Editor’s note: The writer lives in Alaska.
Choosing the right livestock for your homestead is an important decision. You may know what kinds of animals you want — ducks, chickens, pigs, cattle, etc. — but how do you choose the right breed?
Too often when choosing a specific breed of livestock, the winter hardiness of the animal gets overlooked. When winter rolls around with her cold breath, you want to ensure you have livestock that will require little supplemental heat. Heat is energy, and when you’re already trying to keep your family warm, you don’t want to waste precious energy trying to keep your livestock warm unless it is absolutely necessary.
In this article, I will go over some of the common types of livestock people choose for their homestead and then explore some of the most winter-hardy breeds. For poultry, I will focus on breeds that are typically used for laying, assuming that any poultry kept through the winter will be primarily used as a source of eggs.
Choosing livestock that is appropriate for your geographical area is incredibly important and can save you a lot of time and energy while making your winter preparations.
It is hard to find more winter-hardy poultry than ducks. Domestic chickens evolved from tropical regions and by their very nature deal much better with drier and warmer conditions. Ducks and geese, on the other hand, can handle much colder and wetter climates with ease. Another benefit of ducks is that they require a lot less added light to keep them laying. In some areas of the country, you may not have to add supplemental light at all.
Swedish Blue ducks are a winter-hardy bird that are known for both their meat and laying qualities. You can expect about 120-180 eggs a year from them, with males weighing about 8 pounds and females around 7 pounds. They do mature slower than some other breeds of ducks, however. Originating in Germany, they are very winter-hardy and have a calm temperament.
If you are looking for a duck for just egg production, I recommend the Khaki Campbell duck. The Khaki Campbells we have on our Alaskan farm keep laying straight through the winter, and we are still getting good yields from ducks that are over a year and a half old. You can expect 250-325 eggs a year from the Khaki Campbells and, while they are a smaller duck, they are extremely cold hardy. Males top out at about 4.5 pounds and females around 4 pounds. They are very noisy, however, and can be flighty birds.
Another duck you may consider is the Cayuga. They are very cold-hardy, and lay approximately 120-180 eggs a year. Males weigh about 7 pounds and females 6 pounds when mature. Although very loud, they are calm and only go broody occasionally.
Chickens are a homestead staple. To have them lay throughout the winter, keep in mind that they will need added light during the darker winter months. Chickens lay best when they have at least 15 to 16 hours of light provided. When the amount of daylight dips below that, either keep a light on in their chicken coop, or set it on a timer to add the extra light needed when the sun goes down. Although you will need added light for chickens, if you choose winter-hardy breeds you may be able to avoid having to add extra heat.
If you live in an extremely cold climate where frostbite can be an issue, you’ll want to choose a laying hen that has a small comb. The Chantecler chicken is an excellent example of a winter ready chicken. Originally bred in Quebec, these chickens are made to handle the extremely cold winters of the Canadian prairie. They have small combs and wattles, making them resistant to frostbite and will lay throughout the cold winter months. They do have trouble in extremely hot weather, however, so if you live in an area with hot summers, these may not be the right chickens for you.
Another breed that we have been very happy with on our farm here in Alaska is the Black Australorp. The hens do have larger combs that could be susceptible if your winters are especially harsh, but they do extremely well in areas that have winter temperatures in the 10-35 degree Fahrenheit range. They are also prolific layers, laying 280 eggs a year or more.
Although many homesteaders purchase piglets in the spring, raise them through the summer and then butcher them in the fall when the weather turns colder, there are several reasons you may want to keep pigs through the winter. Maybe you are starting to breed your own piglets for butcher or want to do two rounds of butchering a year instead of just one.
When choosing a breed of pig to carry through the winter months, I’ve found it most beneficial to look to the heritage breeds. Heritage breeds of pigs typically do better on pasture and are hardier for the outdoors. Breeds that are used in confinement operations, like Yorkshire crosses, will invariably be bred to live in conditions that have them inside year-round with an extremely controlled environment. Heritage breeds retain a lot of the characteristics that make them suitable to living outside, and if you choose breeds that originated in climates with colder winters, they should do just fine with minimal shelter provided from you.
After doing a fair bit of research, we finally settled on the Tamworth Hog for our Alaskan farm. One of the oldest heritage breeds found in the U.S., the Tamworth originated out of Ireland, where it was known for its ability to forage and grow on pasture. They have quite a bit more hair than some of your other breeds of pigs and do perfectly well in our winter climate. We know of one breeding operation in Michigan that lets their Tamworth sows give birth in the middle of winter with just a small shelter and straw, no added heat or attention. In addition to being hardy, the Tamworths are also extremely intelligent and very personable. We couldn’t be happier with them.
Although it is always tempting to get whatever livestock may be readily available to you at your local feed store, it is always worth the effort to carefully research and select breeds with climate in mind. The result will be happier animals and a more efficient homestead.
What are your favorite winter-hardy breeds? Share your tips in the section below: