Stepping up for Cows and Communities in Winter Weather

Mother Nature, more like Mother Winter, has taken her toll on Washington dairies throughout the state. Whether buried in two feet of snow since November or facing bitter, bone-chilling temperatures, farmers haven’t skipped a beat when it comes to caring for their animals and communities. Extra rounds of breaking ice in water tanks, laying down additional bedding, or increasing feed rations are just a few ways farmers are going the extra mile to be sure their cows are comfortable. Lynne Wheeler, of Coldstream Farms in Deming, said the added challenges of this winter weather has made an already heavy workload, even heavier.

“Ensuring our hoses and pumps don’t freeze to make sure our cows have access to free-choice water 24 hours a day has been a main priority,” said Wheeler.

A recent 36-hour power outage didn’t help matters. “We had generators running at several of our facilities which added a whole other level of management to our entire farm.” Luckily, getting their fresh milk to the processor hasn’t been on Coldstream’s long list of added challenges. Wheeler explained, “We’re very fortunate to have great milk truck drivers. Most of them are former log truck drivers and farm boys so they do a great job at handling these trucks on the roads.” Whatcom County issued a state of emergency last week for their residents and Wheeler’s brother-in-law has been out in the community trying to help.  

“He cleared the parking lots at the local store and the driveway at the fire station so the ambulance could get out if it needed to. I think we help our community, but our community gives back to us in so many ways that I don’t feel we’re doing anything special,” stated Wheeler.

Cows are incredibly resilient animals which gives them the upper hand in extreme conditions. According to Craig McConnel, Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine Extension, located at Washington State University in Pullman, “Cows have a built-in heater, a.k.a. the rumen which produces the same BTUs as a bathroom heater. This helps alleviate some of the energy needed to keep their body temperature up.” However, McConnel urges farmers to give calves a little extra attention in extreme temperatures.

“Calf feeding during the winter months can be a pretty substantial issue,” he said. “If farmers overlook the fact that calves are outside of their thermal neutral zone (TNZ) for a substantial period of time, they can underfeed calves; especially between the time calves are transitioning from liquid to pellet feed.”

(WSU Dairy in Pullman)

The Tri-Cities, has had more than 23 inches of snow blanket the area, compared to less than an inch of accumulation last year. Spokane hasn’t had it easy either. This has been the coldest winter the area has seen since 1992. Joe Rollinger, a dairy farmer near Sunnyside, has been battling snow and frozen ground for 67 long days. “The main concern that I always have is cow comfort,” said Rollinger. “We’re working 12 and 14 hours days to keep our cows content; providing extra bedding, and doing extra rounds to be sure they have fresh water is our number one priority.” Joe with a heavy sigh said, “My two boys and I have been running ragged trying to keep up.” Rollinger has been concerned with the safety of his rural neighbors.

“I’ve been plowing roads for the people outside of the city who haven’t been dug out yet,” said Rollinger. “If there was an emergency I don’t know how these people would get the help they need, so I’ve been making sure their roads are accessible.”

Producer-processors have their own set of difficulties with the ice and snow-covered roads. David Lukens, Grace Harbor Farms in Lynden said, “Being a producer-processor, we have to tank our milk to the creamery and do our own deliveries down to Seattle.” There is the normal level of stress sending delivery trucks to Seattle, but the snow and ice is really amplifying that. Lukens said their milk truck was involved in a head-on collision due to the weather. 

“That was the bummer of the winter,” he said. “Although we lost a truck, thankfully my employee was okay and we didn’t lose any milk.” 

While spring isn’t too far off, McConnel, said the warming temperatures could be more problematic than the cold itself. “With the warm temperatures comes mud,” he said. Lots and lots of mud. 

WSU Dairy in Pullman

“Usually the snow comes and goes,” McConnel said. “But this year the snow came, and kept coming without going away. So farmers with dry lots and outdoor calf facilities are going to be faced with one big rush of mud.” 

Between the snow, sleet, and ice, dairy farmers throughout the state have went above and beyond to make sure that not only their cows are safe, but their communities are, too.