By: David Singer, Washington Observer-Reporter
Every job outdoors gets harder in extreme cold, but few have it tougher than cattle farmers. And it's not just the cold snaps that grind agricultural operations to a churning slog, but also the brief warm-ups, which are proving difficult for Pennsylvania farmers.
"Once you hit 20 degrees, everything takes twice as long - starting equipment; moving cattle. The problem with the fluctuating temperature is it starts and ends with the ground. Last week, everything was mud; now this week, there are frozen, foot-high ruts that you can barely get a tractor over and it could have the cows spraining or breaking their legs," said District Judge Ethan Ward, who works 250 acres of pasture in West Alexander.
While farmers saw widespread instances of frostbite last year in sustained, bitter cold - Ward said seven of his calves lost the tips of their ears - veterinary experts at Penn State University are warning the freeze-thaw cycles this winter are increasing the risk of pneumonia and other lung diseases in cattle.
"Bovine animals can take cold. So as long as it's a steady, cold winter, they're all right, because they put on thick coats and layers of fat. But they get heat stress, or don't feel like moving, and get stagnant, and the instances we've seen (in the State College area) are not as many frostbite cases, but farmhands are reporting lung diseases. It's not an epidemic, but this warmer winter has brought it on," said Penn State veterinarian Dr. Meggan Hain.
"So the things we're recommending are to give supplemental vaccines if necessary, and to improve their nutrition," Hain said.
Ward agrees with one aspect - providing some sort of super food for cattle.
"Cattle aren't supposed to eat grain, so this only a once in a while thing. So we put in molasses in with the corn feed. It's their energy drink. But I can count on my hand the amount of times I've given my cows an antibiotic. Not going to do it. I'm not contributing to the antibiotic-resistant food supply out there," Ward said.
Hain said moving the cows to proper shelter is another way to prevent pneumonia.
"We have two barns they can run into," said Adam Leech, of Leech Farms, in Hopewell Township, "but anytime it gets around 32 degrees we have to watch. We don't have to herd them, but sometimes they don't want to go inside. As far as nutrition, we try to be proactive with a 'super-food' blend of soy, corn, oat and wheat to really round out their diet when there's no grass."
The usual feed - round hay bales - double as bedding for the cows.
"I put out three bales for them a day. And I don't care about the 'waste' because they bed down on that. It gives them some insulation," Ward said, alluding to a more extreme solution he tried last year.
"I set a couple bales on fire. It was negative-30 with a wind chill and I was really in a bind to keep these black angus cattle warm. So, I found that these things kind of smolder like a cigarette and don't just engulf in flames. That slow, smoky burn - they stood right up against it," Ward said.
Ward said he hasn't had any instances of frostbite or pneumonia this year, but the freeze-thaw cycle might yield another factor: moldy hay.
"You have to have cured hay if you want to make sure they don't inhale mold. That might be where these lung illnesses are coming from when it gets warm after a freeze," Ward said.
The central problem for cattle farmers is a logistical one - making sure they have enough pasture to roam, and standby pastures they can relocate to once they trot up deep tracks of mud and waste.
"It's like the tractor in the ruts. They get stuck, their hooves will get cracked from the mud. You've got to get them to another field before the current one turns into a swamp," Ward said, "and keeping them moving - that's what I think keeps them from getting lung infections-something the mothers do for their calves since they just want to lay down. It's a struggle, but it's worth it," Ward said.
"I don't have to worry about food. I butcher a cow for the year - and would you believe I was almost a vegetarian? I watched the movie 'Moses' and it really affected me. But I felt I was doing good work this way, over the past 30 years. You've got to have something to come home to; to be proud of. Otherwise I couldn't be in that robe. Judge Curtis Thompson is a farmer too, and I just don't know how you go home from the bench without something like this. We're all regular people, farmers, but judges are just regular people, too."