Snow Days on the Farm
Judging by recent posts on social media embellished by photos of pristine scenery and mouth-watering meals, we secretly enjoy snow days. Even if it’s much more fun to complain about how hard it is, we have cabin fever, and “it’s not the cold, it’s the wind chill!”
With today’s media hype of even a minor snow event, it’s kind of hard to ignore any approaching snowfall—I actually feel guilty if I don’t rush off to a store, any store. In a reversal of the norm, recent snow events in the Blue Ridge have had less measurable precipitation than metro Washington D.C., but the shopping is the same. Except it’s not just bread, milk and toilet paper that fly off the shelves. There’s usually a bigger crowd at the feed store as people rush to make sure their animals have enough to eat before they go to the grocery.
Mind you, it’s pretty rare to be really snowed in when you live on a farm. There’ll be at least one four-wheel drive truck nearby, and very likely a tractor, too. If even those fail, as they did in the big blizzard of 1996, horses make wonderful transportation. And because horses, as well as cattle and other farm animals, need to be watered and fed daily, farmers make paths on back roads with their tractors to get to their animals so these roads are often opened up long before the county gets around to plowing them.
Farm animals are decidedly more work in winter than house pets like cats and dogs, particularly in frigid temperatures and with snow on the ground. Cattle and horses are designed to eat constantly rather than two or three concentrated daily meals. Their wild cousins eat probably 20 hours a day, moving roughage through their systems via grazing. In winter, pasture grasses lose most of their nutritional value but even so, livestock fed hay with access to pasture will still spend much of a day grazing. Extra hay is needed when the ground is snow covered. Horses, in particular, generate heat to stay warm via their digestive systems, so they do better on lower protein hay available to them round the clock than from two or three feedings of protein-rich alfalfa. Many horsemen in the Blue Ridge simply set out the more economical large round bales, even though a good portion of the hay gets wasted from weather as well as being pulled out by horses to lie on it as well as use it as their toilet. Square bales are far less wasteful, but they’re costlier to produce and buy, plus there’s the added expense of bedding.
Water can be a big deal, for animal and human alike. Rural residents depend on well water, with the well system generally operating via electric pump that takes electricity. Well water is usually stored in a holding tank of some type and if the pipes freeze, there’s no water, so there are twice the chances of losing water to a storm. For the animals, well water fills the troughs and automatic waterers; springs and even running streams also freeze with prolonged periods of extreme cold. We utilize the trusty plug in stock tank de-icer, but even that has to be checked twice daily.
And some animals, notably Thoroughbred race horses, are bred to foal as early in the year as possible because the official birthday for all of them is January 1, regardless of the actual birth date. Some cows, and sheep raised for meat, also give birth to their calves and Easter lambs January through early March–the coldest part of winter. Most baby mammals need warm barns often with supplemental heat lamps, as often newborns cannot regulate their body temperatures as well as older babies and adults. And of course, if an ornery mare, cow or sheep decides to sneak off to have her baby alone on the coldest night of the year, it’s the human who has to go find the mother and baby and bring them inside.
Regardless of whether snow days include cow catching or sweeping off a townhouse deck, it’s obvious that we enjoy them. Whether we’re inside baking, reading or watching old movies, or outside sledding, throwing snowballs, thawing frozen pipes or tending to animals, there’s something for nearly everyone to like about a winter snow day. And remember, it won’t be long before we’re bemoaning, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” instead of bragging about whose neighborhood had the lowest windchill.
Written by: Julie Reardon