This week the temperature started off with a high of 75 degrees on Monday. Once it started cooling off, it apparently forgot to stop. Friday morning the temperature was right around zero. We’re used to getting cold weather; we’ve had a couple of days with single digit lows already this year. It’s winter, so it’s okay.
The item of note isn’t the weather, but rather, the work the weather creates. I’ve heard it said that farmers don’t work in the winter. Clearly, those saying such a thing aren’t referring to dairy farmers since the cows still have to be milked twice a day every day, just like they do during the other seasons.
It’s true that in the spring, summer and fall there are additional activities like planting, putting up hay, and harvesting to fill the “free time” we aren’t spending milking or doing chores. In the winter, though, there are still other additional activities to fill our time, especially when the weather turns wet and/or cold like it did this week.
Keeping Everything Warm and Healthy
We use straw for bedding for our cows and calves, and when it’s wet or cold, we have to freshen that bedding every few days to keep everybody warm and dry. We also have to spend extra time feeding and watering. Young calves in particular need extra attention to ensure that the weather isn’t causing any illnesses like pneumonia. Keeping things consistent for our animals is important, but unfortunately the weather is out of our control and isn’t always consistent. We give the calves a little extra to eat during cold weather, and we don’t do anything drastic like weaning them (stop feeding them milk) right before a cold snap.
The calf groups that aren’t on pasture get hay year-round, and the cows get their forages in their TMR. However, we keep dry cows, bred heifers and a couple of heifer groups on pasture. During the warmer months (as long as it rains) they have grass to snack on. Once the frost kills that grass, we supplement that part of their diet by delivering hay to their pastures.
We also spend a notable amount of time watering everything in the winter. The milk herd and dry cows along with a couple of heifer groups have frost-free waters that make this process easy. In extreme cold we do need to make sure the floats don’t freeze, but we haven’t had trouble with that this year. The rest of the calves have water sources that can and do freeze. Our youngest groups have tubs filled with water and one group in a rented pasture has a small pond. All of these water sources need to have the ice broken on them at least once a day every day in cold weather.
Equipment doesn’t like the cold either. Our milking and feeding equipment can all struggle in the cold. During our first cold snap this winter, the heater in our milk barn wasn’t working. We used a smaller heater to help ease the chill, but we still had to use warm water to thaw out the units before every milking. We also have to use engine block heaters on tractors and our skid loader to make sure that they start.
Protecting Against the Elements
It seems like every daily task takes longer when the temperature drops. Getting dressed in the morning takes longer with all of the layers required to stay warm. Lugging around all of those layers also makes tasks slower and more tiresome. And when it’s really cold, the farmers need breaks to warm up inside or near the exhaust of the skid loader. The days are also shorter. We work both before and after dark, but some tasks can only be done, or are much more easily done, with daylight, and we have that much less time each day to complete those tasks.
So if you’ve ever wondered how we fill the time we don’t spend in the field during the winter, now you know. We’re working hard to keep our animals and ourselves warm and healthy.