Ice, Ice, Baby
Story and photos By Carole Soule
Fiddlehead Contributing Writer
It ain’t the cold. It’s the ice.
Winter is here, and so is this farmer’s annual war on frozen water. It might seem that a cattle farmer’s first concern in winter is keeping her cattle warm.
Most cattle, covered with lanolin-rich hair and a layer of fat, will laugh at the cold (if cows could laugh). As long as they have a place to shelter from bitter winds, most cows will stay warm.
Just like a snow-covered roof indicates a house is well-insulated, a snow-covered cow is a warm cow.
Fat is also an excellent insulator. Fat cows stay warm; skinny cows do not.
But fat or thin, all of them need an astonishing amount of water to survive: 10 to 20 gallons per day. Maybe in my next life, I’ll raise camels, but in this life, summer and winter, it’s all about the water.
As much as 88 percent of a cow’s intake each day is water. Cows can eat snow, but it has to be clean, untrampled, fluffy and abundant — 30 to 40 pounds of it per day. And what if it doesn’t snow? So, we don’t depend on it.
Several years ago, with help from USDA-matching funds, we installed automatic waterers in the pastures of Miles Smith Farm. Fed by a pipe buried below the frost line (4 to 5 feet deep), seven troughs are filled from the farm’s well. While underground, natural geothermal heat keeps the water from freezing, but it cools off above ground.
To keep the surface water from freezing, the troughs have a ball that is like a storm door — shielding the water from cold air. The cows push the ball aside to drink. But when the weather is severe, the ball freezes in place, and the cows can’t move it.
On those days, my husband, Bruce, and I perform a highly skilled task we call, “Banging the Ball.” With a booted-foot, a board or sometimes a sledgehammer, we’ll break the ball loose from the icy hold.
Other weapons in our ice war include waterproof heaters that sit in the trough. They are like heating elements you can use to make tea. Electricity is efficient when you make something spin, like a fan, but inefficient and costly when used to generate heat. So, we use them sparingly.
Not all the troughs self-fill. We fill troughs for the donkey, goats, lamb, pigs, chickens, ducks and rabbits using buckets or hoses. Of course, hoses freeze, so don’t be surprised if you see a pile thawing in the corner of our farm store.
Keeping my fingers from freezing is also a challenge, especially when I take off a glove to unscrew a frozen hose — and then I lose the glove. Is that why I have so many left-hand gloves?
Sure, I dream of spending the cold months lounging by the fireside, sipping hot cocoa and waiting for the mud and calves of springtime. But when New Hampshire is getting its weather from the North Pole, the ice battle is on, and the only important beverage is cold, clear water.