Are farmers busy in the winter? Yes. We may be outside of the growing season, but there’s plenty of winter work, especially on a grain farm with livestock. Here’s what the season looks like on my farm.
Top Ten Winter Chores
1. Check the mama cows. We have a cow-calf operation and care for cattle year-round. In mid-October when our pastures go dormant, eight month old calves were weaned, and the mama cows were sent to winter grazing on our harvested corn and grain sorghum (milo) stalks. They gather nutrition from the roughage and a little grain that remained after harvest. Daily, we check the water supply, the fences, and cow health as they prepare to calve (have babies) in February. If it snows, we’ll supplement their nutrition with alfalfa and prairie hay bales that were put up over the growing season. If it’s below freezing, we’ll chop ice where water tanks are unheated.
2. Calf chores. After being weaned from their moms, calves are moved to a pen right on our homestead. They eat alfalfa and prairie hay, supplemented with a nutritionist-approved ration available in a self-feeder. Calves can access this feed whenever they wish. Daily chores include checking water, managing feed and hay levels, and monitoring calf health. Some are tame enough to seek us out to have their neck and shoulders scratched!
3. Caring for stored grain. Much of the grain we harvested was stored in grain bins. We check the moisture levels regularly so the grain does not spoil.
4. Trucking. What goes in must come out! We truck our corn, soybeans, and grain sorghum to a nearby grain elevator for further shipment. Yellow corn also goes to a local ethanol plant. Our white corn is hauled to a mill to be prepared for use in food like tortillas.
5. Seed selection. We have already ordered seed for next year’s crop. Advance planning gives us the best options for planting season. We consult with our local seed dealer and agronomists to tailor the seed selections to the soil traits and water availability of our individual fields.
6. Nutrient and chemical needs. Soil samples and harvest data allow us to be precisely target our crop nutrients. On some of our fields, we’ll fertilize in the winter months as weather allows, with the remainder to be done just prior to planting or right after planting. Just like a backyard garden, weeds must be minimized as much as possible. We anticipate what products we might need, and are certified and trained to apply certain chemicals in way that is non-toxic for the environment and helps us protect our crops from weeds, disease, and pests.
7. Crop Insurance. Risk is managed by insuring for our crops from extremes in weather and markets. In years of hail damage, drought stress, or dramatic price moves, this tool has helped us meet our financial obligations when we have less revenue than anticipated.
8. Meeting with landlords. Much of the land we farm is rented from other owners. These relationships are vital to our operation, and we strive for good communication, adjusting our rental agreements to achieve fairness for all parties.
9. Equipment care. During the winter months we repair, replace, or maintain our tractors and implements so they’ll function properly in the upcoming season.
10. Financial planning. Gathering financial information to generate a profit/loss statement, balance sheet, and a cash flow budget is essential before we meet with our banker each year to monitor our financial trends and health of our farm. Tax preparation is another winter task, in addition to meeting with a grain broker to formulate a plan to manage the marketing of the old crop and next year’s new crop.
While the countryside may be resting during the colder months, farmers are still working on many tasks related to the upcoming growing season and caring for their livestock every day. While the pace may not be quite as hectic as planting, harvesting, or calving, there are still many items on our winter to-do list in keeping our farm functioning successfully for the short and long term.