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Barn From the Ground Up: A Little Winter Prep Goes a Long Way!

When we last left CJ Millar, she was just getting her brand-new horse property finished. Now that winter is fully upon us, CJ is enjoying the fruits of her labors with a horse farm that’s ready for anything winter throws her way!

winter barn management

A little winter prep goes a long way and the winter scenery up here makes all of it worth it! Photo from CJ Millar.

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to sit down and catch up with everyone on the barn building project here in New York, but I promise I’ve been hard at work. Winter comes fast and fierce up north, especially in Catskill Park, where the higher elevation and location between rivers and surrounded by various lakes means the mercury drops and the snow falls starting some time mid-autumn.

Never fear, with a little forethought and planning, I was able to get everything in place to make winter in the mountains as easy as possible, and good thing too. We’re only a few days into actual winter, but we’ve had multiple accumulating snow falls and have seen temps in the single digits and windchills in the negatives semi-regularly already. Brrr!

Good thing for me, I love winter! But there’s no time for playing on snowmobiles and sleigh riding with the horses (yes, my friend has a horse drawn sleigh), if the animals aren’t cared for first. From heat tapes to trough heaters, and even using technology to help, I’ll share how I got set up for winter so that if we get snowed in (or I actually get so unimaginably sick that I can’t drag myself outside for a day), all of the horses are still safe and sound.

Many barn people will tell you how much they hate winter, so while I know that I’m the exception, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy frozen hoses, iced-over water spigots, taking sledgehammers to troughs, or trekking through waist deep snow to drag hay to the horses. Trust me — that I do not! I love the snow and winter, but I also love being prepared and knowing my horses are all happy and healthy whatever the weather brings. So let’s get started!

The Most Important Things: Water, Hay and Access to Shelter

Anyone will tell you that no matter what, horses need access to clean, defrosted water and good hay 24/7 to really do well in colder climates, along with access to shelter to get out of the elements as needed. The water keeps them hydrated and keeps their digestion flowing, the forage keeps their guts moving and helps them generate heat, and shelter offers them a break from the wind and snow. Everything else from here is optional and will vary depending on where you live, your climate, and how your horses tolerate the weather. Even grain and blankets are optional when you go down to the basics.

Water First

Many horses drink less in winter, so having troughs that are accessible and not iced over is important. Trough heaters can be great, but if you don’t want to use them, there are a few other options such as filling jugs with salt water to bob around and keep the water moving, or even ways to build insulated troughs. I prefer keeping it simple, so I opted for trough heaters. In the field with six horses I have two large rubber 110 gallon tanks and in the smaller field I have a 60 gallon and a 110 gallon tank. I prefer the rubber ones so that if they do freeze — or if *ahem* some horses play with them, they don’t break or crack. They don’t have the drain plug heaters for that kind of trough, which is fine by me, since I’ve had issues with them leaking, so I use the floating de-icers. I had two of the 1500 watt standard ones you find at Tractor Supply already, and was missing a cage for one so I purchased that and was good. Make sure to NEVER use those heaters without the protective cage around the heating element, otherwise you can melt the troughs, short out the electric or worse, start a fire!

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Two troughs filled with fresh water + trough heaters give horses constant access to water. Photo by CJ Millar.

Those two heaters were enough for one for each field, but I had four troughs so I found some great options online. K&H actually makes lower watt trough heaters so that you’re not running through your electric bill with the 1500 watt heaters on 24/7 (even with the auto-off function above 40 degrees, in winter here we don’t see 40 degrees almost ever!). I purchased two 250 watt heaters that are enough to keep the entire trough from turning to ice and they use next to no electric, but you can get them ranging from 250 – 1500 watts depending on what you need. Bonus – they come with the protective cage and a trough clip to keep the cord out of the way! With one in each field, every trough was covered.

Next, Hay

For my situation, my horses are pasture kept with access to run ins/stalls at all times but I’ve found that they’ve opted to be outside nearly all the time unless the weather is really nasty. Round bales work great so that they can have constant access to hay and my hay guy is incredible so we’re able to get a combination of first and second cutting excellent quality hay. It keeps everyone fat and happy and warm, and with the colder weather, I simply increased the amount of rounds I put out. I’ve been averaging three-quarters to one round bale per horse that will last about one and a half to two weeks.

If the weather is going to be rainy, I won’t order as many since I don’t want the hay ruined, but otherwise the cold works just fine to keep the rounds fresh even if they are already in the fields. For Christmas, I put out about one round per horse per field, and it will be easily another week and a half or more until they need more hay, and with temps no where near 32 or above for the foreseeable future, I don’t have to worry about hay getting wasted in the mud or rain.

round bales and feeding horses in winter

Consistent, quality forage is a must for horses in colder climates in the winter. Photo from CJ Millar.

However, while the tractor is great, a block heater is a must! Without it, the old Kubota won’t start below 25 degrees. Next on order are new front tires (ours are shot) and tractor chains because even in 4WD, with the snow and ice on the ground, some days it just won’t get up the hills around here.

To be safe, I also keep square bales on hand. Good thing that we’re close to Monticello Racetrack, so getting second cutting hay is relatively easy. There’s also a few options closer to me depending on how much I need, so we’re always covered. I can store about 15 – 20 bales in the shed by the one field, and another 15 – 20 in the garage by the larger field that stores the extra grain and the quad with the plow, so that if the tractor has any issues and we can’t get round bales out (or delivered if the roads are bad), getting hay to the horses is still super easy. Keep in mind horses need more forage in winter, so I average half a bale per horse per day and make sure I have enough to get me through several days in a pinch. Standlee also makes compressed hay and I like to keep their alfalfa on hand as well.

winter horse farm prep

Well hayed horses means grain needs are minimal and there’s no arguing over food. Photo from CJ Millar.

Everything Else

Heat tapes are important if you have any exposed or outdoor pipes for water. Just be sure to plug in the tape with the thermostat (the thing near the plug) OUTSIDE otherwise they won’t kick on. Ask me how I know…. yup. I plugged in the heat tape backwards (in the basement) and the spigot froze because it wasn’t below freezing in the cellar. Whoops! Turned it around, and put some foam pipe insulation on the line, and we were good to go! Added plus to keep the spigot itself from getting chunks of ice in it is to just use an outdoor faucet cover — they’re just a few dollars at Home Depot or Lowes. Storing the hoses in the basement works as well because they don’t freeze and I have an outside access door so I don’t have to drag them through the house and make a mess.

winter farm management

Spigot covers help keep ice from building up in even the coldest of temps.

The quad is also a lifesaver for me because it’s 4WD and has a plow so when I get snow, I can plow not just my driveway but also paths to the fields if I need, which makes it a lot easier to walk from the house to the two barns. It’s not a far walk, but add a foot of snow and it can be exhausting especially if you have to drag hoses! The truck is a diesel, so I have an extension cord run from one barn to the truck so that it can be plugged in to keep the fuel from gelling. The trailer is parked on level ground for winter, and plugged in to keep the RV battery fully charged and prevented it from freezing. If you have living quarters, also make sure that you’ve drained the tanks and properly winterized your rig so that everything is intact come spring!

winter farm prep

A 4 wheeler with a plow means I can get wherever I need when the snow falls (and the little car gets most of the winter off, like the horses). Photo by CJ Millar.

winter ice traction

Good ice cleats with spikes mean I can get on foot anywhere I can’t make it with the quad. Photo by CJ Millar.

For grain, I’ve been able to drastically reduce what my horses eat thanks to the excellent hay I have on hand but I still buy about a month’s worth at a time so that again in the event of inclement weather, I don’t have to leave the farm. Even the older guys are on just once a day feeding and I’ve been able to scale back so much on grain that with the amount of free choice high quality hay they have, I don’t have to leave the house if I’m really sick or it’s that bad out — hay and water really are most important and grain is just added calories and supplements for my horses. That makes it really easy for winter.

As for run in sheds, please please pick them out at least once a week! As I mentioned above, my horses tend to spend most of their time outside but I still pick out all of the sheds as needed, always at least once a week, so that I can also check for any issues or damage that may need to be repaired. It may seem like a pain in the colder weather, but not cleaning out the sheds can make for a really messy, mucky spring with all sorts of health issues, that it’s really worth the few minutes it takes to keep things tidy.

winter horse farm management

Picking out run in sheds is important, even in winter, and storing the pitchfork close by but conveniently out of horse reach is a win! Photo from CJ Millar.

Blanketing is always a bit of a controversial subject amongst horse owners so I’ll keep it simple: do what your horse likes. Bartholomule, my mule, is naked and loving it. My two older TBs despise being cold and will shiver if the wind chill drops below 40° at all so they’re in two layers with a neck cover each. My other horses all vary with some fine with just a basic sheet or blanket to help with the wind. The one field is flat and open so there’s a lot of wind that comes off the mountain and while they have shelter, that would mean leaving their round bales so… they get a blanket to offer some protection from the wind. I also know horses that are never blanked (Beezie Madden’s retired herd is a great example!) that simply don’t need it. Just remember hay and water are most important, along with access to shelter so if you opt not to blanket make sure you’re providing what your horses need to keep themselves warm.

winter mule

Bart the mule says, “bah, humbug!” to blankets while his OTTB buddies say, “yes please!” Photo from CJ Millar.

Wi-Fi FTW

And last, but not least, Alexa is your friend. Yes, Amazon Alexa! Why, you ask? Well, thanks to wi-fi plugs (there’s even outdoor ones now too!) I’ve actually hooked up the entire farm to wi-fi and Alexa. I can control the truck (diesel), all of the trough heaters, and even the chicken coop lights and outdoor Christmas lights without ever leaving the house thanks to a few well placed wi-fi extenders and outlets. I can’t tell you how convenient it is to wake up and look out the window and see a trough is starting to get iced over and simply click on my phone and *poof* heater on. By the time I go outside to check the horses, everything is de-iced. It also works great for the truck in the event that I need to go somewhere. Between the block heater on the truck plus remote start, I can just turn on the outlet from inside the house, then start up the engine 15 minutes before I go and when it’s time to leave, everything is toasty warm!

smart outlets with wifi for winter horse farm management

WiFi extenders and smart outlets make monitoring things like trough heaters, chicken heat lamps, and even diesel truck plugs a lot easier! Photo from CJ Millar.

So with all this prep out of the way, it’s about time to get outside and enjoy some bareback trail riding and sleighing in the snow! Happy Winter!

winter horse management

Winter is time for bareback trail riding and strolls through the woods with your plump Clydesdale cross. Photo from CJ Millar.

winter horse sleigh riding

And if you’re lucky enough to have a sleigh and horse to match, get out there and enjoy the snow. Photo of Jennifer Lowery and Lemon Pepper, by CJ Millar.

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