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The chilling reality of winter chores
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The chilling reality of winter chores

Anyone who grew up on a farm or ranch where cattle were raised knows what it’s like to go out on a frigid winter morning to chop holes in the ice on the stock dam so the herd can drink.

I’ll never forget it. My goodness, I used to moan when it was time for that chore. It was an essential part of farming, for sure. I mean, what are the cattle supposed to do when the only stock pond for two miles around is frozen solid? Chew on the snow that covers the frozen grass? Spend half the day licking the ice on the dam? Uh-uh, that won’t work.

Believe me, I know. I suggested those solutions to my dad when he handed me the ax and nodded toward the north pasture. He patiently explained the importance of keeping our cattle hydrated during cold weather. Then he nodded at the ax, nodded again at the pasture gate and turned away muttering something about how in the world he’d produced a kid who didn’t understand the first thing about farming.

Well, that was unfair, I thought. I understood a little bit about farming, not enough to have ever been able to run one on my own, but a little bit. For example, I knew enough to recognize that my future lay in some other direction than on the land, preferably in a career that involved little outdoor work in the winter and a bare minimum of heavy lifting any time. Newspapering looked like a pretty good alternative, although over the years I discovered that I did an awful lot of standing around outside in the cold while news was being committed somewhere.

I knew enough about farming that, when I was a student of Leonard DeBoer’s in vocational agriculture or whatever the formal title was of that course, I made a basketball backboard as my shop project instead of a feed trough or self-watering hog tank. Mr. DeBoer shook his head (he did that a lot when I was in his class), but he said my work was decent, so he’d give me an A on the project if I solemnly promised to never, ever consider being a farmer in real life. I agreed readily, took the grade and nailed that backboard to the REA pole the other side of the driveway from our garage on the farm. It lasted for decades, too. I’d like to think that Mr. DeBoer was as proud of that as I was.

But back to chopping ice. The thing is, I didn’t have any of this space-age material that allows the astronauts to withstand the immeasurable cold of outer space when they do their floating walks around their shuttles. I had everyday clothing to pile on in as many layers as I could fit inside my Army surplus parka and my down-filled overalls. My feet never were warm enough, no matter how many socks I pulled on. My hands were always cold, too, even inside a pair of gloves inside a pair of clumsy mittens that I had to shed so I could hold the ax.

If that weren’t enough, the cattle crowded against me the instant I walked toward the dam. They knew what was coming, and their excited breathing sent huge clouds of steam toward the sky, sometimes making it hard to see where I was going. Every morning the hole I’d chopped open the day before had frozen over again, sometimes with several inches of ice. I never did figure out a way to chop through that ice without splashing it all over my clothing, so when I walked back toward the gate, I was drenched as well as chilled.

I always felt I suffered more than was humanly possible on those trips to the stock pond. That is, I thought that until I read a couple of relatively new books about the Korean War and the fighting on the Chosin Reservoir up along the border between North Korea and China. I could hardly believe the conditions under which those soldiers and Marines fought the enemy. I read that a cold front from Siberia dropped the temperature at the Chosin Reservoir to minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Weapons malfunctioned and thousands of soldiers suffered frostbite.

Knowing that, if I were a kid on the farm, I’m sure I’d still whine about being sent to chop a hole in the ice on the stock dam. I’d feel pretty wimpy about it, though. That’s growth, I guess.

 Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.

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Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.

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