Farmers work to keep livestock warm, watered and fed
By the time the cold spell broke and the mercury climbed to double-digits late Tuesday, the residents of Stan Schutte's farm could be seen running around, play-fighting each other and climbing snow piles in "King of the Mountain" games.
Even cattle get cabin fever.
With their winter coats, cattle can handle the frigid temperatures and snow, said area farmers, who have been laboring to keep their animals' water from freezing and adding extra bedding in the barns.
"Abnormally low temperatures ... that's been a huge challenge not only for everybody going through their daily activities, but especially for those caring for their livestock," said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension educator specializing in cattle. "When it's minus 21, our farmers are out taking care of these animals, making sure they have their daily needs met and are comfortable."
That involves clearing paths to deliver the food to the animals, daily feedings, making sure they have fresh (not frozen) water, clean straw for bedding and more.
"It's mainly about being ready," said Schutte, who spent Thursday through Saturday of last week making sure equipment like tractors and front-end loaders were full of diesel fuel (de-geling liquid on hand), checking the generator and completing tasks like spraying the doorknobs of various outbuildings with chain lube. (Because if animals are on one side and the cold and wind are on the other side, condensation develops and mechanisms can freeze, Schutte said).
Aside from a turkey that went out for some fresh air Sunday night and didn't come back, his operation made it through the winter storm. A heater in a barn that's home to young pigs broke down, but Schutte had the tools on hand to fix it. (And he noticed it before the barn turned too cold for the animals).
"We knew this was coming. We do live in central Illinois. Even though it's been since '94 since we've seen it, we get weather like this," said Andy Allen, who with his grandfather Don Wood operates a feedlot with about 1,000 cattle north of Champaign.
At the peak of the cold snap the crew was on a one-hour rotation going to the water troughs to break any ice that had formed. With the 30- and 40-mph winds on Sunday and Monday, the farmers would break the ice and a half-hour later the water would freeze again, Allen said.
The cattle have shelter, but in cold temperatures they still go outside, usually herding, huddling together to stay warm, with their bottoms to the wind, Allen said. Like us, the wind bothers them more so than the cold, he said.
"Anytime you get under zero, no matter what animal, it takes more feed to keep their bodies warm," Allen said. That's why the farmers in recent days increased the feed and modified the ration a bit, adding more corn for energy, he said.
Daily weight gains do go down during periods of extreme cold, which could cause concern for farmers like Allen, who feed cattle before sending them on to be processed for meat.
After the wind died down on Tuesday morning, Allen said, the animals could be seen running and playing again outside, much as they were on Schutte's farm.
On the plus side: "It's a short-lived event," Meteer said of the recent frigid weather.
"If it was a long period of time, it would make a big difference," Allen said, but "just a two-day spell" won't cause such a drop in weight gain or cause severe stress for the animal.
Sometimes, the added stress of being exposed to extreme cold could have an effect on meat quality, if that animal is scheduled to be slaughtered soon.
"Production animals like bulls and cows will be OK," Meteer said. "Not that it's a big issue but ... bulls carry their testicles between their rear legs, not up in their body. If they got frostbite, it could affect their sperm, the motility of that sperm and the sperm quality."
To prevent that from happening, producers provide extra bedding on cold days.
"Cattle are hardy creatures," he added.