As most of the country this January weathered temperatures that were colder than normal, my thoughts turned to what we used to do on the farm in cold weather.
Obviously, no one stayed outside any longer than necessary, and the body heat from the cows in the barn kept things reasonably warm there all winter. We did have to cover spots where the wind tried to get through and, when it got really cold, we piled bales of hay or straw at the doors to keep out the worst drafts. Nevertheless, our special wooden cover for the entrance and exit holes of our barn cleaner would sometimes freeze in the solidified liquids in the gutter or freeze to the cement wall above the holes. It made sense to stop that barn cleaner in the same spot each day so that its dry, clean paddles stayed in the chute outside, which made it easier to start the system each day.
With the onset of lower temperatures, of course, we had to make sure our wellhead was properly insulated. Otherwise, it would have frozen and cut off our water supply. In order to prevent that, we packed straw around the wellhead and put a 50-gallon oil drum over it. We also wrapped a couple of pipes in our milk house with heat tape to prevent freezing, since those pipes ran along an outside wall. In later years, a propane heater in the milk house kept things warm.
Speaking of water, one of my chores was to feed the steers and heifers at one of our sheds and check its water tank each morning. When there was a cold wind blowing in the night, it wasn’t a surprise to find that tank frozen over, unable to operate. If I was lucky, I could break the ice by hand, wiggle the float mechanism, and get water flowing again. If that didn’t work, it meant a walk back to the milk house to get a five-gallon pail of hot, hot water to pour over the mechanism to thaw it. Trying to accomplish that maneuver with 30 or 40 thirsty animals “helping” was no picnic.
We had filled our main barn with small, square bales of hay during the summer, but we’d also laid in a supply in at least one of the outer sheds. As the barn supply was consumed, another winter chore consisted of hauling loads of hay bales from that shed to the barn for twice-daily feedings. When we’d purchased hay at neighboring farms, we’d have to take a wagon or two there to load them. At such times, of course, the hay wagons had been sitting for a few months. That meant that, when we got ready to start the job, we had to get the wagons out of the snow and make sure the tires were inflated and that any moving surfaces were lubricated. We also had to make sure that any latches weren’t frozen shut—a task that was easier to do before we loaded them with hay, since the hay would put additional pressure on the door, which would make it even more difficult to open the latch.
Eventually, block heaters were available for tractors. We could then simply plug an extension cord to the shorter cord of the heater and warm the engine for a few hours before starting. In earlier days, Dad said, he would either keep a tractor in a nearby dry machine shed or, if it still proved hard to start and the weather was getting colder, he would park it in the barn to give it a little warmth. He did the same with the manure spreader to loosen the frozen-on material that had to be removed. (Dad added that my godfather, Jack Northouse, kept his Allis-Chalmers tractor and Studebaker pickup in the driveway of his barn in the coldest weather.)
I was always fascinated by the nozzle in the middle of the dashboard of our tractors. That was the spot where a can of ether could be attached to help start an engine in the cold. On our John Deere 4240 diesel with a Sound-Gard cab, there was a holder under the hood for such a can—and an activator button in the cab.
In fact, when cold weather descended, that 4240 was everyone’s favorite, thanks to the combination of its heated cab and its ample power to get through almost anything Mother Nature could dish out. We even used it a few times to help pull the milk truck up the hill of our driveway.
What are your winter farm memories? Warm up those fingers and share your thoughts!