Wednesday, February 19, 2014


This has been a tough winter for these two farmers in Maryland.

Will grew up in P.G. County and I've been here since 1993. 

I grew up in Upstate New York, 1.5 hours from Toronto and I used to jokingly refer to being from the Canadian Riviera because of the horrible winters.

Maryland was like a dream - mild winters with some change of weather but very rare cold snaps and very little snow on the ground. fantasies of life in Maryland have been shattered.

During the winter of 2013-2014, we have experienced some really brutally cold temperatures.

Unfortunately for us, we had decided that a winter lambing would be a good idea for this season. 

We follow an accelerated lambing schedule loosely based on the STAR system developed at Cornell, that allows us to get 3 cycles out of each ewe/doe about every 24 or 26 months. Because lamb is so hard to produce profitably in our area, anything we can do to improve the economics of this operation is vital.

Previous winter lambings had gone swimmingly, and we had actually come around a full 180 degrees from our belief in 'following the seasons' and lambing later in the spring when the grass has come in. 

Our experience this past April was classic. A bunch of lambs that were weaned onto grass, just as the parasite loads on grass hit their stride. The lambs floundered all summer with very poor growth and lots of scouring from heavy parasite loads. Here it is in February, almost a year later, and I still have lambs that are not really ready for butchering because of their small size and poor weight gain. Believe me, trying to put weight on feeder lambs using only hay is an expensive and slow process.

Given the bitter cold, the sheep were brought into the barn for lambing. Stalls (called jugs) were setup and heat lamps were put in place. We were as ready as we would ever be.

Now, ask any farmer about using heat lamps in their barn, and a mix of fear and quiet resignation will wash over their face. Heat lamps are responsible for horrific barn fires every year and yet, for many farmers, the prospects of doing without them is just not thinkable.

Some farmers refuse to use them altogether deeming the risk too great.

So how cold was it? (Well, for those of you from further north, you can skip over this part as you will be completely unimpressed.)

'Cold as a witches tit!' as my mother used to say. Really cold. Frigid. Minus single digits. So cold, waterers froze, the snow crunched like potato chips under our feet, and our wimpy Maryland animals shivered and hunkered down in their shelters.

For the breeder pigs, we stocked their shelters with lots of straw, commonly referred to as 'deep bedding'. The pigs burrow into the straw and as it composts in situ, it gives off heat. I've heard of temperatures into the 70's at soil level in pig operations with good deep bedding even during bitter cold.

As proof of this, I was impressed to see our compost heap hitting 145 degrees, even during the worst of the cold. That's some impressive heat production.

The dogs seemed oblivious. Except for a few of the coldest, windy nights, when wind chills reached -40 degrees, I would find them asleep in the snow, not anywhere near their cozy shelters.

Which brings us back to lambsicles. What these wickedly cold temps did mean was we were checking for new lambs, every two hours, day and night, so we could get the newborns dry ASAP.
Once hypothermic, newborn lambs, kids and piglets are in trouble and often, we can't turn them around.

Here we have a picture of two hypothermic piglets. In order to save them, we have to get their body temp up ASAP. Here we have submerged them in a bucket of warm water. Works like a charm!

I'm happy to say that with 70 lambs and baby goats (kids) on the ground, we had no losses to cold.

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