Frozen: The Farm Edition

Last week’s ice storm enveloped every nook and cranny of everything outdoors on Elmwood Stock Farm, encasing us in a coating of ice. In terms of weather afflictions on the farm, wind doesn’t bother some things; rains bother some things but help others. Ice storms bother everything. 

We have persevered through previous ice events, indeed, and made adjustments in operations knowing more icing will occur. Before I share stories about farming while ensconced in ice, know the animals and most of the infrastructure here on the farm are fine.

Sunday & Monday

We started taking seriously the forecast of last Tuesday’s storm on Sunday morning, informing our longer-range plans for the week’s CSA Farm Share harvest and delivery options. By Monday morning, the rising probability of bad weather nudged us into the mode of getting as many of the week’s CSA shares and online orders delivered before it hits. 

The pasture ground was not yet frozen, so I moved the chicken and turkey houses and paddocks closer to the water sources while I could still push the metal ends of the electric-net-fence posts into the ground. With an ice storm on the way, we don’t want to have to carry water farther than necessary. 

I brought the sheep to the pasture close to the house, and not far from the barn where the hay is kept. The sheep barn slopes a little from north to south, and a couple of times a year, I have to dig out dirt and debris that gets carried under the sliding doors after heavy rains. The problem was, on the north side, the ground had been frozen for a couple of weeks, which heaves the soil, making it almost impossible to slide open the doors. On Monday, the ground thawed just enough so I could use an iron digger and mattox to chip away little chunks of half-frozen dirt and rocks, opening a trench for the door to clear. 

John and I fueled and plugged in the trucks. There was no need to put emergency provisions in them since there are usually two or three jackets, mis-matched gloves and half-empty twenty-first-century canteens in there already. 

We had hoped we were ready.

Tuesday Night

As the precipitation started, it was a combo of freezing rain and sleet, then turned to all rain—like a running-off-the-roofs, I-need-a-raincoat rain, even running down the farm roads, since it had nowhere to go on frozen ground. Only then did we get the picturesque 1/4 inch of freezing rain coating every natural and manmade item. Fortunately, we did get a thin coating of sleet as the storm moved out, providing a little semblance of footing. Tufts of grass became a lifeline for safe passage when walking, and they crunched under foot as the ice on each and every tiny leaf shattered into shards.

The parking area and farm entrance became one solid sheet of ice, well over 1 inch thick, maybe 2 in places. Areas around the barn entrance, feed bins, trucks and yard hydrants soon slicked off. Mr. Zambonie himself could have done no better. 

With more snow on the horizon, we had to have paths without ice underneath to safely navigate our daily chores. Out came the iron tools. Not knowing how long it would take, or how effective it would be, to hack away each section, I started with the driveway crossing, which has become a luge run. To my surprise, I discovered the air was just warm enough to make the ice doty, and with just a couple of whacks of the iron digger, plate-sized chunks of inch-thick ice broke free. 

The realization that the ground was not actually frozen was confusing, but I had time to think about it while working. Only the top inch or so of soil—or rock, in this case—was frozen when the rain and ice came. The rain and ice, in turn, insulated the earth from further cold, like they do strawberries, allowing the heat from the earth’s crust to thaw that top inch. There was hope! 

On the north side of barns and tree lines, the ground was, and is, still frozen solid like rock itself. Chiseling was a futile effort. I instead turned to the sheep’s mineral salt and the chickens’ feed: A layer of chicken feed along the paths first, then a sprinkling of sheep salt to soften the ice enough for me to walk the gritty feed into the surface. It worked well enough that I could clear the gateways and the barn lot.

The days run together now that we’ve had back-to-back storms. Our first 2 inches of light, dusty snow surprisingly shored up footing tremendously, but not entirely. I still looked for grass sticking up on my path. That same afternoon came 2 inches of slush in a couple of hours. Suddenly, it was like walking on sand. At least it would make for a softer landing if I went down. By this writing, just before one more storm on the horizon, all this mess melded into a firm-footing crunchy mass, although I still worry about that layer of ice lurking under there somewhere. 

Everyday Animal Chores

A golf cart is our preferred method of conveyance for farm chores. Quiet, easy to load and hop in and out of, and it turns out, of no use whatsoever on ice. The past week, we’ve done animal chores using the wheelbarrow. This is not great with questionable footing. 

With two groups of laying hens on pasture, I take two bags of feed by wheelbarrow as far as the frost-free water hydrant each morning and afternoon. Hoisting the 35-pound feed sacks up on one shoulder and grass-tuft hopping across the pasture is padding my Fitbit numbers. 

Getting water to everyone is a separate trip. That’s another 35 pounds of water slinging around in a bucket for the chickens, plus the “ice-breaking kit”—a 24-ounce fencing claw hammer and a little old aluminum pot—to take care of the sheep and turkeys. The sheep and turkeys are in a field plumbed with water troughs that depend on geothermal warming to keep the above-ground feeder hose from freezing. The design only functions when animals drink the water, which it automatically refills with 55-degree water (the deep soil temperature around here). Sheep and turkeys don’t drink that much water in winter, so I mimic the action twice a day to keep the valves from freezing. More Fitbit numbers.

The chickens stay huddled around their house. They do not like snow, not one little bit. 

I put the ewes in the barn just before the first storm started in case it got really bad and they couldn’t get to the grass. John brought over a big roll of hay for me to feed the sheep small amounts at a time. The sheep were not impressed and wanted to go back out to graze. They never did lay down, thinking I would be putting them back out soon since there was no reason to be there. (We hardly ever bring them into the barn.) The second day, the flock leaders worked the south-end barn doors open to go graze the front lawn. They were pawing away the ice with no problem to reach the grass, so I put them back in the pasture where they came from. I do make hay available each day, and with the additional snow pack, they are now glad to have it. 

After a week of this, I have reverted to using a 1995 F-350 flatbed diesel dually truck to take out feed and hay. It seems like a big jump up from one man and a wheelbarrow, although the heater is nice. My Fitbit numbers went down because of it, and it bought me some time to do other stuff. 

On the other side of the farm, John is working just as hard to be sure the pigs and piglets and the various groups of cattle are all in good shape. Each pasture and area of the farm has its own challenges and advantages of animal keeping. None are all that ideal for this weather.

It looks like the snow and ice will be with us for a while longer. This is part of the calling of farming: do whatever it takes to care for animals that are totally dependent on us, that in turn care for us. I am thankful ice storms are few and far between.  —Mac Stone

 

After Mac finished this report, he went outside to find the insulated waterer in the turkey field had cracked and was spewing water everywhere atop the snowy field-of-ice pasture. So much for the geothermal warming system! He spent most of Wednesday digging in the snow to find the manhole cover that protects the master valve to turn off the water. 

That groundhog got it right this year. We are counting down ‘til spring.

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