the tub, it, too, keeps a constant state of liquidity in the coldest conditions.

The goats posed a different issue. I used to haul a bucket of fresh water out of the kitchen to them each morning, or whenever the bucket froze. But last year we ran electricity to the tool shed inside the goat enclosure. Now one of those same aluminum elements heats a five-gallon bucket for the goats as well.

We also use electricity to heat the house. Our wood stove is too small to maintain a fire through the night. Overnight temperatures inside typically drop into the 50s by the time January roles around. We time electric space heaters to turn on before we rise in the morning. Even then, we’re struggling to hit 60 when daughter’s getting ready for the school bus and it’s still dark outside.

On the coldest nights, we also give the oil furnace in the basement a turn to help warm things up. But the previous owners, who built the house, did not bother ducting the basement furnace to the upstairs. The basement turns into a sauna, but you have to leave the door open to feel any of that heat where it counts.

Meanwhile, I warily eye our supply of firewood outside. There hasn’t been much sun to speak of the past month. When it shines through our south-facing windows, we don’t need to burn a fire at all. Around here, they say you should have at least half your firewood left in the pile when Ground Hog day rolls around. Otherwise, we’ll be needing those electric space heaters much more than we’d like.

Tense times for the modern homesteader.

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