One of the greatest challenges of winter in Vermont, as most parents would agree, is being cooped up indoors and the cabin fever that ensues. We experience our share of this on the farm as well, even though the cozy barn is just a short walk from our front door. The barn provides us with some respite: it’s no Caribbean vacation, but it provides some fresh air, fresh scenery, and the opportunity to get out and get dirty even when the outside temperatures are frigid. The boys love to feed hay to the cows, scrape manure, and push their trucks around in the “sandbox” (really an old water tub filled with granulated lime, or “bedding sand” that we use on the barn floor to improve traction for the cows.)
Though the barn can be our solution to cabin fever some days, for the cows, it’s the opposite! Our milkers need to be indoors when it is really cold and windy to protect their teats from frostbite and to keep their stress levels down– they need to be comfortable enough to eat lots of hay to make milk! However, their gauge of comfort is much different from that of humans, and they do love outdoor livin’, even in the winter. One of my favorite farm experiences in the winter is letting the cows out of the barn when a cold snap has kept them inside for a few days. I did this after milking on a recent morning, and the girls were so excited they bucked and ran out of the barn, then turned around and ran back in, and back out a few times! It sort of reminds me of the way I feel on the first warm day of spring.
Though lactating animals need some protection from the elements from time to time, heifers (young female bovines who aren’t milking yet) can be made comfortable outside even through the roughest winter weather. In fact, too much time spent in the barn often leaves them vulnerable to pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. They’re happiest and healthiest out in the fresh air, no matter how cold that air might be.
We have had great success keeping our group of heifers outdoors all winter. They only need to be fed once every few days, and our daily chores for them are often as simple as a quick check. They’ve also provided us with a fun destination on days when we can get outside for an hour or so. Patrick in particular loves to visit the heifers and follow rabbit tracks through the brush near their wintering area. Sometimes he picks up a track and follows it in circles through the woods, under fallen logs and squeezing through brush, and I can keep tabs on his red snowsuit flashing through the trees as I tend to the heifers. It gives him a satisfying sense of adventure and independence, even though he’s moving through such a tiny section of woods. And it gives me a healthy dose of perspective, as I often lament the lack of deep woods around our farm in which a boy can explore.
Sometimes he invites me on his tracking adventures, and he always acts as a professional wilderness guide. “Mama,” he will whisper. “Shhh. We’re going to teak (sneak) up on a bobcat.” (Walks a few steps). “Mama,” another whisper. “This is how we find the bobcat. We find his kill site. If you see some fwuff (fluff) and fedders (feathers) and bwud (blood), then you know that’s where he ate an aminal.” (An owl begins to hoot). “Hear that? Mama. That’s a barred owl. He’s telling us we’re getting closer to the bobcat.”
When the owl begins to hoot and the sun begins to set, it’s usually time for young trackers to call it a day and head back into the house. Though we’ve never followed a set of tracks that led us to an animal, they always lead us to satisfaction. Because there’s nothing like a little outdoor adventure in February to remind yourself that things are still alive out there, and spring will be here before you know it.