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Life on the farm during a Polar Vortex!

February 3, 2019

These cows and calves are obviously amazing.  They take food in the form of grass, or hay in this case, ferment it in their rumen, producing enough heat to  stay not only warm, but comfortable even in last week's deadly cold.

The calves are approximately 4 months old and are still nursing the cow, so they do get a few more calories than their mothers.  They also lay directly next to their mother with as much body contact as is possible at night.  

Cattle hide is approximately 60 times thicker than human skin and if you pried their fur apart, you couldn't even see their hide.  It is really dense.  This is obviously a lot of added warmth, making sleeping on snowy ground really comfortable for them.  Add to that the 1-2 inches of backfat as insulation and increased circulation due to pregnancy and its no wonder that cattle thrive in the winter.

There are obvious precautions for the cold that we, as farmers and the stewards of these cattle, have to take irregardless of how well suited our animals are to the cold.  My goal here is to simply take you on a walk through a day in our lives in a Polar Vortex.

Like any good farmer, we get out of bed, and immediately look at the predicted weather of the day.  This actually happens everyday.  We just like to make an educated guess as to how much we can realistically get done that day.  

Of course for 3 days last week, we were a little flabbergasted at how cold Iowa could get.  Wednesday was obviously to be so much worse than any other day so far this year.  

After the discouragement of the weather forecast, either Cory or I put on as many chore clothes as needed to get through the chores.  Last Wednesday's attire consisted of snowmobile suits, ski goggles, wool socks with an extra pair to change into at noon, and artic rated boots.  

We applied Vaseline to exposed skin and headed out.  The first item on the "to do" list is to check for open water.  In the photo accompanying this post, you'll see a row of trees behind the cattle.  There is a fast moving creek in those trees.  

We do not like cattle to be in the creek in the summer, but in the winter, they don't get in and cause damage.  It's too cold for that.  They simply walk to the edge and drink the cold, crisp, clean water of winter.  So we make sure that the drinking hole is open and break a hole in it for them with a sledge hammer if not.  

Then we go to the farms that have "automatic" heated waterers that were not so "automatic" last week.  Typically before we spend the next half an hour with the heat gun warming pipes, we start up the tractor to feed hay.  

Sometimes it takes longer than half an hour to get the tractor warm enough to move, and one day the batteries were so cold that it didn't start, so needed a jump.  We do this on 3 nearby farms.  

Before attempting to lift a hay bale that weighs 1800 pounds, we drive the tractors down the road a bit to warm the hydraulic fluid, which has the consistency of molasses when its cold and cannot move through the pump enough to lift a bale when its so thick.  

Eventually, we make it out to the pasture with the cow's food.  They stand out in the open and are seemingly disgruntled that it took so long to bring them food.  

Mind you, they are never without food, they are just like Pavlov's dogs and are conditioned to the tractor starting and associating that with food.  This whole process starts at about 6:30 AM and ended at around 3:30 PM last week.

This may sound terrible to some readers.  But I do want to explain that its really not a hardship for us.  God's beauty is revealed so wonderfully on the cold, clear days of winter and the innate intelligence and gifts of each species are revealed.  

We are tired at the end of the day, but its totally worth every calorie and minute spent tending to these cattle.  I will, however, concede that chickens and pigs are not conducive to creature comfort in the winter, which is why we don't even try to raise them right now.  The laying hens stayed in their coop all week and sat under a heat lamp....rough life, I know:)

I do want to explain the picture accompanying this post.  The cattle are in a valley with hills on every side of them.  Behind them, you'll see hills that are to the north and there are taller hills south, east and west.  This is our most vulnerable group of cows.  

They are both pregnant and nursing calves.  It is absolutely imperative that they have shelter from the wind, which they obviously do.  I shot this photo as I was amazed at how relaxed everyone was, including the calves.  The windchill was around -45 degrees F.  They are full of food, in the sun and out of the wind.  This is true for all of our herds, as we typically bed and feed them in a crevice between hills.  

I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna about the cold.  We did not lose any animals due to exposure to the cold.  We did lose a calf, however, during birth on Tuesday while the windchill was -30 degrees F.  

We bought a herd from someone else who thought that no calves should be birthed until March, which is not the case.  We've had one live calf in December and then this one died.  It was breech, and the survival rate for breech calves is rather low.  

The umbilical cord breaks before their head is out of the birth canal, and they drown.  There is a greater survival rate with assistance as we can get them out of the cow faster than she can push.  Unfortunately, she started on her own while we were on our way to that farm.  

We did assist the cow during birth, which was a bit chilly.  The cow is doing fine and back to herself.  But after that ordeal, it is certainly affirmed that we are doing the right thing by calving in April and May.

While its good to know that we can still thrive in frigid weather, its really ok to say "Good-bye Polar Vortex 2019".  Now on to a more normal, warm,muddy weather pattern for spring.  (Ok, now I am being a Pollyanna:)

Jamie Reichart

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