I had to give myself more time to get out the door last week.
Before I dared crack the doorknob, I had to get dressed. I started with wool long johns and two pairs of wool socks. Then came jeans, a shirt and a wool sweater. Then snowboots, insulated coveralls, a down parka, a facemask and wool hat went on. By then, I had to hurry to don the rest because I was overheating. I slipped on the wool gloves and coyote-skin mittens in a hurry.
All this because I had to compensate for my heating system, which falls far short of our livestock’s internal furnaces.
Temperatures dipped to -22 last week and the Graham Ranch received about 6 inches of snow. The winds did not howl, but even a 15 mph breeze bit a hole in every living thing it touched.
Livestock can tolerate wind or moisture or cold, but suffer if they face any combination of those elements. My husband, Steve, and I work to reduce the effects of wind and moisture because we don’t have a lot of influence over the temperature.
Even though the range looks like flat plains from the county road, the secret to the Graham Ranch lies in the twisting coulees that provide shelter from wind no matter which direction it originates. The cattle show Steve where to roll out the hay bales because they are out of the wind.
Our cattle, sheep and horses generate heat when they digest forage. The harder that forage is to digest, the warmer they become. Of course, they still need to meet their nutritional requirements so we feed a full ration of high quality hay — or a double ration when it gets really cold — plus add straw for them to chew on. The cows, sheep and horses devour the straw when it gets cold like last week.
I wish I could stay warm by eating. I’d lay out, basking in the snow, surrounded by all of the season’s bounty. I think the pies, cornbread dressing and eggnog would be closest in my reach.
What the livestock don’t eat, they lay on. That’s fine with us. The snow settles as dry powder, but when the animals lie on it, the snow melts. We want them to lie on the dry straw so they don’t face a combination of cold and moist conditions.
The sun peaked out every once in a while to help us battle the temperatures last week. Even at -1, the cattle and horses turned sideways to the sun, soaking up that heat.
We won’t shear our sheep until March so they have a thick blanket to help them cope. However, I noticed that the wind bit through my wool gloves so I know the sheep need to stay out of the wind. They use the coulees during the day and spend the nights next to the barn, choosing the leeward side for protection.
We resist putting the sheep into the barn because they need lots of air circulation to breathe. Once I had a neighbor who sheared her sheep just before a major snowstorm. She worried about the sheep suffering from the combination of cold and moisture so she crammed all of them into her barn. The next morning, all of the sheep had suffocated.
I don’t worry too much about the coyotes staying warm. First of all, they are not welcome near my sheep. Secondly, I have evidence that they are naturally prepared for winter.
A friend made a pair of mittens from a tanned coyote hide that Steve had. Those mittens will warm my hands almost immediately, even when my hands feel like ice cubes. Finally, I found a single characteristic of the wily coyote’s amazing ability to survive helping me to survive, too.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
She has two children; Will, 12, and Abby, 4.