I know. Winter on a farm is much worse in Minnesota, my home state, where temperatures can stay below zero for weeks on end. But by Kentucky standards, this has been a hard winter. And for me, that’s plenty hard. Sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds make taking care of farm beasts stressful–for the beasts, and (especially) for the farmer. I spend most of my time fretting about water, hay, wind, ice, and mud.
I’m against keeping cows in barns. I don’t have a totally sound basis for this stance, but I feel strongly about it, for some reason. My 13 cows are outside all winter. That wasn’t a problem last year, but last year was a milder winter, the ice storm notwithstanding.
The hay I’ve put out for my seven pregnant cows is of pretty poor quality. It comes from my neighbor, who loaned me a bull for breeding in August. It only took the bull a few weeks to finish his business, but he has been with us ever since, eating as much hay as three cows. My neighbor and I have a strange relationship.
Last week I weaned four calves off their mamas, and my timing couldn’t have been worse. The pen where I’ve put the calves is totally exposed to the wind, which gusted to 40-some mph and brought the wind chill into negative numbers the night before last.
I have nice hay for the calves, in square bales. The mamas much prefer the square bales to the big round ones I’ve set out for them, to the point where they pretty much ignore their hay, and fight over every scrap of the calves’ hay that happens to blow out of the pen.
Generally speaking, it’s a good thing that I spend a lot of time among my cows. They are all extremely tame and calm because I’m familar to them. But I cannot lie: they are BOSSY BITCHES. It’s always crystal clear if they’re unhappy with a state of affairs. And they are unhappy.
My chickens, in contrast, are wonderful winter animals. They are laying lots of eggs and seem to have no problem roosting in a frigid hen house. I feed them well, but they can’t supplement what I give them with foraging in the ice and snow, so they too are always hungry, and follow me around in a pack whenever I am outside. They even swarm around me when I am up with the cows, and fearlessly peck around beneath the legs of the big beasts, who are not terribly bothered by their presence.
I have a pair of donkeys I’ve grown attached to, but have always been a little ambivalent about having, since they came as the result of an executive decision by my wife, who thought it would be nice to have them. They are funny, skittish beasts, and the cows try to run them off at every opportunity. When it comes to defending the coffee can of sweet feed I give them every day, they stand their ground quite nicely, fending off the cows with sharp rearward kicks while they eat.
And then there’s the bees, who should be able to overwinter by themselves with no extra help from me. And yet the first cold snap killed one of my three hives. Weirdly, it was the one with the most honey in it. Why did they die? I really don’t know. Perhaps there weren’t enough bees to make a warm cluster. Perhaps they were weakened by disease or parasites. Dead bees tell no tales. Or it might have been the wind.
I determined that the bees also needed a wind break, but I could not find anything close at hand, so I parked my rusting 1988 Chevy Cheyenne across the path of the wind. Which was a good idea, but with an unforeseen consequence. My spot in front of the hive is situated on a slight downslope, and is up against a fence. The Cheyenne’s traction is negligible in the best of times, so as soon as I stopped I realized there was little hope of my backing out of that patch of icy snow, and the fence kept me from going forward. Unwilling to go without the truck til the ground thaws and then dries out (which could be as late as May), I had to snip a hole in a woven wire fence to drive the truck through. It was just the latest in a series of clumsy desecrations of the farmstead to make up for a poorly thought out decision.
But so far everyone is surviving. All the animals are alive and on the property. I am not a good farmer, but I’m better than I was.