December is the month when winter really begins to bite and take hold. Dark nights predominate and for smallholders the work of winter starts in earnest, as Heidi M. Sands describes.

Bedding down

Things can get a lot colder in December and much of the time for livestock keepers is spent bedding down livestock that are wintering inside. Straw is a favourite for bedding but shavings, sawdust and more unusual bedding materials including shredded paper may be utilised. It’s important to keep bedding materials clean and dry before use. Straw may be bought in or home produced and depending on the kind of harvest we’ve had straw may be readily available and affordable, or harder to source and a little more expensive than usual. Straw that is bought in off the field is usually cheaper than that which has been stored before delivery, so it pays to see what’s available locally if you can.

Paper, shavings and sawdust can be bought in pre-packed bales and is usually available from agricultural merchants. The livestock you keep and type of smallholding you undertake may influence your preferred type of bedding. Don’t forget about the mucking out either; if you put clean bedding in then you’ll obviously need to muck it out before it gets too dirty. Mucking out results in a dung heap and a well-made dung heap can be a real boon to the smallholder. Well-rotted farmyard manure will be perfect for growing grass, crops or vegetables in due course.


Talking about manure, cold, clear and frosty days can be a good time to spread last year’s well-rotted manure on to the land. Choose a day that is dry and one where the ground is not going to be damaged either by boots, wheelbarrows, quads, or tractors and muck-spreaders continually going over it. If you are lucky enough to be able to use mechanical means of muck-spreading then you’ll avoid a lot of the back-breaking hard work that goes with the more manual aspect of muck spreading by hand. Forking out muck onto anything but the smallest of areas requires muscle power, so pace yourself if you are taking this option; no-one wants a bad back at this time of the year.


Not all livestock are brought inside for the winter though, many of our native breeds of sheep and cattle will winter outside quite happily if well sheltered and fed. It falls to the smallholder to feed and supervise out-wintered livestock daily. If you only have a few animals under your care it may be possible to take feed out in small amounts on a daily basis, if more livestock are being fed then feeding large round bales of silage by way of a tractor is more usual. The area around feed rings can become muddy and wet as winter wears on, so it may be preferable to move these to clean areas from time to time.

Staying warm

Whilst much of winter is spent caring for livestock it pays to think about the needs of the smallholder too. Keeping yourself and your family warm is important at this time of the year. Cutting wood from seasoned stocks will keep you warm as you work and also provide fuel for fires and woodburners. It’s important to use seasoned or dry wood for the purpose; wet wood doesn’t burn well nor will it keep you warm.

Remember too to keep kindling dry and handy. Children can often be encouraged to collect dry sticks for tinder on autumn and winter walks and keeping a good supply of this in the woodshed means you’ll always have the start to a good fire.


As it gets colder outside be aware that mice and other vermin will move inside to find food and warmth. Keep an eye on animal feed; it doesn’t take long for vermin to spoil this expensive and important commodity. Use feed bins if possible and try to clean up any feed spills as soon as possible, no-one wants to encourage an explosion of rats and mice on the smallholding. Keeping a cat can often help with vermin control, and a couple of cats on the smallholding are often worth their weight in gold. If you don’t have a cat around the place consider using traps if you find you have a problem, there are several different types available. If you have a bigger problem with vermin than you can cope with by yourself consider calling in a rodent control expert; their knowledge and experience may be just what you need.

Tidy up

Although there isn’t much growing in the vegetable garden at this time of the year there’s still things that can be done there. Any cutting back, clearing up, burning and composting can be done on dry days. Avoid walking on any planting areas as it can compact the ground. Any diseased plants should be dug up and burned so as not to spread disease and risk damage to next year’s crops. If you have a glass house or polytunnel now is the time to clean and check individual panes of glass or polytunnel coverings for any damage. Winter storms may come at any time and repairing and evaluating potential problems before storms strike may well pay off.

Looking forward

Long winter nights present the perfect opportunity to review farm and smallholding records. Counting your gains and losses can be an eye-opener and help to direct next year’s decisions. While smallholding may be a way of life it also has to pay it’s way for most of us. Taking a good look at records, in-comings and outgoings is often well worth doing. If all has gone well in the last 12 months then there may be no call to alter anything, if not then now might be a good time to reconsider, re-evaluate and make changes. Forward planning and doing your research can pay dividends in the long term and is well worth doing.