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From the Woodlot
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From the Woodlot

From the Woodlot

It’s cold and it’s getting colder,

It’s gray and white and winter all around.

And oh, I must be getting older,

And all this snow is trying to get me down. -- Season Suite: Winter, by John Denver

Has it found its way beneath your thermal layers? Crept under the moisture-wicking fabric of your long johns? Has it permeated beneath your insulated Duck-Bib Key overalls? Or has it simply become one with your old-fashioned union suit? It’s cold I’m referring to. Seems it finds its way under my layers earlier each winter, chilling me to my core.

It’s not just my imagination. Studies have shown that as we age we have a cooler body temperature due to loss of thermoregulation, the process that allows a body to maintain its core internal temperature. And our blood vessels lose their elasticity, which decreases our rate of circulation. If that isn’t bad enough, the thinning fat layer beneath our skin becomes less effective at conserving heat.

The old familiar refrain “baby it’s cold outside” seems to always be in the back of my mind by January. In rock ’n roll terms perhaps I’m just “cold as ice.”

Doing farm chores in winter adds challenges to what is usually routine. My January days on the farm always depended on a good block heater to thin the oil viscosity in my tractor’s crankcase. It was rare to have one fail but when they did the telltale sign was the low groan of the starter trying to crank the unheated engine block containing cold 10W-40 oil the thickness of Blackstrap molasses. I was lucky to have a quarter-turn of the flywheel.

In my open-station cabless-tractor days on the farm it seemed there’d always be a stretch every January when the warmest temperature didn’t break zero and the wind blew steadily from the northwest. Dressing for the daily winter manure-hauling chore was an ordeal in itself. There was nothing high-tech about my clothing, gleaned from our cedar chest next to the mudroom closet in the dark corner of our federal-style farmhouse. The only style points I got were for my fur-lined bomber hat.

The actual dispensing of a full spreader of manure over winter’s frozen fields presented challenges in itself. Through time it’s become clear it’s a task better done when the ground isn’t frozen, due to runoff concerns. Wind direction and speed were always a consideration when I spread manure. In the earliest of my farming career I hauled the daily barn manure from our 60 cows with an Allis Chalmers D19 tractor and a 185-bushel manure spreader with no end gate. I soon developed my own wind-speed estimates based on my observations of the manure-spreading phenomena from an open-station tractor. At a calm 3 miles per hour the beaters send the manure in an evenly distributed spray with a mere 5 percent of the product cascading back toward the operator regardless of wind direction. Anything faster than 10 miles per hour made it essential to drive into the wind and avoid engaging the power take-off until fully headlong into it.

The task of cleaning the manure spreader with a steel scraper after each use was essential in freezing conditions. Any manure left on the beaters or apron would freeze and cause a variety of issues the next day – issues no one wants in sub-zero weather. I had just enough flexibility in my winter attire to put one boot on the hub of the spreader wheel and throw my other leg over the sidewall of the spreader to climb in and accomplish the task.

Roller chains, roller bearings, drive shafts, sprockets and splines – they all work harder in cold temperatures, as do farmers tending to daily chores. Perhaps friend, on your kitchen table along with the latest Agri-View newspaper, an aerial photo of your farm shows your 2022 cropping plan. Beneath that a garden-seed catalog foretells your garden plan with tempting images of purple eggplants, rust-colored heirloom tomatoes and bi-colored sweet corn. Whether you’re dairying, raising meat, homesteading, cropping or market-garden-farming, we’re on the cusp of being “over the hump” of winter. There’s likely plenty of cold and snow left in Mother Nature’s tank but hopefully, like it was for me on the farm, you’re beginning to see the light of another growing season.

But for now, like in much of Wisconsin, my woodlot neighborhood is reminiscent of a Grant Wood painting complete with wood smoke curling from the chimneys of houses old and new on a road formerly known as Hilldale. Winter marches on, albeit slowly, toward another spring. Until next week …

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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