Two inches of ice on the water troughs this morning and most of the puddles in the road are frozen solid. We had an arctic storm move in from Alaska, and after freezing everything, it dropped about three inches of snow on us as well. Then it froze again. Although I was born in the frigid East, I grew up in California. Even after five years in Idaho, I never really got over the “oh, boy, it’s snowing!” excitement whenever those fluffy white flakes started to fall. That fizz in the blood held despite the nuisance of shoveling walkways, the outright danger of driving on black ice and the occasional frozen pipe. But snow can be a nuisance when you spend a lot of time outdoors and have animals to take care of.
When humans domesticated animals, we made them dependent on us. The cows can’t follow their instincts to drift in front of a storm because the fences will stop them—when the western ranges were fenced, cattle would drift into a fence corner, pile up and freeze to death. The chickens need to have the ice in the waterer melted since they can’t fly off to the nearest stream for a drink. Pigs need several bales of straw to cozy up in, and the old mare needs a heavy blanket. You can take it too far, of course—animals evolved to live in all kinds of weather and have defense mechanisms. Heavy winter coats and shivering their muscles help them to keep warm. Cows will bed down in a group to maximize each animal’s body heat, and our animals will also lie down on top of their hay for a buffer between themselves and the cold ground. If they are well fed so they can use plenty of calories to generate body heat, and have free access to water, animals will usually do fine in winter. In summer, they need shade, even more water, and dust baths to protect themselves from insects. We humans sometimes pamper them to the point that they lose their natural defenses, and sometimes what we’re doing to “protect” them is more for our benefit than theirs. You can usually tell if an animal is truly miserable with cold—they stand hunched and shivering, paying little attention to their surroundings, and are reluctant to move. But my experience is that even when they have access to barns or stables, many, if not most, would prefer to be out and about.
Weather and work are inescapable. Especially when you have animals, the work must be done. It’s cold and sleet’s falling? Still need to milk the cow. Snowing hard? Pigs must be fed and watered. 110 in the shade? All the more reason to change the irrigation sets. At the same time, because you cannot control nature, you learn to bend with the weather. In the summer, we get up earlier and do the work in the cool morning. If it rains on the day we had planned to work on the milking shed, there are always halters to mend, blog posts to write or something to do in the shop. The seasons affect even housework, since I operate on the principle that what’s alive takes precedence over what is dead. That means my house is a lot cleaner in the winter, when I have less work in the garden.
In the mythical city of Camelot, the weather was supposedly controlled so rain fell only after sundown and the morning fog was gone by 8AM. Sounds pretty boring to me—half the fun of weather is the unexpectedness of the world when you first wake up. And despite the hazards of cold fingers or sweaty brows, there’s always beauty in the patterns of frost, the blazing colors of thunderclouds at sunset or the dancing heat haze of summer.