Betsie interviewed Holly Spanger to find out because she was dying to know … what do farmers do when the wind chill is -45 and the cattle are still out in the pasture, needing care?
With a good chunk of the Midwest experiencing a cold snap unlike anything most of us have ever felt in our lifetime, I’m seeing reminders all over the place that in some lines of work, folks don’t get the day off because it’s chilly. Farming is certainly no exception! I chatted with Illinois farmer Holly Spangler yesterday to find out how her family is dealing with the severe weather.
I asked Holly what they did to get ready for the freezing temperatures:
“We were fortunate in that we knew this cold blast was coming, which means we could prepare. For the cows, we can put out large wagons filled with chopped feed (chopped grass, called ryelage) with several days’ worth of feed. We feed them a little more when it’s this cold so they have more energy, plus it minimizes the feeding we have to do on the cold days. That frees us up to deal with other problems, like frozen waterers or sick cows or whatever else may come up.”
Holly went on to tell me about the various tasks they performed to try to avoid potential problems that might occur with the frigid cold. Before the storm hit, her husband John double checked all of their automatic cattle waterers (their farm has five different wells with pumps that supply water), putting in light bulbs to keep them from freezing and checking that the electric heaters in each waterer were operating.
Prior to a big storm like this, the Spanglers try to make sure every animal has some kind of shelter from the cold – whether it’s the barn or a windbreak if the cattle are out on pasture. They also have to prep their equipment. According to Holly, diesel fuel will quickly gel up in freezing temperatures, so they make sure to park the equipment they’ll be needing– including something they can use to move snow out of the way – in their heated shop, or plug the machinery in to keep it warm enough that it will start in the morning.
Despite all the precautions farmers take, things don’t always go smoothly. When you’re outdoors dealing with the elements you’re bound to have a few curveballs thrown at you. Holly told me about a few curveballs her husband dealt with yesterday:
“When John went to check on one group of cows and their waterers, he discovered that the cover on the well pit – a 6×6 pit that’s about 8 feet deep and houses the water pump – had blown off in the crazy wind last night. Which meant the pump was frozen and in turn, the waterer (where the cattle actually drink) had frozen. He had to get an electric heater and put it in the well pit, then poured six gallons of hot water into the waterer and covered it with a couple blankets. In the course of doing all this, he’d parked the tractor they’d used to plow snow (in order to get to the cows) and feed, and left it running. At -13 degrees and with bitter cold wind, the tractor had begun to freeze up in a matter of minutes – even while it was idling.”
I know I personally didn’t even leave my house yesterday, so I can’t imagine what it was like to be working outside dealing with the unexpected in those temperatures! Unfortunately not leaving the house really isn’t an option for John or any other farmer, no matter how cold it gets. I asked Holly what would happen if they decided to take a day off from caring for their animals. She said that, like people, the cattle would survive if they went a day without food – they’d be unhappy about it, but they’d make it:
“The average human could go a day or so without eating; they’ll be cranky but they’ll make it. The average child or pregnant woman: they require more care, and going without food or water is a more critical situation. Livestock are similar. If we didn’t feed one day, they’d be mooing but they’d make it. Calves or cows about to calve would need more care. However, we just don’t ever take a day off, especially in weather like this. The cattle need monitoring and water and feed, and eating a little extra gives them more energy to deal with extreme cold temperatures.”
Holly’s family is thankful that their animals aren’t calving right now – in the dairy industry, calves are born year-round, so there are dairy farmers having to deal with newborn calves this week. Holly elaborated on the issue of calving in temperatures like what we’ve been experiencing:
“Having to get a new, wet baby calf warm and dry in these temps would be perilous. And really, really, work intensive. It’s not uncommon to bring a baby calf into the house or basement or garage to warm him up – we’ve done it before!“
This comment really made me think about farmers – and their families – and exactly how dedicated to their jobs they have to be. If I really don’t feel like going to work one day, it’s not the end of the world – I can call in. Farmers can’t, ever, no matter if it’s 80 degrees out or below zero. And sometimes their work literally comes home with them, in the form of a baby calf warming up in their basement. So today, as I write this from my toasty house looking out the window at the frozen landscape outside, I’m thinking of all the farmers out braving the elements today, thankful for their never-ending commitment to the land and the animals in their care.
And many thanks to Holly Spangler (and John!) for taking the time out of what I’m sure was not the most relaxing day of the year to answer my questions. 🙂