'Frostbite on their teats' and other cold weather farming issues
January 9th, 2014
03:00 PM ET
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Ryan Goodman has been involved in agriculture all of his life, working on ranches across the country, as well as studying cattle nutrition and reproduction at the college levels. He works daily with farmers and ranchers, helping their voices become part of the national dialogues on food and agriculture topics. You can reach him on Twitter @AgProudRyan, as well as his personal blog, AgricultureProud.com.

Winter storm Ion, polar vortex, or cold outbreak. No matter which term we use to describe this week’s weather across much of the country, it has been downright cold. Most of us are aware of precautions to prepare our homes and pets for the harsh conditions, but how are farmers and ranchers dealing with all of this weather?

Last year we talked about how there is no such thing as a snow day on the farm or ranch. Livestock must still be fed, equipment must still be maintained, and preparations for the next growing season continue. All of that work becomes much more difficult when the mercury drops well below zero degrees.

The livestock take priority for many farmers and ranchers in these situations. Preparations for the storm include making sure all supplies are on hand, generators are maintained, that equipment is prepared to start in very cold conditions and extra feed is close by in the event that travel is impaired. Despite all the preparations, it is difficult to be ready for everything that will occur when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

For dairy farmers, the cows must still be milked every day, no matter the weather. Minnesota Organic Dairy farmers Tim and Emily Zweber explained how important it is to provide a sheltered barn in -54 degree wind chills. Cows that do not stay in the warm sand beds may get frostbite on their teats. A very uncomfortable situation to say the least.

Patrick Mess in Wisconsin has been bringing the newborn calves into the shop for shelter and affixing doors on the hutches for older calves to protect them from the -20 degrees temperatures. This goes along with making sure the milking parlor stays warms and functional for every milking.

cows in the snow

Even in eastern Kansas, the Heim dairy farm family experienced -30 degree wind chills. David and Jennifer were working hard to provide warm bedding in the barns for their cows and calves despite tractors not starting in the cold.

Most beef cattle ranchers will not bring their cattle indoors. However, if calving is near, a newborn may end up in the house overnight. Cattle are incredibly resilient and are able to stay warm through thick winter hair coats that act as insulation. As long as they are able to stay dry and find shelter from the wind, like a shed or trees, cattle will stay warm.

Cattle produce body heat from digestion of hay and forages in their rumen (large stomach compartment) and are able to stay warm in most conditions. One of the main challenges in this weather is keeping water sources thawed. As Kansas rancher Debbie Blythe shows, even the no-freeze water tanks ice over when it drops below zero.

For smaller animals like turkeys, chickens, and pigs, keeping warm can be more of a challenge. This is where it really pays off to have barns that retain heat well. Even when wind chills dropped to -26 on the Olson family farm in Minnesota, Carolyn’s pig barns never dropped below 73 degrees.

In Ohio, the Wildman family raises pigs and must make sure that generator power sources are ready for when power goes out on their rural farm. Extra feed supplies must be on hand when roads become impassible so farm from town. Even in Iowa, turkey farmers like the Olthoff family are working to keep their livestock barns warm and insulating feed and water sources to make sure nothing freezes up.

Despite all the preparation that may occur, not everything will go right on the farm and ranch when it gets this cold. Diesel tractors will not start, equipment will break, and a water line will freeze. The farmers and ranchers are in the fields and barns, working around the clock, waiting for things to warm back up.

Oh, and we did not even mention the bread and milk grocery run! Hopefully the farmers and ranchers remember to stop for a bite to eat and keep themselves warm as well.

Got a question for Ryan or any of our other farmers? Please share it below and we'll do our best to have a great conversation.

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. eeyore

    Another professional to remember in this weather is the veterinarian. Hard work getting a calf bed back inside the cow in sub-zero temps.

    January 15, 2014 at 11:40 am |
  2. Thought+Food

    Reblogged this on Thought + Food and commented:
    Heard a lot of complaints about the polar vortex? At least you are not a farmer who gets no snow days....

    January 13, 2014 at 9:13 am |
  3. Jan

    Hahaha the pics are all bulls, not a cow in sight

    January 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Bulls have cold weather problems too! :)

      And the second photo is some of my Brangus cows.

      January 11, 2014 at 5:43 pm |
  4. raybowman

    Just so happens I covered some of the same ground on this week's Food and Farm radio show

    January 10, 2014 at 7:56 pm |
  5. foreigner

    Americans listen here, it's about time you will decide what measurement scale you are using once and for all. it's quite annoying to read in the same sentence 2 different measurements methods, the CNN should know better ( or i thought they do...)

    January 10, 2014 at 10:04 am |
  6. DebbieLB

    Thanks for this roundup of things farmers and ranchers have to worry about that most people don't even think about! When a storm is predicted, we can spend a couple of days preparing but it is still a lot of work when it hits.

    But it is winter and we are willing to do whatever it takes to care for our animals. Hard work and cold weather go hand in hand for farmers and ranchers. Keep up the great work, Ryan!

    January 10, 2014 at 9:44 am |
  7. postheman

    Growing up in MN, I've seen farmer's teats in an antifreeze solution immediately after milking to prevent frostbite.

    January 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
    • Jennifer

      There are many options for cold-weather teat dip. We use an oil-based barrier type post-dip in the winter to protect our cows against frostbite. Teat dip is only part of the solution, though; shelter from wind and dry bedding are also important.

      January 9, 2014 at 6:24 pm |
    • RC

      What the hell were the farmers teats doing in antifreeze?

      January 9, 2014 at 6:51 pm |
      • AleeD® @ RC

        Yup! I shore do like the way you think.

        January 10, 2014 at 6:44 am |
  8. ginny

    "Ryan Goodman has been involved in agriculture all of his life, working on ranches across the country, as well as studying cattle nutrition and reproduction at the college levels." If this is the case, he should have known the difference between a cow and a bull. *ahem* :) Either that, or fire the photographer.

    January 9, 2014 at 5:19 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Thanks for the shout out ginny. I sent in photographs of cows and a bull, but am not in control of final placement of the photos. And if you'll read the article, you'll note that freezing teats isn't the only issue discussed.

      January 9, 2014 at 5:55 pm |
    • Emily

      If you want to see a picture of a frost bitten teat, follow this link to the blog post I wrote about dairy farming in extreme weather. http://zweberfarms.com/farming-in-extreme-cold/

      January 10, 2014 at 10:45 am |
  9. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    That's not a teat...

    January 9, 2014 at 5:13 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Haha. True. The bull at the top may have something other than teats to worry about freezing...

      January 9, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        Yup! JD - I was well aware it wasn't a teat, but it was such a great picture.

        January 9, 2014 at 5:54 pm |
        • Ryan Goodman

          Thanks Kat. He's a nice bull too! One of my favorites from Arkansas.

          January 9, 2014 at 5:56 pm |
  10. Turth™


    No, really, I mean it, this is interesting. I didn't know a lot of this...

    January 9, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
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