A lot of work goes into good nutrition for animals on the farm. It's a matter of making sure all of their needs are covered and everything is in its proper balance. That could mean vitamin or mineral needs, or energy, especially at this time of year, or protein, or any number of other ingredients in their diet.
At the very top of the list for important nutrients is one that is easily overlooked. Water. We take it for granted most of the time, but without water, biology comes to a halt in a hurry.
January being January, you never know what to expect for weather in the Upper Midwest. There could be snow; there could be bitter cold; there could be both. This past week, we turned the corner from bitter cold to more of a January thaw. It was a balmy 36 degrees. A few days ago, we went from cold and cloudy to an actual blizzard warning in about an hour. What was supposed to be scattered flurries went downhill in a hurry and cranked up winds to 50 miles per hour with actual air temperatures below zero. That puts the "feels-like" temperature right in the "This-will-kill-me-when-I-step-outside-won't-it?" range.
Not good. But, we need to make sure the livestock are taken care of on days like that. At the top of the list of needs is water. We use electric heaters in the waterers for cattle to make sure that water flows freely when it's cold outside. I took a look at one cattle waterer for the cowherd and realized it had frozen. The solution is usually pretty simple. A gallon of hot water from the kitchen faucet can be poured over the valve in the waterer and that usually gets the flow back to normal in seconds.
Sure enough, a gallon of steaming hot water did the trick. I finished my chores and went in the house. Later that night, I got to thinking about what I'd seen as I thawed the waterer. For such cold conditions, I noticed that water was on the ground in front of the waterer, but that didn't register with me at the time. I was more concerned with getting fresh water flowing again. Had I put my common sense mechanism into a better gear, I would have realized that cows will occasionally spill water as they drink, but not so much as to create a puddle on the ground in front of the water fountain when the air temperature is 15 below zero. My brain may have the beginnings of frostbite.
That water thought didn't keep me awake all night, but it did make me take another look the next morning. Sure enough, the water fountain was frozen again, but there was another, more involved problem. The pen near the waterer now looked like an ice rink!
I took the access door off the waterer and looked inside to see if a water line had broken. Nope, everything looked normal. Then I realized that the pool of water on the ground in front of the waterer was flowing. None of that water was coming from any of the lines or fittings inside the water. It was coming from ground level or below. That meant it was probably coming from the hydrant next to the waterer. I use the hydrant to fill two big water tanks for the cows in warm weather when they are out in the pasture. Grazing experts will tell you that a cow will walk about 660 feet to water any time she pleases if it's available. Once you get past 660 feet, though, the herd instinct kicks in and they all show up for water at once. Water becomes a social occasion. It's not one or two moseying up for a casual sip. It's a hundred of them swarming the place like it's 5:31 on a Friday night at the most happenin' place and they all just got paid.
Fun fact: Cows don't drink a shot or two, or anything by the ounce, for that matter. They will throw back 10 to 20 gallons in short order. They are also not known for their exceptional manners. "Pardon me. By all means, after you," has never been heard or even thought within or near a group of cows before.
I put two tanks near the waterer with about 1600 gallons of capacity during the grazing season. They are about eight feet in diameter and filled by a hose from the hydrant. That lets enough animals walk up and get a drink without creating a mob scene. It's still not always orderly, but it's usually not violent, either.
This was winter. Tanks of water do not work well in winter. Chipping away at ice with a hatchet is not my idea of a daily routine. This isn't 1843 and I'm not a pioneer.
A couple of options
A couple options were in front of me. The first one was Adam, the plumber who works on waterers for me. Based on what I had seen on social media, I wasn't terribly confident in that solution. The flu had made its presence known in a big way at Adam's workplace. They were short several people at the moment. All of the below-zero weather made me think that work probably hadn't slowed way down for them, either. Sure enough, a text revealed that it wouldn't be today when they could get there, and the next day was looking sketchy, too, what with frozen pipes and busted furnaces. If this was a hydrant issue and not a waterer issue, they probably couldn't help me anyway. That would require a backhoe.
My next step was to text a photo of my new ice rink to one of my favorite people, Casey, the backhoe guy. He's about 10-15 years younger than me, and he's always been a fun one to work with on various projects over the years. Last summer and fall, he did the dozer work to get rid of a couple of former hog buildings we torn down. His ability to move dirt and keep the site level without using a laser or anything mechanical at all just about makes me sick. I'd have divots, drop-offs and slopes that would make you dizzy to look at for more than ten seconds. Casey would make it look like a stadium parking lot.
It didn't take long for Casey to call and confirm that my problem was probably a leak in the hydrant that we'd have to dig up to fix. His first question was how deep and how old the concrete is. My answer made him think this might not be too bad a project to handle. He could probably bust up the concrete with the bucket of the mini-excavator and get it done that way.
Then I tossed out another tidbit to him. I had access to a hydraulic breaker for the skid loader. It is essentially a jackhammer that I run from inside the cab. A steel bit, about three or so inches in diameter, taps away at the concrete and turns it into chunks and powder. I could get it yet that day if Casey wanted to tackle this project sooner rather than later. You know, before the blizzard warning expired. I'm all about challenges.
We decided to start first thing in the morning. That seemed like more of an expected fit for me, because I had to hit the road for the airport in Minneapolis to pick up Sherill from a trip to see her family in Michigan. She'd be landing in Minneapolis, about 150 miles away, at 2:15 the next afternoon. So, I'd need to hit the road no later than 11:45 or noon. If we got going first thing in the morning, I wasn't totally sure how long this digging project would take, but I was pretty sure 2:15 and I weren't going to meet up in Minneapolis. I was also thinking that Sherill and I meeting up around 3:30 or 4:00 wasn't going to be ideal, either.
That's when I decided to take a different route. I'd get Sherill lined up to take a shuttle from the airport in Minneapolis to Rochester. I had just taken a cousin of mine to Rochester the day before to catch the same shuttle to Minneapolis. It cuts about three or four hours off the time if I had to go all the way from here to the Minneapolis airport and back. Unfortunately, it also eliminates my ability to get a decent lobster roll or lamb gyro at The 1029 Bar in Minneapolis. The lamb sandwich really needs to be eaten hot and fresh.
"But, Jeff," you're saying, "doesn't the lamb have great legs?"
Yes, but those legs are cooked and part of the sandwich. They aren't nearly as deliciously-portable as the lobster rolls. Kind of a stretch, I figured, to get the shuttle driver to make a swing over to the northwest of downtown Minneapolis for a to-go order. They're great sandwiches, but I'm not looking to buy dinner for a busload of people as a deal-closer.
Once the shuttle was lined up, I made another quick trip to get the hydraulic breaker for the skid loader. It was hooked onto the skid loader upon my return, ready to head out and dig to China first thing in the morning.
First thing in the morning rolled around and I was ready to go out and do some damage with my jackhammer. What with the blizzard warning the previous day and night, there was some snow rearrangement that took place. We hadn't really gotten a lot of new snow, but all of the previous snow sure had done some traveling. Open spots the day before were now filled with drifts. I got a text as I was moving snow around in the yard. Casey also had to move snow, so it would probably be closer to noon or 1:00 before he got here to dig.
Interesting. Instead of 2:15 in Minneapolis, I now had to be in Rochester by 4:30. Moving my dirt and concrete work from 8:00 to 1:00 was not making things better for me. If things went flawlessly, I had a feeling I'd still be lucky to make it to Rochester in time. On the other end of that transportation equation was the fact that Sherill had to take I-94 to get to the airport in Detroit that morning. She managed to miss that whole mess on another stretch of I-94.
And of course, January being January, it wasn't a Chamber of Commerce-quality day back in Iowa, either. We were looking at about 5 below zero and winds of 35 miles per hour with gusts to 48. Good day for some quality time at the desk for some paperwork, right? Heck no! Time to stand around outside and dig in the dirt in that kind of weather!
Around 11:15, Casey called to let me know he'd be there in a couple minutes. I began by jackhammering my way through the top layer of ice in the feedlot/rink. It went much better than I expected. The ice was busting up nicely, but I still wasn't confident enough to start busting concrete. Waiting for the professional to get there was probably a better idea. I'd hate to find out I knocked out a bunch of concrete I wouldn't have had to remove.
Tackling the project
Casey and his dad got there a few minutes later. They surveyed the situation and showed me where they wanted me to start knocking holes in the concrete. It didn't take long before Casey was scooping buckets of concrete out of the way as I kept hammering away. Next thing I knew, we were down past the frost and digging up softer ground. A few minutes later, we were digging up almost-soupy ground. This was looking more and more like we'd found the problem, and it was eight feet below ground level.
(I was really hoping it wouldn't show up a foot below the ground and I'd have to call Adam, the plumber, and say, "Guess what? It's a plumbing problem, not a construction problem. You and anyone else up there who isn't bubonic can head out and fix it. Oh, and the cows will start rioting in about 47 minutes, so make it snappy!")
I made a couple of executive infrastructure decisions while Casey was down in the giant hole we'd just dug. We would not be replacing the hydrant today while it was 197 below zero. We'd unhook the hydrant and put a cap on the line to idle it for the season. Then we would replace both the hydrant and the waterer next summer when we would all be comfortable and stylish in short sleeves. That way, I could pour new concrete to correct all of the topography we had just changed in the last hour or so, and make a better site for the new stuff.
A simple plan was exactly what Casey and his dad had in mind. Casey did admit that it wasn't too bad eight feet below ground right then, but he wasn't exactly looking to set up camp down there. He got everything put back together while I went back to the house to turn the water back on again.
The text I had been waiting for ("Looks good!") came across my phone at 12:30 PM that day. We'd gone from ice rink, to eight-foot-deep-hole, to fixed and ready to hit Rewind in less than two hours.
Casey had the hole filled up and was ready to tighten down the final tie-down chain on the flatbed with the mini-excavator fully secured by 12:45. I got the dirt leveled up, the concrete fragments removed, the appropriate gates opened and closed again, got chores done and was ready to hit the road for Rochester with enough time to spare that I went through Ridgeway, in almost the opposite direction of my final destination. I wanted to stop at the bank and show Casey's mom (who works there) a menu from one of my favorite places to eat. It's The Lost Cajun, a fairly new restaurant in Rochester run by someone with a Ridgeway connection.
When we had finished the project ahead of schedule (and yet later than I originally planned the day before), I had asked Casey and his dad if they liked Cajun food. A job well done needs to be rewarded, I felt, so I told them I'd bring supper back with me. They weren't sure about Cajun food, so I wanted to run the menu past someone who knew what they might like or dislike.
Tough break that it wasn't the waterer, Adam. A little Crawfish Étouffée may be just what you needed to keep yourself plague-free.
When we do the waterer this summer, maybe we will enjoy some fresh Sherlock Shrimp on the grill.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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