Winter on a Farm
Experiencing from the Outside In
How do you experience winter? I had never really experienced winter until moving to the pristine mountains of Colorado from balmy Texas two years ago. One of my main excuses for moving, as a 50-year-old mother of our home-schooled 14-year-old daughter, was to escape the unbearable heat of Dallas. Little did I know that we would be entering a winter world with temperatures plunging to 40° below zero with wind chills 60° below, and deep snow. Well, maybe it would not be so bad, considering my husband would be able to do most of the outside work to keep us warm and I could savor the beauty of the snow, the solitude of the quiet dark evenings by the ﬁre to knit, read or plan my garden and… I could experience winter from the inside out.
Then it started to sink in. My husband is gone for weeks at a time, coming back for a week or so and then gone again. There is the matter of tending to and feeding four cows; two massive Belgian draft horses; ﬁve hungry, cold pigs; countless chickens, ducks and turkeys; and over 60 sheep and lambs who continue to give birth in the winter. Frozen reality hits hard. Winter with animals and an outdoor wood burning furnace to heat the house must be experienced from the outside in, if we are going to survive the elements. So, what is it like for a lady city slicker and her daughter turned farm-hands to experience winter from the outside in? It truly is an amazing feeling to work outside in 10 below zero and you are still warm. Ok, ‘warm’ is an exaggeration, especially when the bitter wind kicks up and you are in the meadow with a pitchfork, trying to dismantle a large hay roll by the fork full to 70 or so hungry mouths.
Preparation and proper attire are key. Engaging winter head-on forces your mind to always be on the alert, to prepare, to anticipate the future, trying with all your might to see disaster before it comes – and to head it off if possible. Hustling in the late fall in anticipation of a blanket of snow is a real motivator. Can we get everything done before the earth is covered, not to be seen again for months? Have we cut enough standing-dead trees, far up in the mountains, hauling them home and cutting them into large logs to feed the wood burner all winter? When the falling snow ﬁnally does come, it is so beautiful, covering up past sins, burying the imperfections of projects undone, giving your eyes a rest from too much detail while the mountains, trees and deep blue sky burst forth, stealing the show in all their glory.
A typical winter day on the farm begins with great anticipation and raw whipped cream in freshly ground coffee. That and the sunrise are the reasons for jumping out of a warm bed into a chilly room. Dressing warmly and heading out, I ﬁrst ﬁll the outdoor wood burner with big logs to heat water that runs through our ﬂoor, heating the entire house. Keeping the faucets dripping at night insures that we will have water throughout the day and I won’t have to haul buckets of water to the animals.
Letting the birds out of the coop to eat and drink is a monitored event, as the ducks must have feed in pans on the ground, while the chickens can ﬂy up to feeders placed above ground in the coop. Pans must be picked up before the menagerie burst out of their respective barns or pens, as the pigs, sheep and horses break out and in to get to the birds’ food. Nothing on the farm is more expensive to feed than birds, with their organic, non-GMO, non-soy feed, but the delicious eggs and meat are worth it.
Off to the nursery area of the sheep barn with a bottle of warm raw cow’s milk for Bramble, a bottle lamb who was born in a dark corner of the barn and abandoned all day by his mother. We found him in the afternoon, his ears and back legs frozen with ice all over his body. Our daughter thawed him out in the kitchen sink with warm water and we bottle-fed and kept him in the house for a month. (Yikes, my ﬂoor!) Thankfully he is strong enough to stay in the barn now, but his little ears and back feet have severe frostbite. I break the ice on water buckets and reﬁll them for the new moms or any injured lambs, and feed them a bale of hay. I then let out the other sheep from their side of the barn and check for any new lambs. The pigs are given hay and alfalfa and let out to terrorize the chickens and slurp their water. A couple of weeks ago, one of the piglets suffocated in the barn because it was so cold. The pigs pile up to keep warm and he was, unfortunately, on the bottom. But, lives are not wasted on the farm and the way to honor an animal’s life is to not let its death be in vain. I processed and skinned him, and made a hearty broth to nourish and sustain my family during these cold months.
In the meadow, cattle panels are placed around four large round hay bales, so the animals can fertilize the area. The little lambs can squeeze under the panels, eating and basking in the sun to their hearts’ content safe from the horses. The hay can be pushed, fork full by fork full, under the panels to the hungry mouths, three times a day. I take a break now and then to pull my ﬁngers from my gloves and make a ﬁst to warm them up, gazing at the sun bursting through the clouds on the mountains or catching my favorite trampoline show. Hilariously, the little lambs will jump up on the unsuspecting, munching moms, hopping from back to back, flipping in the air and bouncing up and down on any fat mom who happens to be laying down chewing her cud.
I luxuriously wait until it warms up to milk my cow, bare ﬁngers are kept warm especially if I am lucky enough for the sun to be shining in the open shed. A dear friend of mine milks in the bitterest of cold before sunup (my daughter calls her a BMW, Burly Mountain Woman), and another friend milks 25 cows, so I dare not complain about milking in the sun. Only once did I made ice milk, directly from the cow into the bucket. And when milking time comes around, the promise of heavenly cream, butter, ice cream, keﬁr, cheese, yoghurt, raw milk… makes any amount of difﬁculty worth it. We separate the cows from the calves every other night so I now only milk every other day.
Mucking out the shed and barns, laying down fresh straw, gathering eggs before they freeze, checking for ewes that might be lambing, looking for sheep, horses or cows that have escaped or crossed the frozen river are just some of the ways we experience winter from the outside. (Trudging in and out of the snow, muck and mud, I have yet to ﬁgure out how to manage my ﬂoor from the inside… that is just too hard.) Yes, it is a wild and dangerous place, but it is important to do something hard and learn something new everyday. Truly experiencing four seasons is a rare gift not all climates offer, and it is a joy.
Wherever you are, and whatever season you happen to encounter, make the most of it by experiencing it from the outside, the experience is only really real on the other side of the window.
How do you experience the seasons?
Photo Credit: Jamie Huizenga
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