Last Sunday, my fiance Katie and I packed up and headed down from Memphis to stay with my parents on the farm. We make this commute six days a week, but we try not to on Sunday. We made an exception to our “Sunday rule” to make sure we wouldn’t get stranded away from our livestock if road conditions had already deteriorated by Monday morning. This decision certainly proved to be a good one: 5 days later, we’re still here!
This week has been dangerous, scary, and unprecedented for millions across the southeast, and we are grateful that our staff and their families are safe and warm (though some have not had running water for a few days). The processing plant and the farm store have been closed all week (also unprecedented), as we have not wanted to risk having folks commute (we are a rural business and many folks have to commute several miles to work, some of us as many as 40). With the business shut down, my one focus this week has been the farm, and it's taken all my energy and effort to tend to it.
Monday our farm crew could not make it in, so Katie and I set out early to tackle the farm tasks for the day. It was 1 degree at sunrise, and spitting sleet with a 15 mph north wind. Fortunately we had put out a lot of extra hay and bedding on Saturday and Sunday, so we could just try to maintain through the worst of the storm.
The major challenge was water. Everything was frozen. Particularly heartbreaking, even the supply line to the coffee maker in the store was frozen. The hose from the water heater in the plant was also frozen (inside the building), so we could not fill lugs or tanks to haul to the animals. We placed an additional gas heater in the water closet and coiled up the hoses in there to thaw.
We needed to put out more bedding for 2 groups of hogs after the ice hit Monday morning, and hay for our mama cows, who are in the middle of their calving window (rethinking february calving after all this). A toasty 5 degrees at that point, the tractor would not crank, even after using starting fluid and applying a battery charger. The skid steer, also diesel, would crank, but the tracks were frozen solid and I could not get it to move.
Almost frantic, we put a diesel powered heater on the skid steer tracks, but found the mud was insulating the ice and we weren’t accomplishing much, except starting to melt the rubber tracks. Fortunately by this time the hoses in the plant had thawed, and we were able to fill up several 20 gallon lick tubs with hot water, which we slowly poured over the tracks until they broke loose.
Most of our “Ritchie” (brand name) waterers are designed to take the cold and held up well during the first couple of days, but eventually froze, despite breaking ice off of them twice daily. Our designs and systems were not meant to withstand cold temperatures for this amount of time. Fortunately, I could slowly pour hot water over the supply hose inside the frozen waterers and they would start working (one snapped off Tuesday as soon as it thawed and I had to repair it in 15 degree temps- fun stuff). When we could not thaw waterers, we had to haul water from the plant, which is tedious and labor intensive.
Fortunately Ben, our farm manager, made it to the farm on Tuesday morning, and has stayed through the week to help. Ashlynn made it Tuesday afternoon and this morning, which is why I have time to write this.
To date, through the worst winter weather I’ve experienced in Como in my lifetime, we only lost one piglet (it crawled out of its hut and froze solid). We have around 400 pigs on the place and about 140 cattle at the moment, so this is quite an accomplishment.
The most harrowing part of the week was dealing with the calves, 5 of which were born during the snowstorm on Wednesday that followed the ice, sleet and snow and Monday. When calves are born they are obviously wet, and the snow was forming an icy wet coat on their heads and backs. If these animals cannot get dry in cold weather, they will die. As luck would have it, they were at their most vulnerable when the weather was at its worst- temps in the teens and dumping snow at record rates.
We raced fresh hay out (by Wednesday we were able to crank the tractor by heating the engine block) and clumped bales under thick cedar trees on the south end of little thickets that dot the pastures. We had to put our jackets around a couple of the newborns and carry them into piles of dry hay we’d created. The protective cows were not exactly cool with this: it was a balance of risking our safety for the calf’s safety. We were stressing the cows out and risking doing more harm than good. Too much action can be just as damaging as not enough action. Nature and instinct go a long way if we get out of the way. But there has to be some shelter or means of warming up and staying dry. Ben and I knew we had to dry the calves off or they didn’t have a chance.
I went to bed wednesday night, with the snow still falling, convinced I was going to lose a third of my calves overnight. It's hard to articulate the depth of the dejection and failure when a farmer discovers one of his animals cold, lifeless and stiff. The simplistic rawness of farming is merciless. Little mistakes and simple oversights can cause death. If there is a more visceral and concrete image of professional failure than a little lifeless piglet or calf, I hope I never experience it. Equally hard to describe is the feeling of soaring joy and elation when you see that your ideas and management worked to keep even your most vulnerable stock alive during historically terrible conditions. That simplistic rawness is mirrored in your sense of competence and accomplishment.
Fortunately for us, sunrise brought happy news: we hadn’t lost a single calf! I literally danced and shouted in the pasture.
Over the next several weeks, we will deal with busted water lines and the financial consequences of being closed for an entire week, but today I am a proud farmer. I’m going to take one last hike around the place and get some pictures (in the sunshine) of all this beautiful snow. Despite the terrible price of this winter storm, one has to admit that a cloudless blue sky and sunshine beaming down on an endless canvass of untarnished snow is an awe inspiring sight, especially in Mississippi.
Have a great weekend, and here’s to hoping for a break from unprecedented events!