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Winter on the farm

Friday, February 15, 2013 - Updated: 5:10 PM

I watched the wood canvas, which had been, or so we thought, securely anchored over the firewood, go sailing gently off into the horse pasture on yet another cold, cloudy, windy day, and thought, yep, it's a lazy time of year.


Popular ag blogger Ryan Goodman posed the question to fellow farm folk. "What do you do in the winter?" Seems there had been some chafing in comments on CNN farm articles suggesting that farmers take the winter off. Ryan solicited input from farm bloggers about how they spend their winters. Not surprisingly, he received quite an extensive list of jobs that must be done no matter the season.

Of course there are no crops to plant or harvest when the snow flies, but animals need much more care in winter than in summer. All their food must be brought to them, and the results carried away. They must have a constant supply of clean, fresh water, which can be a huge challenge when the temperature drops. They are more prone to illness when the sun has moseyed on south and every event in their lives, whether calving, drying off, or anything similar, seems harder on them. They like routine. Sudden wild swings in temperature and humidity don't do them any good either.

We experience this phenomenon in all its glory here at Northview. Our gently sloping driveways need frequent attention in terms of snow removal and additional sand.

Things break when it's cold.

Nothing works out quite like we planned it, either. The other day we were finally able to turn the cows out after far too long indoors due to ice. For the small dairyman, outdoor cows are much easier than indoor cows. They can walk around and get their own food and eat it without interference.

In our case we are feeding good-sized round bales of hay. Even with willing young folks to help, it is a pretty big chore to roll them inside, hoist them up onto the concrete manger, and then roll them out for the girls. Especially since they like to help, by butting workers and grabbing at hay. Let's just say no one looks forward to feeding time ... and we love days when they can go out.

It seemed as if the snow from Nemo would keep them from sliding around on the ice beneath, so we took a chance, put three bales in the feeders, and let them out. They immediately began running around, fighting, kicking up their heels, and skating along on their chins when they fell. The snow did not make the ice safer. It was just cold enough that it made it worse.

The boss hurried to bring buckets of sand with the skid steer and carefully threaded his way among the peripatetic cattle, making the way safer for them. No harm was done, but it was a frantic few moments.

Then came the flood. Inevitably, if you mix headstrong creatures that weigh half as much as a Prius with plumbing supplies and pipes, sooner or later something's gotta give.

It is rarely the cow. We came in one fine February morning, the very day after the ice-skating cow debacle in fact, to find water sluicing the gutters in one section of the barn nice and clean. Four cows were ankle deep in water.

In this case no cow had broken anything or stood on the paddle or played in her water to create the mess. Nope. This time a valve had malfunctioned, after the boss had spent most of the previous day, when not sanding the barnyard and rolling round bales around, repairing that exact same bowl.

It would have been a nice day to linger in the house with the TV tuned to one of his favorite Clint Eastwood movies (you know, those awful spaghetti westerns with the really annoying music) with his feet up and a bowl of popcorn near at hand.

Alas, it is winter. No time for lazy.

There are compensations, however.

With our boy in Washington, D.C., working in a really big hole right in sight of the Washington Monument, it's just us and the girls. We stave off the doldrums of despair while milking each day with wondrous fantasies of what we would do if we won the lottery. We dream of (and discuss fervently) Caribbean isles with golden sand beaches, silver combers washing ashore, and dinners of piscine perfection served on the porch of some quaint little restaurant. We plan in our minds the exact most perfect menu, the shells we'll discover, sun on our heads, and warm water on our toes. None of us has ever been there, mind you, but it passes the hours in the cold and dark. While we are speculating, trying to top one another with outrageous plans for glory, we forget that it is February in upstate New York, cold as a witch's elbow and about as forgiving.

If you are a dairy farmer you might note that a referendum on the Federal Milk Marketing Orders is in the offing. One source suggests that farmers belonging to cooperatives that bloc vote on such issues might want to contact cooperative leaders to make their feelings known.

Changing the orders has already had a significant impact on farm bottom lines.

According to a Hoard's Dairyman article on the issue, when the Western Federal Order was eliminated, Idaho pay prices declined below the national average by as much as $2.50 per hundredweight of milk. "Although there were many reasons why the western order was terminated in early 2004, its elimination resulted in the loss of minimum pay prices for milk used in different dairy products. It has left former Western order producers to directly negotiate prices with processors, and in times of low dairy product prices and ample milk supplies, it has resulted in lower producer milk prices than in areas where producers participate in a federal order."

This is probably not the time to let someone vote your interests without discussion.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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