Saturday, March 21, 2015

Thoughts from the Farmer

Experiencing Extreme Cold at Elmwood Stock Farm

We are often asked what life is like at Elmwood Stock Farm when we have record setting lows? Caring for the livestock and green houses in such frigid conditions takes the right equipment and proper planning. But who could have ever thought it would be -24 degrees F, wow!

Proper planning comes from a collective family body of knowledge gained from previous experiences, which actually goes back a few generations. For example, how close to the ground you hang a gate is critical to its function. Too high, and a sheep or steer will try to go under, too low and you cannot open it without having to shovel snow to take them their hay each day. The location of the gate must take into account several factors. Slopes should be shallow if possible, and sideways slopes are more treacherous when stopping and parking the tractor, to open and close the gate, especially in snow and soon-to-be mud season. Over the years, this type of logic has gone into every aspect in the siting of buildings, roads, fence rows, equipment storage, access to water for irrigation and livestock, etc.

The roll bales of hay are moved from their fields, as they are made in summer, to a central location on the farm. The hay-yard needs to be where the cattle cannot get into it, but is easily accessible from a good road. As part of our forage based stock management system, the best scenario is for the livestock’s winter pasture to be kind-sorta near the hay-yard to make it a little easier for the daily feeding, especially if we encounter a foot of snow and sub-zero temps. But keeping in mind a multi-year crop rotation doesn’t always allow for such close access.

As far as the animals are concerned, when they are under the proper plane of nutrition for their class of animal, the frigid temperatures are not of great concern to them. Their maintenance level of dietary intake goes up, and we want them to thrive, not just maintain, so they get more hay accordingly. Truth be told, a 37 degree F rain takes the heat out of them much more than snow or temperatures below 32 degrees. Access to water is vitally important in such frigid conditions, albeit they drink less. It’s not just that a steer or heifer is eating 20-25 pounds of dry hay; there is still evaporative cooling through the hide happening in the cold wind. Access to water is another reason to have the livestock kind-sorta nearby so breaking ice from surface water on a tank or checking heaters from various water delivery systems is close to tools and equipment if it becomes necessary. Naturally flowing water is not when it goes to -28 degrees.

So, tools and equipment start at home. Carhart has the body armor in good shape, with boots and gloves that need to be carefully selected. Over the years we have evaluated the kind of gloves used by lobster fishermen in Maine, utility linemen in the upper Midwest, mountain climbers, and farmers from all over, and every person has their own system. In the opinion of at least one of us, the perfect gloves are yet to be invented. Anyway, keeping your fingers warm in order to handle doors, tractor levers, gate chains, tools, buckets and the like is crucial to not feeling rushed and doing the job well. Between the snow and watering the stock, it is important to keep fingers dry as well.

Equipment like trucks and tractors are barely designed to perform well in such extreme conditions. The diesel trucks and tractors have electric block heaters to keep the engine and associated fluids at a more reasonable temperature and an additive to the fuel helps keep it from jelling when sooo cold. The heater is no help to the remote hydraulic systems and brakes, so you have to go easy until those important systems have time to warm up during operation.

A high tunnel is an unheated stretched plastic greenhouse structure which means snow and ice can build up on top, since there is no internal heat to melt it like traditional heated greenhouses. The weight of the snow can stress the plastic and the frame must be strong enough not to buckle from the load. As the snow and ice goes through the thawing cycles, there is potential for ice chards to cut the plastic as it slides off. Sunshine can warm up inside during the day to help.

When the earth freezes deeply, the ice crystal formation can cause the ground to swell, making it hard to open barn doors. This problem gets back to good design, as the doors should be low enough to be kept from swaying in hard winds but not stuck in the ground in conditions like the current.

So what’s it like at Elmwood Stock Farm when we have years like this? We bundle up before going out and have an idea of what to expect when we get there. Everything takes longer to do. Proper planning is recognized quickly. The livestock are appreciative and content. It is truly rewarding to get back inside by the fire, knowing you shared an experience with Mother Nature not seen by many. And then we make notes of the adjustments that need to be made in the system; after all, it’s just chores.