"Looking ahead, the 6-10-day outlook calls for below-normal temperatures from the Plains to the East Coast, except for warmer-than-normal weather in southern Florida," was Tuesday's weather report.
So — the unusually cold winter continues: Home fuel expenses mount; gasoline tanks in the car and truck empty faster; snow blowers and shovels get only short rests; farm equipment that can break, breaks; everyone talks about the weather and global warming seems either a joke or a lot of experts read the computer projections wrong.
Those of we who have been around farming for a few decades have pretty much been through it before and remember the heavy sheepskin coats and four buckle overshoes dad wore, the long underwear that was a part of getting dressed and the plaid wool caps with ear laps — all of which seem to have disappeared with the advent of polyester, layering of clothing and better housing for farm equipment, animals and humans.
I'm sure we all complained about the snow, wind and subzero weather of days gone — by but we didn't have 300 cable TV stations to show video of snow banks, cars in the ditch and wind chill (what is that really?) or Face book to give the world a moment by moment description of the frozen tundra.
There is one question that bothers city folks who ask it of me because they know I'm connected with agriculture in some way: "What about the cows?"
What about the cows?
"The cows are doing pretty much OK," was the answer the dairy farmer friends I visited with or talked with via phone concluded. "Cows get along well in cold temperatures if they are out of the wind and have plenty of food and water."
They all also added however, that the cold weather made life rather miserable and memorable for those people called dairy farmers who take care of the cows and calves and kept them healthy, full of feed and comfortable during the lengthy cold spell.
Gary Sutter milks 600 Holsteins at his Fertile - Ridge Dairy , a couple of miles south of Mount Horeb on State Highway 78 and it isn't called Fertile - Ridge for nothing. There is no tree line or other buildings to cut the force of winds from east, west, north or south and that's why I stopped. If his cows were surviving the weather, the cows in barns on the other 10,000 dairies in the state were also probably making it.
"The cows are fine," Sutter says. "The drainage line from the bathroom in the milking parlor break room is frozen, I rented a portable toilet, and the manure drain pipe from the freestall barn was also froze so we're pushing manure out with a scraper."
Sutter led me to the freestall barn (in his pickup) and we looked at the double lines of cows seemingly eagerly and contentedly eating their TMR. "They are eating a lot more, as we'd expect, during this cold weather and so far they have plenty of water," he says. "I expect we'll end up with a loss of production however."
Note - I had pulled into Fertile - Ridge Dairy just behind a couple of Lovelace Pump Co. trucks from Argyle and a few minutes ahead of Sutter. While we waited for Gary to arrive they said he was having some pump trouble — not a good thing on a minus 5 degree day.
Gary explained that his pump had been "cutting out," not a good sign. After but a few moments of looking, the pump experts found that indeed it was but a faulty switch, which they replaced, and all was well again.
While we were talking about the weather, Pat Artis, field representative from DFA came into the farm office after having conducted his quarterly inspection of the dairy. "I oversee about 120 farms," Artis says. " I've been doing this for a long time — 25 years for DFA and before that 17 years for AMPI — and am a trouble shooter helping the farmer produce high quality milk. Sutter and his dairy do a really outstanding job of doing that."
Artis said that every dairy he'd visited was having problems with the weather — freeze ups, things breaking, tractors not starting — but hadn't heard about anything real serious.
As I was leaving Fertile - Ridge Dairy, Gary had pulled down his stocking cap, put on his gloves, hitched up his livestock trailer and was on his way to move some heifers. In spite of the weather, farming life goes on.
Ryan Sonnenberg, a young dairyman who milks 101 cows at Sonnenberg Farms near Belleville, was milking (with two helpers), just before sunset a couple of days ago, when I stopped in to find how he was getting along.
"Things are going good," he said. "I haven't had any big problems other than a short caused by a block heater on the tractor and having to pile a couple of days manure in the barnyard."
He said that the windows had been sealed and cracks along the doors had been filled over the years and he, his helpers and the cows were comfortable in the barn.
A call to Dr. Barry Kleppe, of Waunakee Veterinary Service, about the weather and dairy cows brought forth the response: " Things (equipment) on a modern dairy farm are built to run on their own and when they don't due to the cold weather, it means work for the producer."
"The stored feed is cold, the water is cold, outside waterers are frozen, manure handling is slowed down, tractors don't start and things just slow down," Dr. Kleppe says. "And yes, there are some frozen ears and teats."
He also sees some loss of milk production even though farm animals will eat more feed during the cold weather.
I'd guess that folks who have never lived on a livestock farm will find it difficult to understand how hard farmers work to keep their animals (dairy or beef) comfortable and safe during periods of cold or heat. (Farmers will tell you that it's harder to keep a cow comfortable during zero degrees of cold than during 95 degrees of heat.)
Remember also that most dairy and beef animals are fed a ration that is planned and supervised by veterinarians and experts that formulate a nutritious ration according to the animal needs that will put what we as humans eat to shame.
Ron Studnicka raises registered Angus, Shorthorns and crossbred beef at Muscoda and was to begin calving season last week. To prepare for this crucial time, he bought a "Polydome Calf Warmer" (his neighbor has one) just in case.
At 5 a.m. Sunday he found a first calf heifer and her just-born calf who was wet, cold and stiff and had not been licked by her dam. Ron put the calf in the warmer, gave it some colostrum and three or four hours later put her back on her mother.
"Today that calf is perfect and you wouldn't know how bad she was before I put her in the warmer," he says. "It doesn't take many calves saved to pay for the warmer."
The long streak of cold, snowy and windy weather did make life difficult on the dairy and beef farms of Wisconsin, but farmers will do anything and everything to protect their animals.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.