Farm Life: A Very Chilly Christmas

When the weather app says it’s 15 degrees out but feels like 1, you know it’s cold out there…ok, not Minnesota cold, but cold for this area. And it’s a white Christmas – a dusting of snow overnight was followed by snow showers today. Given the precipitous drop in temperatures, it’s a good thing we wrapped all the tractors yesterday.

Right, Christmas Eve was spent – all day – wrapping all of the tractors, currently occupied by chickens of various ages and a pair of geese, in thick plastic mil. It creates a very effective wind barrier and a warming greenhouse effect inside. While we actively try to minimize our plastic usage due to its impacts on the environment, we haven’t found a suitable replacement yet; instead, we reuse it each year, carefully folding and storing it.

Why is it windy every time we do this??

We had planned to finish wrapping the smaller tractors (already half-wrapped to provide a windbreak) on Christmas Eve, but what we hadn’t planned on was the bitter cold that arrived that morning, rather than later in the day (as forecast). The wind was so cutting, it made manual dexterity – a necessity for this kind of work – nearly zero, since it could not be performed while wearing gloves. With completely numb hands (and fairly frozen faces), we had to head inside after wrapping the largest of the tractors. After eating breakfast and thawing out, we went back out to finish the wrapping…only 6 more to go!

Smaller tractors, occupied by chickens (yesterday)

Fortunately, we were better dressed on the second outing: in layers. First, thermals, then thick overalls (only worn this time of year because they’re too heavyweight for the other seasons), two pairs of socks, a heavy duck outer coat, balaclava, knit hat, gloves. Much better. While it was still cold, the extra layers trapped air and kept us warmer and better able to complete the work. A good pair of work boots and the extra socks helped keep our toes from freezing.

We finished late in the day, fantasies of watching holiday movies during the afternoon having been shelved. The final touch was to put a nice layer of dry, fragrant hay down to provide additional comfort and insulation for the tractors’ occupants. When the job was complete, we were tired, hungry, and thirsty, but we also knew that we wouldn’t have to feel guilty or anxious the next day – we knew the animals would be safe and warm.

Oh, for a bath…but feathers can freeze in this weather

And, as I already mentioned, it was only 15 degrees with a vicious wind chill that brought it down to nearly zero when we arose this morning. It was snowing during the morning chores (more fun now because the hose is out of commission, as is the outdoor faucet, so the water must be brought from inside the house…and it’s a lot of water). The tractors were unusually quiet when we approached to bring the birds food and water. Had they fared well overnight?

When we opened the tractors, everyone inside was warm and lively. There were no frostbitten combs (common for large rooster combs, especially, in bitterly cold weather), no birds fluffed up or huddled together (signs that they’re cold). Inside the tractors, it was comfortable, considering the temperatures outside. And that’s how it should be – farmers should do what’s necessary to take care of their animals, even if that means being “inconvenienced” or having to postpone more relaxing endeavors. There are no holidays, no weekends, in farming.

While that may sound unappealing to those who value a culture of convenience, the flip side is that the sense of accomplishment from a job well done – as evidenced by the safety of the animals – and the knowledge that they’re enjoying a good quality of life makes it worthwhile. Seeing pigs snuggled down into big piles of hay (both for eating and for bedding, whichever they choose), ducks resting on a bed of dry shavings…it makes the hard work, the sacrifice, the frozen hands and noses acceptable.

It’s part and parcel of being a farmer and raising livestock. The idea that we would be warm and comfortable in our home while animals in our care suffered in the cold is repugnant. We chose to have animals, so it’s our responsibility to care for them in a way that honors their wellbeing. Another way to say it is “real farmers get off their a$$es and do what needs to be done – regardless of the conditions – to take care of their animals”.

And today, Christmas Day, can be an easier day on the farm because the tough work was done yesterday. We’ll be cooking, writing, listening to the magic of classical music on our local NPR station. Later, when the day’s chores are done, we’ll watch some holiday-themed movies. That’s Christmas on the farm, and that’s how we like it.

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