Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Farming in a snow storm

Do you remember last winter? Perhaps words like "polar vortex" and "50 below wind chill" bring back memories. That was one year ago this week. We've been lucky so far this year and only had one snow storm...until now. Roads were icy Sunday night and lots of cars on the freeway ended up off the road or in a ditch. Roads are also bad this morning, and it's about to get REALLY cold tomorrow. News people tell us to stay inside, it's just too cold to be outside. This is true, but not everyone can stay inside.

Farmers can't shut down their farms just because it's cold. They also can't shut down their farms for a sick day or because they just don't feel like going to work. The animals depend on them, and every farmer I know doesn't mind battling the cold because they truly love what they do.

The high for the month of January during my sophomore year of college was 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, seven. Add a wind chill to that and it's much colder. After a few days, we got used to it and 20 seemed like beach weather. I would get up around 4 a.m. to head to the dairy to feed calves and do morning chores before class. The gravel road to the dairy was hilly and had a lot of twists and turns as it wound through the wheat fields. Add snow drifts to that and good luck staying on the road. Some people with small cars couldn't get out there when there was a lot of snow, so sometimes this meant I got a late night or early morning call asking, "Can you come to the dairy?" When you get that call, you never say no. You can't.

2375...she's my favorite

Chores and everything always take longer when it was cold, snowy and icy. There was a hill between the box stall area (where the new mamas lived for a few days)/milking parlor and the calf barn. No matter how you took those two huge buckets of milk down to the barn, it was so easy to fall. Spilling milk (or any liquid for that matter) all over you when it's already frigid just makes you colder, especially on mornings when I didn't have an extra change of clothes. Everything is a bit harder when you add a layer of ice and a few (or more) inches of snow.

The dairy in the summer...such a beautiful view!
Cows tend to eat more when it's colder and waterers freeze. Water pipes freeze too. This means farmers have to regularly check the waterers and break the ice when the cows can't get to it. This is another easy way to get your dry clothes very, very wet and be very, very cold.

It always seems like things tend to break at the worst possible time...like when it's 2 below with wind chills of -20. No matter how cold it gets or how bad the weather, nothing stops. If it does, it's usually not on purpose and it usually means something is broken. Not good.

Warm clothes are a necessity. My insulated overalls and Carhartt jacket keep me happy in the winter when I'm outside a lot. Insulated barn boots are important too. Once when I was feeding cows I accidentally stabbed the pitchfork through my boots. Luckily, it missed my toes, but I would have that lovely manure stain on all of my socks until I finally got rid of the boots. They were no longer water proof or manure proof. Last year, I found a pair that I absolutely love that have good traction. I would wear them everyday if I could. Warm gloves and wool socks are also necessary.

So, what do farmers do to keep their livestock happy and comfortable when temperatures drop?

Calf coats

  1. Barns protect livestock from the elements. I hear a lot of non-ag folks talk about "confinement" barns like they are torturing animals. Quite the opposite is true. If the animals were "running free" outside, they would likely catch frost bite. How humane is that? It's not. The humane thing to do is keep animals out of the elements, make sure they have access to fresh water that isn't frozen and give them more feed. Some barns are temperature controlled, which keeps the animals at a constant temperature regardless of the temperature outside. I've mostly seen this with poultry and hogs, but dairy barns are pretty comfortable too. As for the space inside the barn, there are industry benchmarks stating how much space per cow is needed and farmers know how many animals can fit into the barn before it is overcrowded. 
  2. Water freezes. The water livestock drink also freezes when it's cold enough. Cows need water. So, this means farmers need to break the ice when this happens. This is a cold, wet job, but extremely necessary.
  3. As I mentioned, cows tend to eat more when it's colder, so farmers feed them more. 
  4.  Just like you bundle up your kids before they go outside, a lot of dairy farmers put calf coats on their little ones to keep them warm. 
  5. Cows get extra bedding. Think of it as extra blankets.
There are a lot more things farmers do, but that should give you a general idea.

Fresh straw for the dry cows (pre-maternity leave)
Just as you may have trouble on the roads when it's snowy and icy, milk trucks and others that need to be on the roads do too. In Indiana, milk is only allowed to stay on the farm for 48 hours. It was extended during last year's blizzard, but not by much. This varies by a few hours depending on the state. The point is that milk is a perishable product--rain, snow or shine. It's stressful wondering if the milkman will be able to get to the farm today. 

Farming can be a stressful job, but it's also very rewarding. Hanging out in the barn with cows is relaxing. It's also great to know you are helping feed people and provide them with wholesome nutrition in the form of milk and dairy products.

Winter is anything but uneventful and boring on a farm, especially a dairy farm. 

Before the grocery stores get busy before the storm, you might want to stock up on milk and other dairy favorites. Stay safe and warm!

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