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Cow care: Extra attention to animals just one part of being a Kane County farmer in winter

Insulated jackets earmuffs are sometimes used help keep calves warm extremely cold weather.  Hampshire farmer Joe Engel says thby

Insulated jackets and earmuffs are sometimes used to help keep calves warm in extremely cold weather. Hampshire farmer Joe Engel says that by consuming up to double the calories they normally eat and staying dry and out of the wind, calves are able to stay healthy and grow despite the frigid temperatures. | Submitted

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Updated: March 7, 2014 12:14PM

The seemingly endless pattern of snow followed by bitter cold this winter has meant many a night with just a few hours sleep for Joe Engel.

Engel, 32, is a fourth-generation farmer near Hampshire who, with his parents and brother, has been running a 180-acre operation holding 150 dairy cows since 2000.

“As far as I can remember, if this isn’t the toughest winter I’ve seen, it’s right there. This is going to be the worst, because it’s so relentless,” Engel said. “Lately, it seems like every Sunday, after church, when I get to spend time with my wife and kids, another front moves in.”

Gordon Gehrke — who has been farming for 35 years — can tell you, dealing with tough winters is part of being a farmer in northern Illinois.

Gehrke, his brother Bob, and a younger farmhand work about 1,400 acres for corn, soybeans and hay throughout Kane County. Gehrke also has 30 milking cows and 75 head of beef cattle on the family farm in the Lily Lake/Elburn area.

“My mom kept calendars, and she would write down information on them,” Gehrke said. “She was going through them the other day, and they showed the winter of 1978-1979 was the worst.”

His mother’s notes recorded that on that New Year’s Eve, it snowed about a foot, then the temperatures dropped in the next week or so to 18 below zero on two occasions. Two weeks after the first storm, another dumped almost two more feet of snow, and temperatures soon bottomed out at 20 below.

Snows this year have been powdery for the most part. During that winter 35 years ago, they were wet and heavy, and would freeze hard in the arctic-like air, Gehrke recalled.

While there have been occasional whiteout issues this year along or near Route 47, in 1979 that road near the family farm was closed for four consecutive days. Mail delivery was halted for six days.

During that January, the truck for picking up milk got stuck twice, meaning some farmers had to dump their supply. This year, despite the weather, Gehrke and Engel said drivers have been able to make their stops.

The snow piled so deep in 1979, Gehrke recalled, that the Union 76 gas stations started giving out orange balls to put on the top of car antennas so that drivers might better be able to spot each other at intersections.

Snow mounds got so high that cows were able to wander off across land where fences had become buried. A friend of Gehrke who farms near Warren in Jo Daviess County couldn’t get to his hog barn for a week. When he finally was able to make it, he found that the pigs had broken a board to get into a haystack, where they had burrowed to keep warm.

During the winter of 1982, church was canceled for four consecutive Sundays due to the bad weather, the Gehrke family calendars note. January 1985 brought record cold temperatures, with 13 straight days of below-zero temperatures.

So far, Gehrke said, the winter weather pattern has delivered nuisance snows, followed by frigid air, but not the extended stretches of severe cold.

And there have been no major power outages, as there were during an ice storm in the 1990s. Ice is especially tough on farm animals, increasing the potential for injuries — particularly with horses, which his wife keeps.

Some like it cold

As for the challenges this and other hard winters bring to farmers, Engel said that in general, cows like cold weather and do best when it’s between 20 and 70 degrees. But with extreme cold, animals’ exposure to the elements must be limited.

To that end, barns need clean and fresh air, and are designed to deal with the extremes of weather seen in Illinois where summer has hit 115 degrees with the heat index and 40 below with the wind chill, Engel noted.

Beef cattle are not as domesticated and can handle cold better than their dairy counterparts. Gehrke said he has two calves on his farm born in early December who head outdoors and are running around in this weather.

With the milking process, “Everything takes so long,” Engel said. “In more normal winters, cows produce well — but they are creatures of habit, and the delays can interrupt that flow.”

Some of the things that can hold up that process, according to Engel:

Equipment can break and freeze in cold weather. Thawing things with hot water is tricky, because that water can quickly freeze when it’s very cold, too.

Warming up equipment and moving snow to get to the animals.

Wearing 25 pounds of gear to keep warm that winds up weighing 5 pounds more from sweat and ice. And you don’t want the ice to melt, because that would mean wet clothing.

Keeping udders out of the wind and elements.

Cows, like kids, drag snow into their barns. They typically rest on beds of sand, which are tougher to replenish in cold weather. Because the sand can get hard and frozen, a layer of hay is put down on top of it in winter.

In fact, Engel and Gehrke both noted similarities between dairy cows and caring for infants.

“Like babies, dairy cows are content where they’re warm, dry, their bellies are full, and they have water,” Gehrke said.

When it’s very cold, calves eat from 50 to 100 percent more than they typically would to meet their energy needs, Engel said. More feed is used, driving up costs. While corn prices are down from record highs, other ingredients/items fed to cows — particularly proteins — are high right now, Engel noted.

“Insulated jackets and earmuffs are used to help keep calves warm. By consuming up to double the calories and staying dry and out of the wind, calves are able to continue to stay healthy and grow despite the frigid temperatures,” Engel said. “Heifers eat breakfast and enjoy the morning sun, despite the cold. With a significant amount of extra feed and bedding, all animals have been able to stay healthy and well.”

Obviously, all this means that farmers — like the rest of us — are expecting higher utility bills for the first part of 2014, too.

Still, regardless of how difficult farming may get, “We love our animals, and we love farming. It’s what we do,” Engel said.

Engel said he realizes there are others less fortunate who are having a truly tough time staying warm this winter.

For his part, Gehrke, 53, said he intends to get out of dairy and cattle farming sometime this year and will concentrate on crops.

A sense of humor helps in making it through the wild winter, too.

Gehrke said he was talking to a milk truck driver who told him he would be retiring in March after 40 years on the job.

“I asked him if he thought he would make it,” Gehrke said with a laugh.

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