Become a Winter Minimalist

We are currently kicking off the month of February. We have been battling cold days and muddy thaws in western PA. I’ve accepted winter's occupancy; it is here in all its glory. Though it may feel bland, and bleak, and miserable at times I always say, “Winter is not a wasted season.”

Embracing seasonality is a secret beauty to life. Many cultures around the world know this, however the industrialized western world is an unwilling student. I’m not just speaking of seasons of the year but seasons of life itself. Every new and different phase offers new experiences, new lessons to learn, and different ways to... live! Winter is no exception. Whether you’re a snowbird going south or you’re a farmer who has made your peace with snow, ice, and mud winter is not a wasted season.

Here are 4 WAYS that I personally try to minimize my winter workload and maximize what the season has to offer.

1) Four-Legged Employees

I won’t get into the specifics on how to bale graze here, you can review previous blogs and YouTube videos for that. I will just simply state that bale grazing takes care of the main chore of feeding livestock during the winter in a much less stressful manner than continuing a day-to-day feeding operation.

Before winter hits, I have most of my bales placed strategically where the manure and debris will benefit the soil come thaw. I place them as specifically as I can. Most bales will be unrolled for coverage and surface area accommodations, but some bales will not be unrolled once drifting winds make that chore less feasible by hand and less accessible by machine. Not to worry! My cattle have the legs to transport themselves to bales, and they also have the ability and appetite to rip into these whole bales on their own.

Be a minimalist. Partner with the natural ability of livestock, let them work for you.

I let my livestock share in the labor. After all, they are my first and only employees. My job is to manage. I set the bales, grant access to said bales when ready, and keep up with their water needs. My winters became exponentially less stressful when I quit depending on starting a tractor every other day in below freezing temperatures. Now I keep up with the machinery for its own good, but it is not a necessary task in order to provide life-sustaining nutrition for the animals.

Bale grazing leaves a lot of impact in its wake. Again, this is not a waste. One of the most potent ways you can boost soil health is by importing matter and laying it out on pasture, such as bale grazing or “hay bombing.” The combination of hay litter, manure, and urine will provide cover, fertilization, and organic matter that will boost your land when microbes “wake up” in Spring. Not to mention, these materials are already where you want them – on the pasture. No need to clean shed and spread manure that has leached its potency while sitting in storage. Again, this minimizes machinery dependence. Doing so makes for fewer bad days and allows more capital to be invested in assets that actually appreciate in value – four-legged, self-operated, forage-harvesting, ecosystem-building livestock.

Fire the tractor and hire animals that fit your context. Animals have winter and survival instincts, your tractor does not.

2) The Fireplace Mentality

I am not a speed reader. I am not an impressive consumer of books by any means. Nonetheless, every winter I set goals to whittle away at my book shelf. Some books have patiently been waiting for longer than I will admit to you here. I personally like to read informative, non-fiction books and periodicals (Stockman Grass Farmer is a great resource - on grazing, soil, and nutrition topics. I try to find books that cover information or obstacles that I experienced the previous season or expect to encounter the following. A lingering question or shortcoming is only a failure if it is left unanswered or unlearned from. You’ll be amazed how many miles one book can take you forward. I know farmers are not usually desk jockeys or readers by default, but by becoming a winter minimalist, reading now has room in the busy schedule.

It is not a sin to seek shelter from cold weather and read by the fire! Minimize your tasks and embrace this seasonal opportunity of pace.

Books are not the only learning opportunity once snow flies, it is also a prime time for conferences and seminars. The only hope of getting multiple farmers together in the same room at the same time is to freeze them out and steal their daylight. What farmer or grazier would be available to attend a seminar in April or May? Slim chance! Better be offering top notch free food. Because of the slower pace, winter is a time when farmers can seek fellowship and attend group-oriented presentations. It’s worth the time to go listen and brush shoulders with fellow farmers.

This is actually how I fell in love with grazing. I attended the Western PA winter Grazing Conference in Clarion, PA. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know of anyone else attending (although I did see three familiar faces once I got there). I didn’t even recognize any of the speakers, one of which was Greg Judy! Shows how green I was at that time. Greg changed my life that day as he described grazing with livestock in such a profound way that resonated with my personal desire to shrug off an industrialized agriculture system and embrace natural management. I never would have had that life-changing experience if I hadn’t cleared my plate and gone. Winter doesn’t bring the farm to a complete halt, but there are ways we can make time for learning opportunities.

Become a winter minimalist so your back can take a break and your brain can dream again.

3) Desk Work or Regret Work

Similar to learning, planning is a discipline often treated like a luxury. That unpredictable nature of farming can often feel like an abstract, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants jazz performance. It happens. But a scat jazz song that never ends will start to wear on all listeners, no matter how great their love for the genre – catch my drift?

Planning establishes framework and decision-making protocols that make those unpredicted events less of a disturbance and, in a sense, more predictable.

By minimizing all the typical winter tasks my hands would otherwise do, I can put them to pen and paper... or tablet screen or keyboard, etc. I use the downtime I created by being a winter minimalist to plan for the year ahead. How convenient that the cold weather comes at the birth of a new year, the same time that direction and planning are most needed!

Goals, timelines, placing orders, completing a grazing chart, crunching numbers from the previous year, networking, business details, budgeting, tax prep – the list goes on. It’s much easier to take the time for these items during a freeze rather than when the sun is shining.

Desk work will always lose to daylight and good weather! It’s that simple.

If year after year you find yourself behind on office work, evaluate how you spent your winter months. Were you begging tractors to start? Were you outside non-stop tending to livestock chores? Was your plate more or less full than in the warm season? Yes, desk work is a life-long marriage and cannot be completed in one sitting, but if we did our jobs to minimize winter duties, our preemptive plans will carry us further through the coming months with fewer pit stops in the desk chair. Busy season is not the time any of us want to be stuck in the office.

If your current winter is not going smoothly, now is the time to document difficulties and snags and make plans to adjust course, especially for next winter. You are living it in the current moment. It will never be fresher on your mind than it is right now. Take notes, document it, start planning to make it easier today. If you replan fast enough you can make it easier for this winter as well!

4) Use Four-Letter Words

We all know what words I’m referring to. The ones that make farmers cringe. The ones that merit confession at the stockyard or farmers' market. We all silently signed an oath when we became farmers to never partake in the unpardonable cardinal sins. I vow to never REST. My pedal shall always be to the metal, I will never SLOW down. I denounce any and all rights to take it EASY. As for me and my house, we will never vacation or take time AWAY from the farm. And I promise to never STOP no matter what. I wouldn’t even dare mention the word NAPS.

Sound familiar? Did I strike a nerve? We need AA meetings (Agriculturalists Anonymous) to talk about our addiction to work.

These idealistic attributes could be case studies on any given farm in any given state. Though we admire these qualities, and a few farmers keep the commandments flawlessly, most farmers have followed the tenets to ruin, bankruptcy, burnout, divorce, and no generation to hand the legacy to. Is it worth it? Not even close!

Now I’m going to talk dirty to you. Give in to a four-letter word, just try one of them to start. They are not bad words nor evil in nature. It is not unacceptable to rest or slow down, it is actually quite necessary. If we fail to take advantage of the seasonal opportunity to live life at a slower pace, then we are that much more likely to run out of fuel when we’re neck deep in planting, growing, or harvesting season.

If you need to hear someone say it, I’ll say it. It is okay for you to relax! It is not wrong for you to let off the throttle and slow down. You are no less of a man, woman, or farmer if you take a break. You can still wear the badge with pride even if you take a vacation from the farm. You are allowed to get some sleep. And you have the responsibility to create a lifestyle that your family is happy to share and live alongside you. Use a four-letter word every day, it’s good for the soul.

Becoming a minimalist will open several doors to a winter wonderland you’ve never experienced. By minimizing day-to-day tasks, you can maximize the impact of the season and stay warm! Don’t waste your winter. Let the livestock work with you and for you. Read in front of the fireplace. Further your education and your network. Meet other farmers. Use four-letter words to keep your sanity. Being stuck inside can easily turn into being further ahead. Be a winter minimalist, embrace the season!