Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I'm a summertime girl. I really love sunshine, working hard and getting really hot. It doesn't bother me. When I've been working hard, nothing is better than inhaling a quart of ice tea or biting into that cold watermelon and cantaloup chilling in the fridge.
Just as much as I love summer and sunshine, I dislike winter, clouds and cold. I wear wool, layer clothing, and bundle up as much as possible to keep from getting chilled. In my mind, nothing is more uncomfortable than getting chilled!
Winter's Silver Lining?
But, being the eternal optimist that I am, I think there are some bright sides to this bitter cold winter. It was (finally) a good hay season last summer, which makes it easy to feed the cattle and keep their bellies warm! Fortunately, we haven't had any freezing-rain storms that have taken out the electricity. That can certainly make a bad winter even worse. I can't help but think that all the sub-zero temperatures that we have endured this winter, which has not been the norm in the very mild winters that we have had the last few years, is helping kill bugs, germs, and other “bad” imports that have had an easy time surviving our previous mild winters. I am also in hopes that some weeds that have become “perennial,” because their roots haven't been froze out, will die as well.
I won't claim to be an expert on winter survival on the farm, but I have learned a few things that may be helpful to some who have less experience. Making sure livestock have water during sub-freezing temperatures is probably one of the most important tasks as a farmer. Unless you have an indoor, heated water source that the animals can access, some other high-tech water feature, or spring-fed pool, then it is necessary to come up with some kind of routine, or process that isn't too time-consuming, or dangerous to get water to the animals.
A tank with a faucet that is left dripping won't freeze up unless it gets really cold. Tank thawers, which are a floating electric heat element that keeps the water from freezing, work really well, but they do use up a lot of electricity. The cords need to be watched closely that they are not loose, so that animals don't chew on them or accidentally wrap their heads around them, etc – so it is best if they are kept out of reach, but close enough that it keeps the water thawed where they drink.
I don't generally like to mess with frozen hoses, running water and electric heaters. I have a large pond that I usually let the cattle have access to. Generally, if you have a cow herd, it is safe to keep them with a pond. They are heavy enough that they will not be able to walk past the edge of the pond (unless it is frozen really hard), and are smart enough not to walk on the pond. If you have a herd of calves, on the other hand, I would never recommend letting them stay in a pasture with a frozen pond. They are not too smart and I have heard many stories through the years of calves lost on snow covered ponds. Never taking a chance, though, if a frozen pond gets covered with snow, and becomes “invisible” I will always move the cows to a pondless pasture and water them from a tank. It's just not worth the risk of a cow accidentally walking out onto the pond and falling through.
I am an old-fashioned farmer. I like to cut a hole in the ice with an ax. Use an ax with a good handle, and tight head, and always wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from ice shards. I usually reach out as far as possible without stepping onto the pond and cut across, parallel to the edge. Then, I will cut both sides. If the ice is not too thick, I can tap on the pond-edge of the ice and get it to break and separate. Truly, I think the most important thing to remember is the ice needs to be removed from the hole. If the ice stays in a couple of large pieces as it cracks away from the pond, I will press it down with my ax and push it, to send it sailing underneath the ice of the pond. Otherwise, I will use the ax to pull it up on top of the ice. If the broken ice pieces are not pulled out of the water, they will freeze back together quickly and the animals won't have a very long time to get to the water before it is all froze again. Another important thing to consider is how many days the ice will need to be cut. Everyday that you cut open that same hole, it will get smaller...so the first time, cut it as big as possible, because you won't want to start a new spot and have to cut ice that is four or five inches thick!
Some farmers will simply drive over a shallow end of the pond with a 4x4 pickup to break the ice. I just don't like advocating that method. It makes a muddy hole, and the broken ice freezes back quickly. I have heard of instances of getting stuck and it's not safe. Which brings up another point. It is always best if someone knows you are working at a frozen pond. Let someone know when you should be returning from your cold winter chores!