Weathering the storm

Dennis Morris, a beef cattle farmer in Toms Brook, demonstrates this insulated automatic water trough that is one of several on his farm that provides fresh water to his cattle even in the extreme cold weather and requires no electricity. Rich Cooley/Daily

Freezing temperatures during the winter can put a strain on many agricultural operations. For cattle farmers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, these months can be especially harsh.

Between annual fixed costs of vaccinations and somewhat variable costs of feeding herds, cattle farmers are literally “weathering the storm” to reduce harmful effects and losses.

Bobby Clark, agricultural and natural resources agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said that cattle farmers have been reporting higher than usual cattle losses this winter.

“Most of the time, it is the calves that are born during the cold weather,” Clark said.

Although the Extension does not have official data yet, Clark said, “We think the numbers are up compared to what it would be if it was prettier weather.”

Dennis Morris, a beef cattle farmer, walks through the snow on his Toms Brook farm after feeding some of his older beef cattle. Rich Cooley/Daily

According to Clark, losing a newborn calf can result in an eventual loss of $1,000 for a farm’s beef operations.

“The reality is that the farm really doesn’t have any cost in the calf from the time it’s born until it is weaned,” he said, “The calf at that moment is not worth $1,000, but they pretty much lose … that income.”

Dennis Morris, of Moo Manor Farm in Toms Brook, said this season’s weather is “the second worst” he has seen since he and his wife Doris entered the beef production industry 28 years ago.

Although he said he has “luckily” not experienced cattle losses this year, he noted that the sub-freezing temperatures put a strain on operations.

“It’s been a real challenge the last couple of weeks, to anybody that has outside farming work to do,” Morris said.

Even with the concerns over calf losses, Clark said that the bigger issue for some area farmers this time of year concerns alternative water sources, such as water troughs.

According to Matt Kowalski, senior conservation specialist with the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, they have helped install 76 systems in farms in both Warren and Shenandoah County since 2009.

Kowalski noted that such systems, when coupled with stream-exclusion fencing and advanced grazing techniques, can help water quality in streams.

By getting livestock out of the streams, Kowalski said, “It reduces sedimentation significantly … and it also dramatically reduces direct nutrient and bacteria inputs.”

Clark noted that these water troughs are actually difficult to maintain during the winter as freezing pipes and water become major concerns.

The freezing weather conditions, Clark added, “Make it a way bigger challenge for these farmers to make sure these things do not freeze up.”

In the case of freezing pipes, Clark said that farmers can pay anywhere from $50 to $500 to replace individual pipes or the entire system.

“The concept of these is that if you have enough livestock drinking from them, the water keeps moving through the system,” Kowalski noted, explaining that the district tries to install some piping 24 inches underground, or below the frost line.

This process, Kowalski explained, is supposed to keep the water warm by pulling from sources that are below the frost line.

“Obviously, when you get down into temperatures like what we had last week, that can get to be a challenge,” Kowalski said.

These are challenges that Morris knows all too well. Morris worked with Lord Fairfax to install an insulated water trough in the spring of 2009.

“When the wind chill gets 20 [degrees] below-zero, a lot of insulation just won’t work,” Morris said, adding that his farm has had problems with the bobbers freezing.

Morris explained, “No matter what you do, you can lower the water levels, but with the wind blowing … we have had problems trying to keep the bobbers afloat so that the cattle can get into the water.”

In order to prevent freezing from occurring, Morris said that water has to be checked “more than one time a day.”

Morris also noted that cattle “have got to have water” in order to keep their body temperatures up and remain healthy. “So if something goes wrong, you have to tackle it head-on.”

With the winter not over yet, Clark indicated that the overall effects in terms of feed, cattle losses and frozen water systems will not be fully assessed for another month.

For farmers such as Dennis Morris, the bottom line is simply surviving the elements during the winter season.

The increased work load, Morris added, “Is very time consuming, but it’s just part of the work and you just have to go out there, put a smile on your face and get it done.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com