Farmers work through major winter storm sweeping U.S.

Farmers and ranchers across a wide section of the U.S. have been dealing with record-low temps as a polar vortex swept the country in February. While many Midwestern producers expect harsh winter conditions, the extreme temperatures and snow accumulation are rare for Texas and other Southern states.

Ohio

Jane Marshall has farmed with her husband near Eaton, Ohio, for more than 32 years. She’s no stranger to extreme winter weather but admits snow and cold “are not fun.”

Her family’s dairy is prepared to keep water lines open and animals out of the wind, but keeping everything running takes a lot of extra work. It took every spare extension cord in the house to get the tractor started Wednesday morning, she explained.

Marshall estimates there’s 12 inches of snow on the ground, with even bigger drifts. More is in the forecast this week.

“We haven’t had this big of snow in probably 10 years. It took a while for the roads to get cleared off,” she says, noting her gratitude for the people plowing.

By late morning on Wednesday, the thermometer read 17°F., up from 0°F. when the family headed to the dairy barns in the morning.

Map of Ohio minimum temps
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

While the immediate frustrations of bundling up and troubleshooting in the cold are exhausting, Marshall can see spring around the corner. “The good news is, this is February, not December. It would be pretty depressing if this was December and we had two or three more months of this,” she says.

Another thing Marshall is thankful for – daylight. “It’s still daylight at 6:30. Everything is better in the daylight,” she adds.

While Marshall is confident her family will manage though the discomforts of the extreme weather, her heart goes out to fellow farmers in hard-hit Southern states such as Texas. “They’re not used to this, and I feel terrible for them.”

Marshall offers these tips for fellow farmers who aren’t used to battling the cold:

  • Know where the water shutoffs are in case a pipe bursts.
  • Be careful thawing pipes. Don’t use open flames, especially inside.
  • Animals stay warmer when they’re digesting food. Make sure they have plenty to eat.
  • If you don’t have shelter for livestock, build protection from the wind out of hay or straw bales.
  • Baby farm animals can be warmed up in the bathtub, mud room, or a back porch. Blankets from the dryer wrapped around a heated Pampered Chef pizza stone can add some extra warmth.
  • Call up a friend in the North. They may be able to help you brainstorm solutions.

Illinois

Jenny Schweigert raises sheep with her family outside Tremont, Illinois. In her area, Schweigert says there’s at least 5 inches of snow on the ground, but drifts are much deeper.

They’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of lambs as winter storms sweep the U.S. So far, lambing has been slow. Temperatures are forecasted to hit 40°F. next week and Schweigert expects the warm-up to prompt labor within their flock. Until then, Schweigert will keep up her middle-of-the-night barn checks to ensure the sheep aren’t distressed and water is available in what feels like -11°F. conditions.

Whenever the lambs do make their debut, Schweigert will give them 1 to 2 ounces of warm colostrum formula to ensure they get a warm drink right away. After that, the ewes continue to nurse the lambs.

“It just gives them a little help to get started,” Schweigert explains.

To keep herself warm while doing outside chores, Schweigert wears homemade hot packs made from corn. The bean-bag like pouches can be heated in the microwave before tucking them in a pocket or bibs.

Map of Illinois temperatures
Photo. credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

Nebraska

Hannah Borg has had plenty of learning opportunities in her two years since returning to the family farm full time. Thanks to the bitter temperatures, she can add a few more to the list this month.

“No equipment wants to function properly at these temperatures. Nothing wants to start. I don’t blame the motors, it’s hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, too,” Borg laughs.

Based near Wakefield, Nebraska, Borg manages three chicken barns and helps with cattle and row-crop parts of the family business, too. She says keeping the chicken barns in working order has been the biggest challenge of the recent arctic blast.

Map of Nebraska low temps
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

“The cattle can defend themselves from the cold a bit. You just have to make sure their water isn’t frozen, which isn’t hard for us because we have heated water tanks,” she explains.

The chicken barns weren’t necessarily designed for -20°F., though.

“The vents on the outside open and close. They’re spread out about every 20 feet. The air on the outside is so cold, but it’s 65°F. on the inside,” explains Borg. “That just creates ice, and the vents freeze. Monday, I spent lots of time manually opening the vents and clearing the ice.”

Keeping the vents functioning properly is critical for maintaining a healthy air pressure for the birds and equipment inside.

Although the subzero temperatures create more work around the farm, Borg is thankful her farm is prepared. They’re equipped with generators, tank heaters, and winter layers.

“Our ag friends in Oklahoma and Texas just don’t have the infrastructure we do,” she adds. They aren’t used to planning out the extra steps that come second nature to Borg time of year.

Borg offers these tips for fellow farmers:

  • Plug in tractors and other machinery when you park, so they start more easily the next time.
  • Put windshield washer fluid in a handheld sprayer. It’s inexpensive and handy for unthawing gate latches or other small patches of ice around the farm. The sprayer will help you reach awkward places.
  • Bundle up in layers. A silk scarf can cut the wind. Thick socks and good insulated boots are key to keeping your feet warm.
  • Hand and toe warmers can make working in frigid temperatures more tolerable.
  • Cut up an old pair of leggings to protect young calves’ ears from freezing.
  • Put an old winter horse blanket over the well to keep it from freezing.

Horse blanket on well
Photo credit: Hannah Borg

Kansas

Tuesday morning brought record-breaking cold to the hard red winter Wheat Belt. Maxar meteorologists Kyle Tapley and Aaron Carmichael say there’s concern about severe winterkill damage in central Kansas where snow depths were less than an inch and temperatures ranged from -10°F. to -20°F. In other parts of the region, snow was deep enough to offer some protection from the frigid cold.

Kansas map of minimum temperatures
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

North Dakota

This winter has been strange, even for farmers in North Dakota who are used to bundling up. Carie Marshall Moore farms with her family near Rock Lake. Lately, air temperatures have been between -5°F. and -20°F., depending on the time of day, she says.

Many friends and neighbors are experiencing planned outages of 10 to 60 minutes designed to conserve power. "We live in a little pocket of about three miles by a mile that has not had our power shut off. I'm very grateful," she explains, adding her concern for elderly people, and those with small children. "We have a small generator that I could at least plug in the furnace if the power went out, but some of these people don't have that."

Map of minimum low temps in North Dakota
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

The local school and hospital are powered by coal, but the frigid weather has still been disruptive. "Monday the bus was almost to the driveway when we got an instant alert saying school was delayed unitl 10 AM, so the bus turned around and left," Moore says. Later in the week normal school hours resumed.

What this extreme weather means for the farming operation remains to be seen. "We do have cover crops, but because we were so dry last fall, they never came up. I'm really curious to see what these cover crops are going to do because they didn't even germinate. We don't have much snow, not like a normal year, so I don't know if the ground is getting insulated or not. The snow we have is hard, like there's no moisture to it at all. It's going to be an interesting crop year," she says.

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 58% of North Dakota is in severe drought.

Map of drought conditions in North Dakota February 16, 2021
Photo credit: David Miskus, NOAA/NWS/NCEP/CPC

Texas

Much of the Lone Star State recorded single digit or negative lows this week, as cold, artic air reached much further south than normal.

Map of Texas cold temps
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

Melody Speer farms and ranches with her family near Uvalde, Texas. As of Thursday morning, her area had recieved about 10 inches of snow over several days. Her family spent a day without electricity and about three without their main water supply. She's thankful they were able to switch over to a well, and is concerned about fellow Texans who are going on a week without electricity and don't have that type of flexibility.

It's been more than 35 years since Speer remembers weather like this. "In 1985, we had 13 inches, but it snowed and we were back to normal in no time. We didn't have issues with power and water. The length of this storm is unprecedented," she explains.

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