The nor’easter that roared up the East Coast recently dumped another foot of snow on our part of Upstate New York. I found myself struggling through drifts thigh-high to get to my livestock. Our yearling goat, Tanner, stepped out of her shed into snow up to her neck. Her water bucket was completely buried: I finally found it with my feet.
I mention this because while “grass fed,” “free-range” and “pastured” have become de rigeur where eco-friendly meat is concerned, I’m guessing that few consumers give a thought to what happens when the pasture in question is buried under two feet of snow. I know I wasn’t thinking about blizzards when we purchased our farm property 40 miles northeast of Albany. I had guazy visions of animals lolling around our 15 acres of pasture, working symbiotically with the local soil organisms to grow lush fields of native grasses. The eighth snowiest February on record was not yet on my radar.
When days are short and frost grips the landscape, gardeners lose themselves in seed catalogs and reveries of spring. There is no such respite for the livestock farmer. Animals need to be fed and watered daily, regardless of the weather–sometimes twice daily. So how do you so that, exactly, when winter storms are raging?
When we arrived here, there was no infrastructure on the farm to speak of other than a tool shed and a small, adjacent outbuilding for goats. We installed water and electric lines to strategic points. The woman who sold us our sheep wisely suggested we build some sort of paddock near the house for our other animals. We did just that, fencing in a 10,000-square-foot area about 100 yards from our front door. We also hired a contractor to build a large, three-sided shelter for our sheep and Jersey cow inside the paddock. We stashed 450 40-pound bales of hay under a tarp.
I was happy with the idea of an open farm where the animals would live almost entirely outdoors. The goats come and go from their shed as they please. The chickens are locked in a mobile coop only at night. The sheep and cow have a place in the paddock they can go when the mercury plunges and the north winds howl. But they are not cooped up in a barn where they are more likely to contract disease. Nor do we spend time mucking out stalls.
Yet the classic farm design–barn and outbuildings clustered within easy walking distance of the house–makes things so much more convenient. I now understand also why so many farm houses were built so close to the road: driveways are a real bitch to dig out when it snows.
After the last storm dumped its load, I was forced to climb over the paddock fence with buckets of grain. The gates were snowed shut. I also had to shovel an area around the chicken coop out in the orchard so our hens would have a place to feed and spend their days. The only way to deliver hay to the animals was in the back of our four-wheel-drive pickup. Yet there were times when even that wouldn’t have worked without an assist from the guy we pay $50 to plow our long, hillside driveway.
I trudged through drifts, making paths with my feet. But as winter wore on, the deep foot prints I made became frozen crevasses, each requiring careful navigation pending the next thaw.
I’d like to say how brilliant we were to install a “frost-free” water hydrant within easy reach of the livestock. When it was working, the hydrant made filling the water trough in the paddock a cinch. But the hydrant was not entirely fool-proof. When it finally froze, I was forced to fill buckets in our kitchen and carry them by hand.
Perhaps my best purchase was the simple, submersible electric heater I bought to keep the water in the trough clear. Even in the hardest freeze, the water in the paddock remains remarkably liquid. Likewise, an extension cord runs to the orchard, where a heater under the chickens’ waterer ensures they never go thirsty.
It may be only March, but already I am thinking about next winter and ways I might avoid some of this year’s troubles. I shudder to think how we would cope if there were a repeat of three years ago, when our area experienced some six feet of snow. A friend recommends snow shoes as a way to pack hard paths around the farm. I’m thinking electrical tape to wrap around the water hydrant to prevent another freeze. And we have our eye on a small tractor with a front-end loader.
Twenty-eight horses worth of diesel power should make shoveling a bit easier.