First Freeze

Farmers mark their trips around the sun not by the Gregorian calendar or even the astrological designations of the season. We adjust our endeavors according to the weather. Thanksgiving this year is a prime example – it was the first extended period of sub-freezing temperatures designated as the first hard freeze.

Mother Nature usually gives a warning, reminding us it’s time to take care of the infrastructure, especially anything having to do with water. We’ve dipped into the twenties briefly overnight, but the days warm to as much as the high 50’s. I‘ve seen as low as 22 degrees when leaving for market on a Sunday morning, but by the time I arrived home I’d shed four layers.

There are light frosts signaling the picking of tender greens and fruit as early as October, followed by a killing frost which is when all bets are off for most outside row crops. Some farmers ward off the worst of winter weather using insulating mulch, floating row covers, greenhouses or a combination of the three providing nearly year-round production.

“Arugula and spinach are tough!” said Audrey Fisher Pedersen, co-owner and farmer of Bending Bridge Farm whose greens survived a two-week stretch of below zero temperatures.

As a livestock producer, sometimes I feel as if I have my own crystal ball to what winter will bring. When the animals start growing their winter coats in early September it’s a signal to start projects that need to be done prior to the onset of colder weather. The years that the critters don’t fuzz up until December; an ominous warning there will be little skiing.

All farmers rely on water. To grow crops, water livestock and process products, access to affordable, clean water is the backbone of our industry. But water also requires additional equipment to facilitate its use. There are hydrants, hoses, pumps, wells, tanks and valves. Being unprepared for the hard freeze can cause significant damages if the expanding water splits man-made materials. Not only can these repairs be expensive, they also require an all-stop in order to be fixed.

Stock tank heater

With the advent of the hard freeze comes the deployment of my favorite critical little device that prevents stock tanks from freezing. Last year when the barn was rewired, I was adamant about an all-weather electrical outlet installed on the exterior closest to the large, communal galvanized stock tank. How I do love thee!

Over the years I’ve fought with contractors about dropping electrical lines in the same trench as a water pipe being run out to an area for watering livestock. This is also the most proffered advice to new farmers building out their operation. This is the voice of experience.

Too many times I’ve watched as nearly solid hundred-gallon tanks have had holes beaten through the top with a sledge-hammer only to discover when the weather warms that the ice has spit the tank rendering it useless. They are not cheap to replace.

There are hacks for insulating water tanks, but this works better for larger animals such as cattle and horses. For small ruminants, like sheep and goats, and poultry a large tub inside a tractor tire filled with concrete and foam does not bode well. And pigs! Watering pigs when temperatures don’t rise above freezing for several days in a row can severely try a farmer’s patience.

But with an outdoor power outlet, a thirty dollar gadget from Tractor Supply and a short length of hose that can easily be removed and drained once the tank is full, frigid weather becomes a little less miserable. If all else fails, it’s a bucket brigade in lieu of the gym.

Frozen mud

For a few days I was able to enjoy walking on solid, albeit frozen ground. Then temperatures went back into the 40’s and the mud returned, but HARD FREEZE was written on the 2018 calendar as a record to compare to years past in years to come.

If you want to learn more about farming cold weather, chat up your vendors at Central Farm Markets in Bethesda and Mosaic during the Winter Market months from January through March. We’ll always have a story to tell.

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