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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Surviving Snowmageddon on the farm

I’ve just finished shovelling a foot of snow off the front step, and I pitched Ferg’s beloved ball for him a few times to give him some exercise. The dog will spend the rest of the afternoon curled up on a sheepskin rug in front of the wood stove, while I putter around the house, preparing for Sunday dinner. It’s Snowmaggedon on the farm.
We may not get too many guests venturing out to our remote farm today, even if the snowplows have cleared the road, because it’s just too cold. The weather man says this is the coldest snowstorm we have had in 100 years, at an average -23 degrees. Normally we get that kind of cold on a sunny winter day – not a snowy one.
It is nice to finally see the snow this winter. It forms a barrier of insulation around the house, blocking the wind and sealing drafts. It has the same effect on a barn. You pray for lots of snow when you have animals giving birth in winter, for this reason. There’s nothing worse than a bitter, biting wind blasting across the pasture and through the cracks in the barn walls, freezing the baby animals inside.
The trick to a creating a warm barn is to pack the animals in closely together. They warm up the place with their body heat. Cows don’t mind the cold, and they give off plenty of heat so if you can host your goats or sheep in pens surrounded by cows, you’ve got it made. It will be warm as a sauna in there.
One day several winters past I went to check on my baby lambs and the blanket that we hang outside that room in the barn had frozen to the wall. I hurried to pull it loose, worried that my newborns had frozen to death in their sleep. But as I opened the door to the lambing room, a wall of damp heat hit me in the face. It felt like a steam room in there.
In every pen, a fat ewe lay comfortably chewing her cud, her babies tucked in beside her. That was a very snowy winter. The snow had formed a solid blanket around the barn, and we had a really good lambing season with a low mortality rate.
One of the worst lambing seasons we had began during a winter of very little snow and very low temperatures. When it did snow, it blew right through the cracks in the barn walls, forming small drifts in the lambing pens. We hung blankets on windows and doors and stapled feed bags to the walls but without the barrier of snow outside to insulate the barn, we just couldn’t keep it warm enough.
That year I was constantly bundling wet newborn baby lambs up in towels and running them to the house, tucked inside my barn coat. There I carried them down to the basement, where the Farmer had set up a playpen with a heat lamp over it. I rubbed their little bodies dry and thawed out their frozen feet before carrying them back to the barn to meet their exhausted and overwhelmed mothers.
We had to put heat lamps in the pens, to keep the lambs alive. We turned them off at night, though, because the Farmer was afraid that one of the ewes might pull the hot lamp down into the hay, setting it alight. Hopefully someone has invented a cool-touch heat lamp since our lambing days – or a better way to keep animals warm in a drafty barn.
Ideally if you are raising animals in a Canadian winter, you will erect a coverall barn or Quonset that you can heat if necessary. Big Sky Ranch, our local animal sanctuary, used donations to build a closed barn for their rescue animals. This winter, however, they have to turn on the heat to keep their 100 shelter animals alive. It will be a costly season, so if you can spare a few dollars, send it their way. Or if you just want to look around the house or barn and see what items you can spare for donation, head to their webpage for their wish list.
On our own farm, we got smart and locked up the ram until December so the babies wouldn’t be born until April. He wasn’t pleased but we had a lot more healthy lambs born in springtime.


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