Oh, so cold out on the farm!

John Oncken
Every farmer wore a cap with ear flaps.

On a recent morning while lying in bed just before getting up I thought I heard my dad stoking the fire in the kitchen stove and getting ready to leave for the barn to begin morning milking. And, that I’d better get up, get going and join him. 

Now, I haven’t had to milk a cow in decades but that half dream, half memory comes to mind on rare occasions every few years and my mind replays those cold, sub-zero days of my youth.

First move was to hit the cold wood floor with bare feet. The second floor of our old farm house was always cold because the heat came from the stove pipe from the distillate fueled stove located on the floor below.

Lots of clothes

After pulling on denim jeans over another pair of pants and my long underwear and adding a couple sweaters and a shirt, I would head for the barn. (After donning my work shoes and three buckle overshoes, of course.)

Three or four buckle overshoes were a must for warmth and dry feet.

Warm barn

In those days, long ago, stanchion barns were built for warmth so us milkers (me, brother Don and our dad) soon shed a layer or two of clothing to keep the sweat level low before the short walk back to the house for breakfast.

After eating, it was back to adding clothing layers for doing the outside chores: feeding and bedding the chickens in the two chicken houses and the hogs in their house behind the barn. Chances are their water pipe was frozen solid so it meant carrying water from the barn.

MORE: Chris Hardie - The day Wisconsin froze to 60 below zero

It also meant climbing the silo chute and throwing down enough silage for night and morning cattle feed. Note: An extended cold spell would cause the silage to freeze to the wall sometimes nearly a foot thick. Years later I heard of deaths as the silage fell from the wall and smothered people who were working inside. I guess I was too young to have heard about such a possibility as I hacked away with a pick ax to loosen the silage from the wall.

Daily chores also included carrying firewood from the outside pile into the porch wood box and a five gallon can of fuel from the 5 gallon drums outside for the inside stove.

Every day manure spreading was common in years past and still is today. It's still a cold winter job.

Extra work

When the routine chores were finished, that included moving the cow manure from the gutters to the outside pile via the manure carrier. Most of the manure during winter months ended up on a big pile in the barnyard to be spread on the fields come spring. it seems that dad always found extra jobs that needed doing: cleaning the chicken house or bull pen for instance.. 

Stripping tobacco

In our case, we had to devote December and January to stripping tobacco in the always hot and steamy strip house (to keep the tobacco leaves soft and pliable so they would not shatter). When the pile in the strip house was all done, we had to hitch up the stone boat and haul another pile or piles back for stripping. (The transition from maybe 80 degree temperature in the striphouse to chilly 10 degrees in the tobacco shed was always a shocker.)

The traditional stanchion barns were built air tight for warmth, the modern free stall is airy and open for cow comfort.

Didn’t have it

Farm winters when I was a youngster probably were not any colder than they are now but we didn’t have the warmer clothing available today. I remember the heavy sheepskin coat we had for so many years – it was too heavy for everyday use but was used for such things as riding a manure spreader behind horses. That sheepskin coat did indeed keep me warm.

The warm barns of the past are pretty much gone today as science long ago proved that cows prefer cool temperatures – about 50 degrees. The traditional barns of the past were warm – made for human comfort – and have pretty much been remodeled today with big fans and cross ventilation for air movement and cow comfort. The freestalls of today have thermostat controlled sidewall curtains to keep things cool and cows happy.

The quarter mile driveway was a special challenge during cold snowy days. John Oncken says the farmhouse was not insulated when they purchased it.

A farmer today will face cold weather but the modern insulated clothing will temper the temperature changes as they go in and out of buildings. Heated tractor cabs allow year round use and heated milking parlors make for comfortable milking.  

Not so good

When I hear people refer to the “good old days” I’m not sure what they are talking about but chances are they didn’t experience those times themselves. The good part about farming in my growing up days is that we used what was available and did what was acceptable and recommended. Winter was always cold and we lived with it, not knowing any better.

One thing I’ll never forget was the outdoor privvy (or WPA) which was in year round use. I still remember those zero days...The structure remains on the farm yet today as a monument to the past.

If you don’t know what this building was, you are fortunate.

Those days are gone but not forgotten.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-572-0747 or