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Updates From the Polar Vortex

24 Feb

Pssssssssht. Breaker, breaker. This is MFW coming to you live from a snowdrift.

I’m going to start with this photo. Because it soothes me.

tulum

I want to go to there. This lovely shot is from our honeymoon in Mexico a million years ago. It’s good to remember that there are places in the world free of this year’s #polarvortex.

Sigh.

Unfortunately Michigan is still firmly planted in winter. Despite wildly odd weather last week—thunder snow, 40 degrees, and pouring rain—temps are back in the low teens this week.

My psyche just can’t take it. I’m tired of wearing three layers at all times, getting my car stuck in the driveway, whiteouts on the roads, and worrying about our roof collapsing under three months of snow accumulation. I just want to be warm again. I’m still waiting for those awesome pregnancy hot flashes people keep talking about.

I’m getting close to my winter breaking point.

Dairy Man might be even more sick of winter than I am. His life the past few months has involved frozen pipes, broken machinery, stuck milk trucks, countless pairs of long underwear, and so, so much plowing.

plowtruck

Dairying gets a lot harder when we’re dealing with six-foot piles of snow, icy roads, and sub-arctic temperatures.

Thankfully the ladies take it all in stride. They get fluffy winter coats, group together in the sand beds, and eat, eat, eat.

cows

We do our best to help them stay warm and toasty during the cold months. Cow-sized sweaters are out of the question—I was never much of a knitter—and the girls don’t love hot cocoa, but we close the barn curtains, change our feed ration to include higher fat, and turn on the heaters in the water troughs.

We’re all getting by. The only family member wholly unfazed by winter is Jersey the snow dog.

snowdog

He loves snow—for playing, walking or eating. The last one is most annoying. There are few things more demoralizing than being an adult human being standing outside in negative temps and 40 mph winds yelling, “GO POTTY!!!!” to a stubborn and impervious border collie chowing down on snow.

jersey

It’s been a long, hard winter. Perhaps one I’ll creakily tell my children about someday.

But I must remember that this season won’t last forever. The days are getting longer, spring is getting nearer, and there are occasional moments of pure beauty. It’s all about the sunshine.

wintersunset

From the safety of a warm car or house, the winter wonderland really is spectacular.

photo_2

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And I’m sure we’ll get the tractors unburied … someday.

buriedtractors

When Cows Get Hot and Bothered

13 Jul

Last week was a scorcher. The pavement sizzled, the sun blazed, and the air lay thick, heavy, and suffocating. I had to resist the urge to melodramatically bellow “I’m meeeeelting! I’m meeeeeeeelting!” each time I stepped out the door. Well, I resisted the urge to do it more than that first time.

Thursday and Friday were the worst of it. Highs of over 100 degrees and smothering humidity? Far too hot for this Michigan gal.

Much to the Dairy Man’s chagrin, this week hasn’t been much better. 80 degrees felt like a cold snap and the 90s will be back today. The corn is dry and the dog days of summer are upon us.

Everyone around the farm has their own method of coping with the heat.

Jersey the dog hangs out in the air-conditioned house or truck.

The corn gets irrigated.

The cows drink a lot of water and do a lot of lounging.

It’s vitally important to keep our herd cool. Cows do not like the heat. They’re most comfortable when the temperature is around 50 degrees. When the thermometer tips above 55/60 degrees, the ladies start getting hot and bothered. The more scientific term for this hot flash phenom is “heat stress.” When dairy cows experience heat stress, they begin to reduce feed intake and lose body weight. Milk production, reproductive performance, and health are also affected.

We contemplated fanning the bovine ladies with palm fronds and feeding them cold grapes. But that seemed too extravagant. And Grecian. Plus, cows much prefer bananas.

So when the hot, airless days roll in, we kick on the fans.

These huge fans keep air moving in the barns and make the cows feel like they’re in an airport hanger. It’s glamorous. But once temps climb up past 75, the fans aren’t enough. At that point, it’s time to get wet and wild. Well, as wild as a cow lounging in the sand and chewing her cud can be.

The dairy cow version of Girls Gone Wild involves sprinklers. Our sprinkler system travels the length of each barn (on both sides) and runs on a timer based on the temperature. The hotter it gets outside, the more frequently the system kicks on. The spray wets the cow to the hide and then turns off, allowing the moisture to evaporate and pull heat from her body like sweating.

During the hottest summer days, the barn sprinkler system kicks on every seven minutes.

There are also sprinklers in the holding pen where the ladies wait to enter the milking parlor. All of these nozzles are sure to get a workout this weekend as Michigan temps again tip into the 90s.

You know the old saying: “If the cows ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Or something like that. I was never very good with old sayings. I’m still grasping the whole bird in the bush concept. But really, if our cows aren’t happy and comfortable, we can’t be either. The Dairy Man invests enormous amounts of time and energy keeping the herd cool this time of year.

There’s talk of a slip n’ slide, but we’re still shopping for a plastic that can withstand a wet, sliding, 1500-pound cow.

Batten Down the Hatches: Winter on the Farm

11 Jan

Something about that title makes me want to wear an eye patch, get a pet parrot named Polly, and end every sentence with “Yaaaaaaarrrrrr.”But this is not a post about pirates, yaaaaaaaaarrrr. This is a post about cows (but not cow pirates). Someday we’ll contemplate a world in which burly cow pirates roam the seas like those mischievous stars of the Chick-fila-A commercials, but not today.

Though Michigan has been experiencing some delightfully mild temperatures lately, I know the winter won’t pass us by. As we enter this second week of January, the suspense is building. The temps are slowly dropping and there’s snow in the forecast. These days it’s not unusual for the nightly lows to be in the 20s. And we’re not even in the throes of winter yet, people! This is the time of year when we have to bundle up from head to toe when entering the great outdoors. But what about our bovine ladies? How do they keep warm in the 4-6 months of blustery cold?

Is there a church group somewhere knitting cow-sized sweaters? Does the Dairy Man fill the water troughs with hot cocoa and marshmallows? Do the ladies huddle around hundreds of space heaters? Not exactly.

We have a few ways to help the cows stave off the chill in winter. First, the Dairy Man closes the curtains. Much like our parlor isn’t frilly and Victorian, the curtains here aren’t lacy and delicate. Rather than silk or cotton, these curtains are made of thick plastic. Each barn has top and bottom curtains that come down on each side. The bottom curtains are almost always down, but the top curtains come down in the colder months. These curtains help protect our cows from blustery winds and keep snow from blowing in and getting the sand beds wet.

Next, the ladies get fluffy. Seriously. Around November each year, I start noticing that the bovine members of our family are sporting some seriously rocking ‘dos.

The Dairy Man also has a few other tricks to keep our dry and milking cows happy. In the winter the feed ration changes slightly to include a higher fat content because the cows burn more energy to stay warm. We also turn on heating units in each drinking trough to keep the water from freezing. And what about the moneymakers on the underside of each cow? When temperatures drop below 15 degrees, DM and his milkers switch to a teat dip (more on that in a future post) that has more conditioners in it to keep the udders from drying out.

When you stop to think, it’s not entirely different from my raging chapstick addiction in the winter. I blame Bonnie Bell, circa 1999.

So that’s how the older and more mature members of our herd weather a Michigan winter. But what about the little guys and gals? The big cows may not get sweaters, but the calves get jackets!

What’s that? Your heart just melted? That’ll happen.

In addition to their stylish jackets, calves are also given more straw for their beds to build forts …er… nests. And visions of sugar drops danced in their heads…

Though this January has been unseasonably warm (I’m entirely in favor of global warming if it means 45 degree heatwaves in the middle of winter), a storm is a’brewing. I’ve lived in Michigan too long not to expect that we will PAY for this nice weather. So when the flakes inevitably fly, the cows and I will bundle up, eat more fat than usual, and dream of green pastures.

Jersey, on the other hand, has found a favorite season and loves to be outside. Curses.

Summer on the farm.

30 Jun

I’m back.

No, I haven’t been trampled by a cow.  I haven’t moved to a foreign country, joined the circus, or lost both of my thumbs in a tragic accident.

It’s been a little bit of procrastination, a little bit of family tragedy, and a little bit of summer, but I’m back.

Procrastination and summer fever can happen to anyone, but the family tragedy portion of my recent life deserves mentioning. Since mid-April, two of my Dairy Man’s grandparents have passed away. We acutely feel the loss. I’ve wanted to write about our wonderful Grandma F or vivacious Grandpa Z, but I can’t seem to find enough words to describe their love and faith. They were amazing people. I was a lucky girl to even get to know them. We rejoice to know that both are celebrating in glory, but our family parties this summer will be missing some important people. While the loss of our precious grandparents clouds my psyche a bit, the summer soldiers on.

This week has been a “slow” week for my Dairy Man—in a world where 50 hours is slow—and I’ve taken full advantage of the chance to spend time with him before 10 p.m. But, as always in farming, this is the calm before the storm. In a few days, second cutting of hay begins, and it is CRAZINESS. I’m talking tractors and trucks out in fields at 2 a.m. craziness; no showers for a week craziness; meals that consist entirely of things the Dairy Man can eat in one minute or less craziness. I’m not looking forward to it. All I ask, dear hay, is that you wait until after the fourth of July.

So. While I’m still feeling tranquil and full of good humor, I thought this would be a good time to show you what summer looks like on the farm. As someone who gets all tingly about tall buildings and taxi cabs, I never thought I would find the claustrophobic openness of the country to be beautiful. But I stand corrected. I am a human being full of wisdom and growth.

But on to the prettiness.

This is the view from our back deck. Beautiful, right? Even the most fervent city slicker has to admire that big blue sky. I love sitting out here with a glass of Cab and a husband. Even the cat likes it.

Here are the cow dormitories, er, I mean barns. Dor-moo-tories? Anyone? Oh boy, I need to get more sleep. And better jokes.

But not all of our cows live in the barns. The Dairy Man has moved our dry cows (a.k.a. the pregnant cows) out into the pasture.  Surprisingly, they don’t suffer from mood swings or crave chocolate ice cream with pickles, but they do love to sunbathe. And eat. Oh my, do they eat.

As temperatures rise in west Michigan, the Dairy Man spends a lot of time making sure the ladies stay cool and comfortable. Since a beach day is out of the question (we just can’t afford that many flip flops and scuba masks), it’s all about the sand. Each barn has several rows of “free stalls,” which give the cows a cool place to lounge in the sand. So, life as a cow really IS like a day at the beach.


The beautiful weather makes a tramp around the farm on a warm evening nearly irresistible. I even managed to coax a feline companion to join me!

Until he spotted a baby woodchuck to meow at…

…And, after chasing it into a hole in the ground, decided that he would not be joining me for the rest of the stroll. Heaven knows he had an exhausting day at the office, sleeping, eating, chasing bumblebees, and sleeping. A cat needs his rest.

After a long day at work and the proceeding 80 minute drive home, there is something profoundly peaceful about my place in nestled in the hills of dairy country. I still think that skyscrapers and asphalt are sexy, but I’m beginning to love green pastures and blue skies. Besides, we have our own skyscrapers.