Frigid February brings challenges to farmers

Tama County farmer Cordt Holub feeds his herd of Angus/Simmental cows on a cold day in February. Producers like Holub often put in additional hours during the coldest parts of the winter making sure their livestock have plenty of feed, safe shelter or windbreak and access to clean water. Darvin Graham/News Chronicle

The recent bout of extreme cold weather has done much to disrupt the routines of Iowans that have already been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Single-digit highs, subzero overnight lows on top of a significant layer of snow have caused schools and events to cancel activities and has made simple chores like taking out the garbage or going to the grocery store into multi-step processes.

Through this especially cold season, livestock farmers in Tama County have been working hard to keep their animals healthy and their operations running while the challenge of dangerously low temperatures remain a persistant reality.

Preparation is key for farmers to make sure they’re able to handle whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

Cordt Holub is a young farmer from Geneseo Township in northeast Tama County where he and his brother Cade and their father Craig farm a cow-calf operation along with corn and soybeans.

“Every operation is different,” Holub said. “For myself, I was up at 2 a.m. this morning out pushing snow in Waterloo and then came home this afternoon to do chores. Some farmers are calving right now and I know some of them haven’t slept for two days. They’re out there checking on the cows every couple hours and making sure nothing’s going wrong. Or in the hog buildings, those farmers are making sure snow is cleared away from the buildings, making sure there’s enough fuel in the lp tank to continue to heat the barns, making sure there’s enough feed in the bins to last in case there’s bad weather. It’s a lot of preparing for things. You gotta be ready for the unexpected.”

A ­small group of Adam Ledvina’s 180 kid goats that were born within a four day stretch in February huddle together, with one content-looking barn cat, to stay warm during the recent bout of extreme cold weather that has hung over the state of Iowa through the last couple weeks. Ledvina said the most critical moment for his baby goats are right when they are first born. He and a team of family members worked all hours during the first week of February to make sure delivery went well for the mother does and to dry off the babies and get them tagged and feeding quickly. Photo provided

During this cold stretch Holub said a main concern is keeping an eye on their water system to make sure it doesn’t freeze over.

An article published by Iowa State Extension, beef veterinarian and associate professor Grant Dewell said windbreaks, extra bedding and feed are critical strategies to ensure cows are maintaining a healthy body temperature. It also is beneficial to feed at a certain time of day.

Dewell said feeding cows in the late afternoon helps them get through cold overnight temperatures as their heat production peaks about six hours after being fed. During periods of continual cold weather, cows will need approximately one extra pound of corn for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit of cold stress below 20 F.

“With any life form, it’s going to be hard on them when we’re talking negative 20 degrees on top of the wind chill,” Holub said. “But with proper care and proper nutrition, livestock will, I’d say do just fine.”

One livestock farmer in southern Tama County faced birthing season squarely in the center of the recent subzero cold spell.

Adam Ledvina farms a herd of around 200 kiko goats around the Chelsea area. Over the years he’s adjusted his kidding (birthing) season from the spring time into February.

He said during the colder weeks in February the mother does produce the most butterfat content in their milk which translates into stronger, healthier kid goats. When the kids are able to feed on milk with a higher fat content they’re able to get a strong boost of energy in their first few weeks.

Ledvina also said he prefers kidding in February when its cold and dry because the environment is more sterile than it would be in the wet spring months. He said this helps the kids start off on strong footing not having to compete with any parasites or bacteria show up when the ground is wet.

However, attempting kid births during the middle of winter comes with its own set of risks with the threat of extreme cold temperatures.

This year, Ledvina’s female goats started kidding during the first week of February when the temperatures were just getting to subzero levels. Coincidentally, the herd produced a record number of triplets and after four days of birthing, 180 newborn goats were filling Ledvina’s barn in Chelsea.

“It was a long, sleepless week,” Ledvina said in a Facebook post. “There was a little more human intervention this year during these weather conditions than there typically is, but we are still so impressed with the mothering of this kiko herd we have built here in Iowa.”

Since there were so many kids born in quick succession, Ledvina ended up with a greater number of kids needing to be bottle fed. He said in a normal year he’s used to dealing with no more than 10 bottle-kids. This year he said they were bottle feeding close to 40 kids right after the females had their babies.

Ledvina said his operation is very much a team effort with his sister Amy, brother-in-law Derek and their dad Mike. It was all hands on deck for their team as they worked to get the wet newborn kids dried off and tagged quickly before the frigid air could put the kids in danger.

For hog farmers in Tama County, the challenges differ slightly as they’re raising animals primarily indoors.

Keeping their mechanical systems like heat, ventilation, feed and water all running smoothly is crucial for the health of their their animals as well as their business.

Josh Volante runs a hog finishing operation near Clutier where he and his family raise hogs from 40 pounds up to their finished weight of around 280 pounds.

He said dealing with hogs and winter weather comes down to preparation.

“It’s just a lot of common sense and animal livestock husbandry practices,” Volante said. “There’s a lot of different items that you have to make sure the boxes are checked to get through the day and even the night. The night is probably more important because we rely on alarms so we can make sure those pigs are healthy.”

The balancing act he and many hog farmers in Iowa contend with during this time of year is needing to run heat in their buildings while also opening up vents so air can flow and everything inside the buildings can stay dry.

One of the more difficult challenges with extreme cold for a finishing operation like Volante operates is the transition time when a group of hogs is moved out and a new group is moved in.

Volante said after a barn is emptied, cleaned and power-washed, getting the temperature back up to where they normally want it has been a struggle with subzero temperatures outside.

Just as cities rely on a collective effort to keep roadways, water lines and sewer lines operating, the agriculture community also relies on a network of support systems to help keep animals safe and comfortable and farms open for business during extreme weather events.

“I’m just grateful for the plumbers and electricians that are out at all hours helping to fix things that break during the winter,” Holub said. “The veterinarians as well. You can give them a call at three in the morning if there’s an emergency and they’ll come help. There’s also the road crews out pushing snow at four or five in the morning. It’s just a consistent cycle of community and people helping people.”