10 Pre-Winter Chores

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Just as horses grow their coats in preparation for winter, your farm, too, should undergo some preparatory work so it endures the frigid months with ease. Use this checklist for 10 must-do tasks before the snow really starts blowing:

1. Repair Gutters and Roofs

One oft-taken-for-granted resource is your barn roof. It’s one of the most sturdy structures on your property, right? Yet every year, you hear of barn roofs collapsing under the weight of snow and ice. (This writer has two friends who recently had this experience.) This year, do a thorough inspection for any weak points in your roof and gutters to ensure your barn roof isn’t next.

Trim back overgrown vegetation that has the potential to damage the roof and gutters during wind storms and when sagging under the weight of snow and ice. Take a look at the caulking and roofing cement, and reapply any areas that are peeling. Check metal flashing for holes and make repairs. If you find loose shingles while you’re up there, apply roofing cement under those to secure them.

Inspect the roof from inside the barn, as well. If you notice areas that are wet, and you don’t find a corresponding problem such as loose shingles outside, call a roofing contractor for a professional inspection and advice.

More important during water runoff (think rain storms and melting snow) than during freezing weather, good gutters can mean the difference between a flooded barn and safe building surrounds. Clean debris from gutters with a garden trowel, gloved hand or leaf blower, then flush out residual matter using a water hose. Don’t go straight to the hose first, otherwise you’ll clog downspouts with leaves and sticks.

While you’re on that ladder, check gutters to be sure they’re still level—after regular wear and tear through the seasons, screws loosen and metal bends. According to the National Association of Realtors, gutters should be sloped about 1 vertical inch for every 15 to 20 horizontal feet for proper drainage. Replace any gutters that are past their effective lives.

2. Adjust Doors and Windows

If you think that large sliding barn door is difficult to open and close now, just wait until ice, wind, and swelling and shrinking wood come into play. This is an excellent time to replace tracks and wheels on sliding doors that are showing their age. On regular doors, adjust door jambs and seal cracks with caulk.

For windows, replace cracked panes, caulk around seams to reduce drafts, and lubricate any sticking points.

3. Tighten Fences

Horses will start testing fences more often after the forage dwindles and boredom sets in during turnout. There’s no doubt you’ve kept up with fence repairs throughout the summer, but now you need to check on those areas that you’ve noticed weakening and reinforce them.

4. Tune Up Your Tractor

Your tractor likely came with an owner’s manual, and now is a good time to reference that. (If you bought your tractor used and it didn’t come with an owner’s manual, check the manufacturer’s website or place a call to customer service to get one.) Everything you need to know about keeping your tractor running all year—especially through the winter—can be found in that book.

If you have equipment you only use in the summer, make sure to drain the oil and gas over the winter so you can start fresh in the spring.

5. Bring out the Blankets

If your boarders haven’t started bringing their blankets to the barn yet, ask them what their plans are for the winter. Having a heads-up on their plans will help you to organize a system for storage and use. Every horse should have a blanket plan clearly posted in a convenient place, such as on the stall door or, if the blankets are stored elsewhere, with the blankets. Horses with more than one blanket or sheet will require more storage organization than those with just one or no cover-ups. Investigate purchasing or making your own blanket racks, or request that your boarders bring their own plastic storage bins in which to keep their wares easily accessible for your staff.

6. Inspect Heating Systems

After six months without use, your heating system needs to be checked out. Change or clean any air filters, and take a look at the wiring. Whether your whole barn is heated or just the tack room and office, do a test run before the weather gets too cold. If you notice anything awry, call in an HVAC contractor to take a look. Between the electrical elements and the heating elements, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and quickly escalate to big problems, so this is not an area where you should skimp on maintenance.

7. Insulate and Ventilate

Closing up the barn tight tends to be the first inclination when the weather turns nasty, but a barn with no air circulation is prime ground for stale air, bacteria proliferation and sick horses (and people). Instead of sealing it up tight, insulate where you can to keep the air warm, and create a ventilation system to keep air moving.

Insulation is measured by R-value, or resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the more insulating the product. If your barn roof isn’t insulated, consider making it a project this year—hot air rises, after all. Walls, too, should be insulated, but in a barn with finished walls, this will be harder to retrofit than insulation on an exposed roof interior. One downside to insulating your roof is that less heat will escape onto the roof, so snow will not melt as readily, creating a heavier snow load.

For ventilation, you don’t want the barn to be drafty, but you do want air to move through—there’s a fine balance here. Fresh air—albeit cold air—should have a place to enter, ideally from under the eaves of the roof. Using natural circulation, stale air can leave the barn through a cupola or other vents in the peak of the roof. If your barn isn’t already set up for this type of air circulation, talk with your extension specialist or an architect about easy-to-implement options for your climate.

8. Drain Outdoor Water Sources

Because water expands when it freezes, fluctuating temperatures can wreak havoc on outdoor water receptacles. Frost-proof faucets are ideal for outdoor settings and can be used year-round, as long as you remember to disconnect hoses when you’re not using them. Other water faucets, such as those designed for garden hoses, should have their water supplies shut off from the source so they can’t freeze during the colder months. Sprinkler systems in indoor arenas, too, are vulnerable to freezing and breaking if your indoor isn’t well-insulated.

For water receptacles that have been prone to freezing in the past, whether located inside or outside, apply heating tape and insulation to the pipes for added protection against the elements.

9. Keep Pests Out

As the weather turns cold and the last of the crops are harvested, all of the critters that were taking shelter in the outdoors will be looking for a new place to call home. Make your barn as uninviting as possible to keep them out.

In enclosed feed rooms and feed bins, tightly seal all entry points: Seal even tiny cracks in doors and windows as needed to prevent vermin from entering.

Anywhere you work with feed, use care to clean up after yourself. As the weather gets colder, we have a tendency to want to head into the house faster, sometimes overlooking little details like sweeping the aisle thoroughly. Practice good sanitation, and mice, rats and larger pests will have less to nosh on.

Barn cats and farm dogs are always excellent deterrents; pay attention to any special care they require during winter. Investigate some of the new, non-chemical vermin repellents that are available, too.

10. Improve Hay-feeding Plans

Lugging hay bales, raking up uneaten hay, and keeping hay strings out of horses’ mouths are time-consuming. Take a fresh look at your hay-feeding strategy this year. Is there somewhere more convenient to store your hay? Would hay feeders in the paddocks reduce waste from hay being dragged across the ground by horses? Get your employees’ input on your hay routine, because it’s easy to overlook the simple solutions when you’re entrenched in the situation.

In addition to this list, think about all of the winter headaches you experienced last year. Are any of those not on this list? Make your own list and take care of those things now, too. Better yet, this year, keep a list of things that go wrong so you can fix them for the following year.

Frozen buckets and heavy blankets make for a long winter, but keeping up with these maintenance chores now will lighten the load and, with any luck, help the season move along a little more smoothly.