Ryan Goodman has been involved in agriculture all of his life, working on ranches across the country, as well as studying cattle nutrition and reproduction at the college levels. He works daily with farmers and ranchers, helping their voices become part of the national dialogues on food and agriculture topics. You can reach him on Twitter @AgProudRyan, as well as his personal blog, AgricultureProud.com.
Winter storm Ion, polar vortex, or cold outbreak. No matter which term we use to describe this week’s weather across much of the country, it has been downright cold. Most of us are aware of precautions to prepare our homes and pets for the harsh conditions, but how are farmers and ranchers dealing with all of this weather?
Last year we talked about how there is no such thing as a snow day on the farm or ranch. Livestock must still be fed, equipment must still be maintained, and preparations for the next growing season continue. All of that work becomes much more difficult when the mercury drops well below zero degrees.
For dairy farmers, the cows must still be milked every day, no matter the weather. Minnesota Organic Dairy farmers Tim and Emily Zweber explained how important it is to provide a sheltered barn in -54 degree wind chills. Cows that do not stay in the warm sand beds may get frostbite on their teats. A very uncomfortable situation to say the least.
Patrick Mess in Wisconsin has been bringing the newborn calves into the shop for shelter and affixing doors on the hutches for older calves to protect them from the -20 degrees temperatures. This goes along with making sure the milking parlor stays warms and functional for every milking.
Even in eastern Kansas, the Heim dairy farm family experienced -30 degree wind chills. David and Jennifer were working hard to provide warm bedding in the barns for their cows and calves despite tractors not starting in the cold.
Most beef cattle ranchers will not bring their cattle indoors. However, if calving is near, a newborn may end up in the house overnight. Cattle are incredibly resilient and are able to stay warm through thick winter hair coats that act as insulation. As long as they are able to stay dry and find shelter from the wind, like a shed or trees, cattle will stay warm.
Cattle produce body heat from digestion of hay and forages in their rumen (large stomach compartment) and are able to stay warm in most conditions. One of the main challenges in this weather is keeping water sources thawed. As Kansas rancher Debbie Blythe shows, even the no-freeze water tanks ice over when it drops below zero.
For smaller animals like turkeys, chickens, and pigs, keeping warm can be more of a challenge. This is where it really pays off to have barns that retain heat well. Even when wind chills dropped to -26 on the Olson family farm in Minnesota, Carolyn’s pig barns never dropped below 73 degrees.
In Ohio, the Wildman family raises pigs and must make sure that generator power sources are ready for when power goes out on their rural farm. Extra feed supplies must be on hand when roads become impassible so farm from town. Even in Iowa, turkey farmers like the Olthoff family are working to keep their livestock barns warm and insulating feed and water sources to make sure nothing freezes up.
Despite all the preparation that may occur, not everything will go right on the farm and ranch when it gets this cold. Diesel tractors will not start, equipment will break, and a water line will freeze. The farmers and ranchers are in the fields and barns, working around the clock, waiting for things to warm back up.
Oh, and we did not even mention the bread and milk grocery run! Hopefully the farmers and ranchers remember to stop for a bite to eat and keep themselves warm as well.
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