Off Grid Homesteading: Winter

It’s been a hot minute since I posted last, and for that I’m sorry.

Without the seemingly endless parade of outdoor projects that we bang out during the warm months, life on our homestead slows down considerably over the winter. Despite the slow down, my mind got all cluttered up this holiday season, and I needed to take a step back from blogging to regroup and quite simply just be.

But, mama’s back and ready to make 2020 her bitch!

People often ask us what off grid life is like during the Canadian winter. Typically we don’t delve in to too much detail because it can be hard for others to comprehend why we chose to live this way when we could have stuck to a ‘traditional path’, and that lack of understanding is sometimes expressed with unnecessary negativity towards our lifestyle. (It’s not that we can’t handle the keyboard warriors, it’s just more aggravating than a sandy swimsuit.)

That being said, there seems to be a sudden sense of urgency for people from all walks of life to lead a more natural, self sufficient existence and I think it’s important for them to research all aspects of off grid living–including raw testimonials from individuals who are actually living it.

Winter Preparation

When you’re off grid and you’re on the threshold of yet another eight months of a sucktastic winter spectacular–you have to take some measures to prepare in advance. I highly recommend making advanced preparations in the fall while the weather is nicer.

We start prepping in late summer to early fall before the freeze sets in. Our to do list is pretty hefty, as you might imagine! The big players are on our list are:

  1. Oil Changes: Oil changes! Oil changes on everything! Our generator. Our zero turn mower. Our quad. Both vehicles. Dave changes the oil himself, or sometimes he rooks Alex in to assisting him. It’s best to change the oil and filters before it gets so cold that the air hurts your face. That being said, oil changes can’t wait, and changes do happen in the winter. Dave took advantage of the mild weather and changed the oil on our generator again a few days ago.
  2. Firewood: We have a heat exchanger and basement in-floor heating, but we try to rely on our wood stove for heat as much as possible. If the day is mild, we might not light the wood stove until sundown when the temperature drops, but if it’s a cold day–and, it can get brutally cold in Alberta during the winter–we keep a fire going non-stop while we’re home. We buy split wood by the pick up truck load until we run out of room to stack, and we replenish our stockpile two or three times throughout the winter. Cutting kindling is another thing we try to save for milder days, though we really don’t need that much kindling to start a fire because the wood is so dry.
  3. Diesel: Our big bad generator (shown in the photo below) runs on diesel. We have a big-ass slip tank that we keep in a utility trailer next to the generator so that we can fuel up when we run low. Before we delve into winter, Dave fills the slip tank and then he hooks up to the trailer and rips to the gas station for refills as necessary. A full slip tank lasts us roughly two months during the winter, give or take. The generator is meant to be a back up, but obviously, we rely heavily on it during winter and early spring when solar can’t independently provide us with the electricity our household needs.
  4. Propane: Our water heater, heat exchanger (which fuels our in floor heating in the basement), stove, and oven all require propane, which we have trucked in to a big ol’ rental tank we have on our property. We used to have to watch the meter on the tank to ensure we didn’t run low or run out of propane, but recently the propane company installed a smart meter that watches the propane level for us and an app alerts us when it gets to a certain point and a delivery is scheduled.

Obviously we have other items on the list: Coop clean, garden clean up, a last lawn mow, other basic yard care and outdoor chores–but, the four bullets on the list above are must need items. Everything on the full to-do list is either an essential, something that will make life easier later on, or both. [I’ll cover more on these items in my Fall blog!]

Our generator on the left and our slip tank on the right.

Freezing, Freezing, Froze.

A view from the end of our driveway facing our little work in progress.

I’m not a winter weather kind of girl. Snow and ice make damn near every outdoor chore a giant pain in the ass.

Our founts and hydrant typically freeze sometime in November, and while we have plans to solve that problem in the future, for now we have to haul water for our animals by hand. We use one of those blue 5 gallon water jugs to carry the water out, and we put it in black rubber tubs, refilling as necessary. Our chickens eat snow, too, so usually we only have to refill the tub once per day.

The reason we use the tubs is because they’re easy to flip over to dump the ice out and refill with clean water for our flock. It works for us, but if you know of another type of water dish that doesn’t freeze solid in the Canadian winter, I’d love to know about it! Tell me in the comments below!

Our most-used automatic fount must have a wee leak, because look–ice tower.
Yet another frozen water dish.

During the day if things heat up at all, it’s usually juuuust enough to melt the snow and ice a wee bit and then if you aren’t careful to, for example, put the axe away after chopping kindling it’d probably freeze to the ground overnight. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson on that one, but no, it still happens occasionally. Icy paths that begin to melt are a not-so-fun way to test your reflexes, too.

Electricity

In the winter, we still have to keep up on maintenance for the solar batteries inside, and then on top of that, we have the additional task of keeping the panels free of snow. We have a special ‘shovel’ to gently clear the panels after a snowfall. It’s not a terribly difficult job, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a dump of snow in your boots and up your sleeves, so none of us are the first to volunteer for that one.

Clearing snow off of our solar panels is pretty straight forward. We have a special ‘shovel’ that extends to reach the top of the panels where we otherwise might not be able to reach.

Speaking of solar–we don’t get a whole lot of electricity from our current set up over the winter. (Ha! ‘Electricity’…’current’…get it?) The days are shorter, so even sunny days don’t fully meet our family’s needs, and other days are overcast or snowy, like today. As mentioned above, we rely heavily on our generator to meet our electrical needs during this time. To read about our winter without power, click here.

What that looks like for us, is that somebody has to trudge through the snow in the yard to turn the generator on or off. If it’s dark, I play the ‘mom card’ and force the kids to go out in pairs, or I go out with one of them. Dave thinks it’s silly to make them use the buddy system, but guess what? I’m the mom. I make the rules! (To be fair, I must mention that Dave really sticks to his guns to prove it’s completely safe outside at night and when he’s home from Saudi Arabia, he goes out alone. But, fuck that, I’m still right.)

Off grid systems like ours take time to work themselves out. Our generator sometimes requires a jump start despite alternating between the battery charger and block heater. Hopefully the work Dave did to it a few days ago will have solved that problem, but in the meantime, all of us are able to jump the battery with the exception of Braden, and even he knows how to do it–he’s just too short to reach everything.

We have to fill the fuel tank on our generator approximately once every five days to a week. To run the slip tank we have to clamp cables to the truck battery (just like jumper cables), and let me tell you, holding that pump nozzle and trigger–even with gloves on–is painfully cold. On the especially frigid days we have to take turns or breaks because it feels like our fingers will actually snap off and *tink tink tink* across the ice.

Something else that we don’t have to worry about during the summer is making sure the generator’s block heater is plugged in.

Frozen hydrant. Frozen water dish.

The Animals

I talked about how we deal with our frozen water [above], but that’s not the only chore that’s affected by the weather.

When we raised pigs, we found that their feeding regimen didn’t really change that much season to season, with the exception of providing extra bedding for their shelters for additional warmth. We hauled their water when their fount froze, but they still got the usual feed, table scraps, and all of the eggs we couldn’t use. The biggest change was that there were no greens to munch on and the ground froze which limited the amount of rooting they could do in their pens.

Right now, we only keep poultry–laying hens, laying ducks, and one solitary guinea for tick control and our amusement.

At the onset of winter, my flock’s entire lives are ‘flipped-turned upside down…and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, to tell you’……well, just what I mean by that.

In the warm months, water isn’t an issue. There’s always water. The ducks can bathe and play all the time and everyone can drink whenever they want to. In the winter, they rely heavily on us to provide them with water. We currently free range our flock, so foraging is a huge part of their diet when it’s warm–however, in the cold months–despite table scraps and fresh treats–the bulk of their diet is 17% laying ration. We’re hoping to begin raising mealworms and growing fodder to supplement their diet, but we’re still researching how to go about it.

The duck ‘pond’ is closed for the winter.

As the days get colder and shorter, our hens choose to spend more time in their coop and egg production generally comes to a halt. When we do get the occasional egg, it’s often frozen in the nesting box. Our choice is to either not eat eggs at all during that time or buy eggs from the grocery store–and let me tell you, once you’ve had farm fresh eggs, the eggs from the store are incredibly disappointing. This winter is the longest we’ve gone without getting a single egg, so we’ve got major plans to up our coop game and add a run before next winter strikes. Hopefully it will make a difference!

There are kitchen scraps somewhere in there.

Frostbite is a huge concern over the winter months! Our first winter keeping poultry we thought we were doing the birds a favor by putting their water dish in their coop so that they didn’t have to venture outside when it was cold. Unfortunately, doing so puts the flock at risk for frostbite. One night one of our roos tipped the water dish on himself and we didn’t know. Over the next week we noticed him limping and after some research we began suspect leg mites because the frostbite had already caused his legs to begin peeling. What came next was fucking horrifying. Did you know frostbite can cause limbs to fall off?! Neither did we–until our rooster’s legs fell right the fuck off! Poor fellow had to be put down, as you can imagine. It was a brutal lesson to learn, but we learned it and we won’t make the same mistake again.

Cleaning a coop when the poopy shavings are frozen to the floor is impossible. We periodically toss more shavings in to the coop. This method is called the ‘deep litter method’. It works for the winter, but our first coop clean out after the thaw takes ages and ages because there’s simply so much, well, crap to scoop out.

Our indoor animals adapt with the change of seasons and spend much more time indoors hibernating and getting fat. Our cat, Claude is a mad hunter, but he prefers to stay inside to hunt the mice that sneak inside when it gets cold. Fine by me, truly, but cat food costs exponentially more when he hunts less. The amount that we spend on kitty litter also skyrockets because of the amount of time the cats spend indoors.

Other Winter-y Stuff

Besides…well, fucking everything else about winter…these are some other changes that suck major donkey dick.

Laundry. We don’t have a dryer. In the summer we line dry everything outside. It smells deliciously fresh and there’s something so therapeutic about carrying out a basket of freshly washed clothes and pinning it to a clothesline. In the winter, however, we are rarely caught up on laundry and our living room looks like a tent city with all of the full drying racks painfully slowly drying our clothes. We also dry laundry on the backs of chairs, stairs, railings, hooks–wherever we can. It drives me nuts.

One of our drying racks squished close to our wood stove.
Real life. I hate this part of winter. so. much.

Snow thank you. As we stand, we do not have a plow to dig ourselves out of our driveway, so when mother nature decides to spew fluffy white vomit all over the damn place, we’re forced to use basic snow shovels like neanderthals. Do you know how long it takes to shovel thigh high snow that has drifted fifteen feet by thirty feet across your driveway? Do you know how old it gets when it decides to snow that way once or twice per week for a couple of weeks? I feel like you don’t need an actual answer. Follow your heart on this one, boys. We have been beyond blessed by our generous neighbours who have dug us out of our snowy coffin multiple times to date! My stepfather also gifted us a snow blower which was also super helpful, although it needs repairs now.

After about three hours of constant shoveling following a nasty snowfall in 2018.
Being snowed in is definitely not good for anxiety, either, by the way.
Poor Kaytie was so sick, but it was ‘all hands on deck’ for this job. (As a result of this photo, I found her socks that had people shoveling snow that said ‘fuck this shit’ on them because it was just so fitting.)

Instant Power Outages. Imagine you’re right in the middle of cooking supper, or something major is about to go down in The Walking Dead. Boom! Everything turns off. Sometimes, even when our generator is running, the power just instantaneously goes out, and obviously it’s always at the worst time because there’s never a good time for that. If you’re not paying attention to the battery levels or if you don’t notice that the generator tripped, you could suddenly be thrust into a momentary black void. Keep in mind, we don’t have street lights out here. When the lights go out, it’s very, very dark. It’s a real bitch when that happens, but it’s a quick fix, luckily.

That being said…

We aren’t afraid of a little ‘extra’ work. We love this life and truly, we have everything we need. It was an adjustment at first, especially with going almost an entire year with basically no power–but we gained so much knowledge and strength and we are closer than we’ve ever been as a family.

If you’re considering homesteading or going off grid, definitely understand that there will be an adjustment. You will have to work really fucking hard sometimes, often when you’re exhausted and over it. You will be criticized. It’s definitely not for everyone. But, man, has it been perfect for us! There are so many benefits! So many opportunities for growth. If you have any questions, please, please, please ask.

Have a happy, safe, and productive winter, everyone!

9 Replies to “Off Grid Homesteading: Winter”

  1. Even though I know all the stories, reading about them here has me chuckling to myself and dreaming of another visit! Loved this!

  2. Kayla, my down-to-earth friend, I hope the rest of winter is kind to both of us. I am so pumped to see all the growth that will take place on your homestead once spring arrives! Never boring.

    1. Aw, thank you so much, Lorrie! I hope the rest of the winter is AMAZING for both of us! I’m so excited to split the asparagus with you this year and I’m currently busy ordering seeds as we speak, so I’ll probably get impatient for spring and winter will drag on now. Haha!

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