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‘Polar vortex’ blankets East and Midwest

“It’s hard to describe how challenging this day is on the dairy farm,” wrote LuAnn Troxel on the Troxel Dairy Farm facebook page Sunday, Jan. 5 as the snowstorm settled in followed by the “polar vortex.” Photo by LuAnn Troxel

Special for Farmshine

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. -- While some of the photos posted by dairy farmers on their farm Facebook pages and Twitter were downright beautiful, others spoke volumes about the extreme challenges and dedication put forth to care for animals on farms this week during what is being called the “polar vortex.”

The extreme temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday were the talk of both the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg and of farmers who were able to get away and attend the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. this week.

Frozen waterers, vacuum pumps, manure removal equipment and difficulty starting feeding equipment were the most commonly reported concerns shared by producers from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia who were able to get to the show in York.

Further North and West into the lake regions of the Upper Midwest, through Northern Indiana and Ohio into western New York and Northwest Pennsylvania, the “polar vortex” was amplified by the snow storm preceding it.

Thankfully, by the time you read this, warmer temperatures are forecast to prevail and bring relief to cattle and caretakers as well as equipment and transportation.

The mantra this week for farm families was to not only take care of their animals but to communicate what they were doing with their farm and non-farm “followers” on Facebook,

“There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm,” wrote Tricia Adams at her family’s Hoffman Farms page on Facebook. Three generations of the Hoffmans milk 700 cows near Shinglehouse, Potter County, Pennsylvania.

“The extreme weather makes us feel like we are surviving it and not thriving in it!” she said in an email interview Wednesday, reporting Tuesday’s low at Hoffman Farms was -18 with a high of -4. The mercury fi nally reaching a high of 12 degrees Wednesday. They are thankful to be spared the additional 3-feet of snow that fell just north of them in New York.

As for the polar temps and wind chills, “we run a heater in the parlor to help with frozen milkers but even that was icing up,” said Tricia, adding that the conditions for the cows in the freestall barns were “very slippery.”

The Hoffmans, like other farmers dealing with these conditions, did their best to cope with frozen, caked manure in the walkways, barns and parlor -- not to mention frozen waterers, feed mixers and tractors freezing up as the off-road diesel gummed up.

“We changed fuel fi lters and used additives to thin the fuel and keep our equipment running,” Tricia explained. “Winter is tough, and up here we are prepared for it; but when it gets this extreme, you know there is only so much you can prevent. What you can’t prevent you just have to deal with as it happens.”

Much attention was paid to the especially important job of “tricky calvings.” At Hoffman Farms, Tricia used heated boxes for the newborn calves.

Over in Bradford County near Milan, Pa. Glenn and Robin Gorrell were thankful for the 45 degrees and rain over the weekend to melt the snow at their 600-cow dairy before the sub-zero temperatures arrived Tuesday.

Glenn reported temperatures ranging -10 to -20 depending on location in the hills or valleys.

“I think that we were lucky here and we are always happy the rest of our team helps get us through,” said Glenn in an email interview Wednesday.

“The wind was the killer. It can really drive the cold everywhere,” he said, adding that they had frozen pipes in the employee house for the fi rst time ever.

“In the tie-stall barn we were like everybody else: Bowls on the west side were frozen. The milk house froze for the fi rst time in years. We thought we had all the equipment ready with new fi lters and more fuel
conditioner, but we were wrong,” he explained. “We needed to cut more with kerosene and put tarps around hoods of the loader tractor and feed mixer.”

The calves and youngstock at Gorrell Dairy got extra bedding and a little more grain to get them by.

“Robin always has calf jackets on them once it is below 50 degrees anyway,” Glenn reported. “We tried to double up feeding our heifers so we would have less equipment to start in the extreme cold.”

At Troxel Dairy Farm Laporte County, near Hanna, Indiana, conditions were quite severe, with extreme low temps in line with what farmers were seeing in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota this week.

Facebook followers commented that the cows must be “milking ice cream” as they read LuAnn Troxel’s posts about dairying in temps that had fallen to -12 and -17 with wind chills as low as -53 in northern Indiana on the heels of over 1-foot of snow.

Calling the cows “good sports,” LuAnn acknowledged how tough this week has been for man and beast. She and husband Tom and son Rudy, operate the 100-cow dairy.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” said Tom Troxel, DVM, who in addition to the dairy farm has South County Veterinary practice.

“Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lie down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot,” he explained in an email interview Wednesday.

“Calves need the same thing, including increased feed (calories),” Tom advised. “But sometimes the threat of scours keeps feeders from increasing milk to calves. There is no question that cold stress can cause younger animals to be more susceptible to scours and pneumonia, but careful monitoring and feeding electrolytes can help a lot.

“It’s more important to increase feed to cold, young calves. Also, try hand feeding starter grain to young calves that are at least 2 days old,” he suggested.

As for cow nutrition during extreme cold, it comes down to “energy, energy, energy,” said dairy consultant Ray Kline, during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Wednesday. Ray has retired from the Agri-Basics team of nutritionists but is as passionate as ever about cattle nutrition.

“Feeding calves more often -- 3 to 4 times a day -- also helps because they do not have a rumen to heat them up,” he observed. “With the cows, the ration can be adjusted for higher energy, but without losing fi ber. Cows normally eat more when it is cold, but a more dense ration also helps get more energy to them.”

He suggests picking out the “barometer cows” in the herd and watching them for Body Condition Score to know if ration adjustments to the whole herd are needed. Ray also urged dairymen to pay attention to waterers and keep them running.

“After an event like this, we can see it in the repro,” said Ray. “The cow will take care of herself fi rst; so what she eats will go to maintaining herself through the severe weather.”

The seasoned dairy consultant also noted that “life spins its pattern back to years before.” While the “polar vortex” this week was new for some generations on the farm, others have experienced it before.

“If you look at history, we’ve had winters like this, but you have to go a long way back,” said Ray.

As for the milking equipment and transportation, Gib Martin, general manager of Mount Joy Farmers Cooperative in Pennsylvania noted that milk pickup and transport required more time and labor this week.

“We had some issues with tank compressors and one truck down, but no major interruptions in the fl ow of milk,” said Gib during an interview at Tuesday.

Ken Weber recommends using a heat lamp to keep compressors going for cooling the milk. Weber is retired from service calls but still works with BouMatic equipment. He suggests paying close attention to vacuum pumps outside.

“They are the last thing the dairyman uses to wash the pipe line and that moisture in there can cause them to freeze up,” he said during an interview at the Keystone Farm Show in York, Pa. Tuesday. “Just take a pipe wrench and work it back and forth to loosen it and consider using supplemental heat like a heat lamp to keep the pump warm.”