CADILLAC — As the temperatures have dropped in Michigan to subzero, people aren’t the only ones trying to stay warm.
Farmers are also doing their best to keep their animals protected and nourished in the winter.
“This last week’s been tough,‘ said Jonathan Fenner, owner of Fenner Farms in Boon, and dealing with the bitter cold is “part of living here.‘
There are 600 to 700 heads of beef cattle and between 200 to 400 chickens on Fenner Farms, so Fenner and the other farm workers have their work cut out for them in the winter.
When it comes to the chickens, they have been collecting eggs twice a day because “if they freeze they’ll split right open,‘ he said.
They also make sure the chickens have enough feed and water.
The chickens’ water is kept in buckets in the coop, which have nipples the chickens peck at to release the water.
The water in the bucket is heated and doesn’t freeze, but the water droplets have been, so they have to check them to make sure the chickens have access.
With the cattle, it’s the same thing.
If the water freezes the farm workers have to get it thawed.
“All of our cattle waterers have thermostats in them,‘ Fenner said, and if one goes out they are in trouble.
They use Ritchie Waterers, which are designed to be frost free, and they’ve also added light bulbs, so if a heater goes out the light bulb will give off heat and keep it warm long enough to give Fenner time to realize the heater is out.
The water will freeze up a little, but the light bulbs keep it from totally freezing so the cattle can still drink and give them extra time.
Automatic water pumps are the solution used by Apsey Farm in Reed City to make sure their 120 cows always have access to fresh water.
“Making sure the cows have access to frost free water is important,‘ said farmhand Kyle Apsey. “Ponds freeze up in the pastures when it gets this cold, so we have to have automatic pumps for the cows to walk to.‘
For feeding the animals Fenner is shoveling the bunks for snow twice a day and adding more corn to the animals’ diets so they have more energy to keep warm.
They have a set ration for the animals but add more corn to it when temperatures get below zero.
In winter the cattle will not put on weight like they do in other seasons and just manage to maintain their weight, Fenner said.
Because it’s so cold, the animals’ bodies are producing so much energy just to stay warm.
In the 20 degrees range, with a preferable temperature at 25 degrees, the cattle will still put on weight. But even in the teens the temperature is not as efficient for the cattle to put on weight and below zero the cattle don’t put on any weight, he said.
Keeping his cattle grass fed is one of Apsey’s priorities through the cold winter months.
To provide grass when the ground is covered in ice and snow, Apsey harvests grass and stores it on site during the spring and summer.
“We try to make sure they have plenty of food,‘ said Apsey. “There are about four months out of the year where there isn’t enough grass in the pasture, if any, for the cows to eat so we make our own to give them in the winter.‘
The cows, still being kept outside as much as possible, will normally be fed in the nearby woods or in a valley where they will have some natural break in the wind, said Apsey.
Kable Thurlow, a Michigan State University beef grazing educator who raises his own cattle, said the top two things for keeping cattle safe in the winter is access to food and water.
“As long as they have access to water, good clean water, and food, adequate food, they do really well,‘ he said.
After that, he said if the wind is blowing hard then a windbreak can be beneficial, either a natural one like trees or manmade.
Thurlow said in the last few days he’s moved his animals by some woods so they have a windbreak.
Fenner and Apsey said their cattle are kept in outside lots during the winter, but the farmers do try to give them windbreaks so they can get out of the wind.
“They naturally huddle together, which makes a big difference,‘ Fenner said.
They will huddle and lay together, and when they get up you can actually see the steam roll out from under their stomachs, he said, which is “pretty crazy.‘
“We give them plenty of natural shelter,‘ Apsey said. “And barn access if the weather gets really bad.‘
Keeping dairy cows protected in the winter is different than for beef cows, said Kathy Lee, MSU Extension dairy educator.
She said most dairy cattle are housed inside year-round so they are protected from wind and snow during the winter.
“During typical winter weather, milk production is not affected,‘ she said in an email. “However, during these extremely cold temperatures dairy cows will eat more. The cows may also produce less milk depending on the duration of the extreme weather conditions.‘
It can be a challenge for all farmers with livestock to keep the waterers thawed out and during extreme cold temperatures manure will freeze in the alleys, making it more difficult for farmers to remove the manure from the alleys, she said.
“Every farm has piles of manure,‘ Fenner said, and they struggle with it in the winter when it freezes.
He said they try to put it in a pit, but also have to get versatile where they put it. It’s more of a problem for dairy farms that keep their animals enclosed, but at a beef farm the manure freezes faster and needs to be broken up.
And on the farm, the animals aren’t the only ones who need to be protected from the temperatures.
Fenner said the barns aren’t heated, so the farm workers need to go out half an hour before they use them to heat the equipment up before starting it.
“We try to stay warm ourselves,‘ he said.