Brrr! Winter on a family farm in the Adirondacks

Yesterday was -15degrees when we went out to do chores.
This morning the bed was really toasty and it was so tempting to just sink deeper into the warmth of the bed.
But there might be a calf.
Shadow was 280 days pregnant on December 28th – the average gestation for a cow.
But no calf yet … so maybe this morning?!?!

I enticed the kids out of our bed by telling them we needed to check on Shadow. None of the usual demands for extra snuggles and requests for Daddy to do chores and not Mommy.
Noah decided to retreat to the warmth of his own bed – not ready for the day to begin while Del pranced downstairs full of excitement for her upcoming day at preschool.
I pulled on long johns and pants, a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and sweater before re-tying my hair up in a knot.

I may have checked facebook, first thing when I came downstairs. There I saw that my dad had already updated his status to: “What a difference 24 hours makes. From -16 to +22. May not need the coat this morning.” Sweet relief! But then I worried if I was already too bundled up …

I grabbed my warm snow pants from their drying place near the woodstove and was so thankful for their warmth. The addition of a wool hat and fleece lined mittens added to the warmth. The bonus was that the barn boots I’ve been using were also inside. Bliss! Out the back door, in the unheated workroom I noticed there were already two rectangles of thick ice – worked free from water devices for the animals. I encouraged thin fragile icy layers from the milker’s pieces and fit it all together: rubber ring inside milking can lid, lid on can, filter fitted over spring which is put into the plastic casing which is connected to the lid, claw held right-side-up with two pieces layered inside, a spring on top of that, and a lid on top of that holding it all together. When that was already I donned my winter jacket (with a small regret that it wasn’t also inside warming up and a thankful heart for the layers of shirts protecting me from the direct contact with the frigid arm holes).

Grabbing the egg basket and heaving the heavy milking can I wrestled the sliding door open with my arms (as my hands were busy carrying the necessary items for chores) and made my way out into the wintery wind. Josh was lifting Del into the van, her scrunched up face against the wind. I wondered if it was better to be -15degrees or 20degrees with a gusty cold wind.

“NO CALF!” Del shouted.
“We checked,” Josh explained. He had wanted to check before he left for town for the morning. “I did notice she’s a little drippy though.” Maybe that’s a sign. Maybe not. She’s been drippy for the last few days.

Half the motivation for going out into the cold gone, I trudged up the path to the barn – footprints barely visible as the wind whipped the snow over the paths. I brought the milker to the milk pump in the barn and decided to take care of the coop chickens first. I like to gather their eggs and the eggs from the “kennel” chickens before going into the “chicken” barn for the majority of the egg collection. Plus, now that we are turning on a our small jet-engine of a heater (propane heater) to keep the milker from icing up, we don’t feel comfortable leaving that unattended. Somewhere at the back of the barn, I heard one of the calves call my name … if my name sounded like a low “mooooo”. This happens every morning. I don’t know if they are saying: “hi,” or “NO HAY … MORE HAY!” or “Our water is frozen!”. I found the blue five gallon bucket near the barn spigot (thankful to have running water IN the barn!) and filled it about a 1/4 full, knowing the chicken waterer would not even hold that much. The cow water tub, right next to the spigot, I noted was low on water, as is usual in the morning, but it hadn’t iced over as it had yesterday. The chickens in the kennel, right inside the barn door, were quite noisy. As I passed by with my bucket of water I noted that they were out of food. I would feed them while milking Hope.

The wind had swept the path clean of foot prints since yesterday and I saw no fresh tracks. My dad, who was outside doing chores somewhere, hadn’t been to the chicken coop yet.

“Hi girls!” I said as I entered the coop. They were making all their chicken-y noises. I spotted two eggs under the nest box – the preferred “box” the chickens, tell me.
“Are you guys hungry? How about some of this?” I pulled off my gloves and dropped them right by the coop door before unscrewing the lid to the container that has chicken scratch. I gently threw a couple of handfuls, noting that we should add bedding to the coop soon, particularly under the roosts. While the chickens were busy with their scratch I gave filled their feed trough with grain before checking on their water dish. There was a thin layer of ice on top. I grabbed a piece of wood and jammed it into the ice to break it up, before realizing that I might be incurring several splinters (I wasn’t), and then added more water to their dish. The chickens ran to the dish with enthusiasm. I hate when animals run out of water (or it gets icy) – that’s the worse! I sneaked around the back of the thirsty girls and retrieved the two still-warm eggs I’d spotted when I first came in.
One blue.
One green.

I met my dad in the barn – he’d already done the animals in the “horse” barn – the one gilt that we have here right now, the sheep, and the goat.
“I’ll go do the pigs,” he offered, picking up two five gallon buckets filled with water and making his way to the “piglets” that are growing fast and loving their new digs that provide a larger shelter out of the wind.

Ever thankful for his help, I ignored the chickens cackling in the kennel – still letting me know they had needs too! – and turned on the jet-engine heater, pointing it towards the milker and crossing my fingers that it would melt any residual ice that I’d missed earlier. I put grain in a bucket for Hope and opened the gate to the cows pen and she easily maneuvered her way into position – the perfect position for breathing in the grain she loves. I tied her quickly before returning to the grain sack for Shadow’s portion.

“Have you done anything with the calves?” my dad asked, coming into the barn.
“Nope, I’ve only done the chicken coop chickens”, I responded.
“I’ll do the calves,” he said.

Next step: clean Hope’s teats before milking.
I realized the teat dip, that I’d brought inside yesterday to thaw it out … was still inside. I knew I would forget it!

“Will you be in here for a minute?” I asked my dad, cognizant of the jet-engine. “I forgot the dip inside.”
“Yeah, yeah!” he said quickly.

I made my way back out into the cold and realized tiny snow flakes were now flying about. I made my quickly back to the house and found the dip – where I’d left it.

Back in the barn, I grabbed each of Hope’s teats and rubbed off anything that was there and hand expressed a couple of streams of milk before dipping each teat. I hung the dip up and grabbed a roll of paper towels. My dad had moved into the cow pen and was putting down fresh bedding for them. He noticed through barn door I’d left open.
“It’s snowing!” he said.
“Yep”, I replied noticing that it was coming down even thicker.

I rubbed Hope’s teats dry and started up pump. The trick is to wait for the spring in the claw to start moving – you can hear it: “click, click, click” more than you can see it.
I waited.
And waited.
I pulled apart the pieces on top of the claw I’d so carefully put together and noticed ice on one of the components. I held this up to the heater, the heat quickly becoming unbearable. I put it all back together and waited for the tell-tale noise.
Still quiet.
I tilted the claw so the top was closer to the heat source.
And waited.
And waited.
I felt my dad before I saw him.
“Do you want me to hold something?” he asked as I pulled apart the parts above the claw again.
“There’s ice inside that piece” I said, showing him the tiny hole filled with ice. He took the piece and held it to the fire longer than I could have.
“Is it melted?” I asked. He looked.
“I can’t tell, what do you think?” he asked.
I looked and quickly decided: “let’s put it back together, I can’t tell if that’s ice or the plastic piece on the other side.”
I put it all back together and immediately the sound came steady.
“Yay!” I said, “I don’t think there’s a more beautiful sound!”

I fell to my knees and attached the furthest two claws to Hope with little difficulty, and then the closer claws. A flush of milk and continued click.
Satisfied, I moved my attention to the chickens in the kennel. I grabbed the blue bucket of water, still with enough water to satisfy this bunch after watering the coop chickens. I filled their feeder and broke the ice on their water before topping it off with more water. I spotted one egg in their nest boxes and grabbed that before making my exit from the kennel.
I checked Hope. Left front quarter empty. It always empties first. I pulled off that claw and plugged it with a stopper before going to fill the cows water tub. I noticed the tub was full.
“Did you do the cow’s water?” I asked my dad.
“Yeah,” he responded.
I emptied the rest of the water in the blue bucket into the cow’s water tub.
“Did you already water the calves?” I asked.
“I watered the calves,” he said over the din of the milk pump.
I went back to check on Hope.
Two quarters definitely done, but the front right still had some milk left. I removed the claws from the empty quarters and plugged them with stoppers. I noticed no additional milk was coming. Often once the quarters are removed from the empty quarters, the quarters with remaining milk get the additional suction they need and there is an increase in the milk flow. I checked the front right quarter again. Empty.
I pulled the whole contraption away from Hope and turned the pump off. I dipped her again.
“Should I give Shadow some hay?” my dad called down the barn to me.
“Yes!” I called back. It’s a good trick to hold off on giving Shadow hay until we’re ready to get Hope back in the pen. That way Shadow is distracted (because she sometimes gets ideas about touring the barn more extensively than her pen which takes up almost half of that barn) and Hope is motivated to make her way back into the pen.
Hope immediately turned her impressive body around and slipped through the gate towards the new mounds of hay my dad threw into their manger.

Milking done, I turned to the chore of the chickens in the “chicken” barn. I filled the blue bucket about half way and grabbed my egg basket, now boasting three eggs, and moved past the calves, to the chicken barn door. Inside I was greeted enthusiastically. I saw that their water dishes (all three of them!) were frozen but after hanging the egg basket out of their reach and putting the blue water bucket on the floor inside the door, I returned to the outside of the cow manger to grab some loose hay on the floor. We have rabbits (two) in the chicken barn and one of them LOVES hay, something I’d forgotten to give her for about a week. I brought this into the chicken barn and straight to the rabbit with the flock of chickens eagerly vying for my attention behind me. I felt them pecking at the residual snow on my boots as I opened the rabbit cage and stuffed in a huge wad of hay. The rabbit immediately went to forming a nest in between nibbles of the hay.

That chore done, I turned my attention to the thirsty chickens. Two were clearly not so thirsty, as the fluffed their feathers and took dust baths in their bedding, right near the watering station. I traded an empty waterer with an ice-filled one and filled that one immediately with water. One of the other dishes only had a small layer of ice at the bottom so I topped that off with water. The third waterer had a healthy layer of ice. That one I moved away from the thirsty chickens and banged against a manger, originally designed for sheep, to coax the ice to pop out. After several attempts, the final piece sprang free and I returned the dish to its place, filling that too with water and noting one of the dust bathers was still reveling in her dust bath bliss as chickens scrambled around her to get to the water dishes.
I hastily gathered eggs in from their usual places and hung the egg basket from a nail, for the person collecting eggs this afternoon to top off with additional eggs and bring inside.

Feeling satisfied I moved toward the door. Hearing some extra chicken-talk I paused. One small detail had been forgotten … The food! I moved my way back into the depths of the chicken barn and gladly dished out several bowlfuls of feed into the feeder. Everyone happy, I left the chicken barn with the frozen water dish and my blue bucket of water, still quite full.

I emptied the extra water into the calf’s water bucket and put the empty bucket next to the barn spigot.
I eyed the full milk can warily.
Even empty the milk can feels too heavy.
Then I remembered my dad!
“Hey! You’re here!” I said enthusiastically.
“Yeeeeeesss,” he said suspiciously.
“YOU can carry the milk can!” I said triumphantly. “And I’ll carry this frozen water dish.”
“Ohhhh kaaaay,” he said, lacking some of my enthusiasm.

He hauled up the heavy can and turned out the light to the barn. He walked out of the barn into the snow still picking up speed and I followed, closing the door behind me and feeling satisfied at another morning of chores complete. All the animals fed and watered and snug against the bracing wind.

Milk to be poured into jars, milker system to be cleaned, ice to be melted out of containers.

And by 11am the snow was falling in a thick wall of white.


Brrr! Winter on a family farm in the Adirondacks — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this wonderful description of what barn chores are like on a cold winter’s day. I could “feel” the cold! As I am writing this my husband is outside putting the horses in the barn to protect them from the cold, snow, and wind. We are dealing with frozen water buckets too!!!

  2. Thank YOU so much for taking the time to read all of it! I didn’t realize how long winded a morning could be – just outside chores – when you write it all out!

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