On farm, no day like a snow day

Winter: When temperatures drop and snow falls, even the cows seem pleased.

February 02, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

For Maryland farmers, the thick blanket of snow covering their fields is cause for rejoicing. Even their dairy cows seem pleased: They prefer cool weather to hot, as long as they don't slip on the ice.

"This is a farmer's dream," said John Parker Smith, a dairy and grain farmer in Carroll County's Wakefield Valley, near New Windsor.

Farmers hope that the snow that has fallen over the last 10 days will melt slowly, deeply replenishing moisture lost during the previous 24 months of mostly dry weather.

The less dreamy part for Smith was that after the last snowfall he began clearing his entrance road at 5: 30 a.m. to open the lane for a milk truck scheduled to arrive by 8 a.m.

Then he helped free another farmer's milk truck and clear the driveways of three houses on the family farm -- altogether, six hours of plowing snow.

He had little choice: Dairy cows must be milked twice a day, every day. Most farms can store only one or two days' milking. If the truck arrives a day late, some of the milk inevitably has to be dumped.

"Back in '96, we had to dump a few loads," said Smith, remembering another winter storm. But county and state roads are now plowed faster and better, and many dairy farmers have equipment to move snow.

Northern Baltimore County farmer Bobby Prigel Jr. drove his tractor over a pasture to help his cows crunch through the layer of ice that had glazed the farm overnight. The cows apparently appreciated the path, since they stayed within the tractor tracks.

"As far as the snow, I'm glad to have it," said Prigel, who milks about 100 cows with his father, Robert Prigel, in Hydes, northwest of Loch Raven Reservoir. "I'll take moisture any way I can get it."

Last summer was the state's driest in 70 years, and farmers saw their pastures shrivel to a useless brown. Their hay and grain yields went down.

Farmers who usually were able to save hay for winter feed found that their livestock ate all of it by the end of summer and they had to buy more for the winter.

To make matters worse, the lack of rain in June and July came on the heels of the dry 1998-1999 winter, so the soil had less residual moisture.

In the Baltimore area, precipitation has averaged 40.76 inches a year since the late 19th century, according to the National Weather Service.

But recent years have failed to live up to that figure: in 1997, precipitation totaled 38.34 inches; in 1998, 34.38 inches.

Last year, the area received 43.93 inches of precipitation, but almost 17 inches of that was in the deluge of hurricanes in August and September.

Heavy rain runs off into streams rather than being absorbed into the ground, said Andrew Woodcock, a forecaster for the service.

Last month's precipitation total is 3.64 inches -- including the moisture contained in 23.1 inches of snowfall. That's ahead of the January average 3.05 inches.

So having to plow snow is a minor inconvenience -- an occupational annoyance that farmers expect.

"The snow's just a pain, is all it is," said Matthew Hoff, who with father, Marlin Hoff, milks 600 cows in New Windsor on one of the largest dairy farms in the Baltimore area. "It's a lot of extra work pushing the snow and clearing it off the lots."

Just like humans, cows can slip on the ice and get hurt, especially on the concrete lots and barnyards that most Maryland dairy farms have.

For a cow, slipping on ice could mean death. In a typical accident, the cow's rear legs slide outward, tearing muscle.

"We say they `do the splits,' " said Milton "Mickey" White, who operates a farm near Prigel's.

It's an occurrence that signals more work for the farmer. The cow usually needs to be rolled into a bucket loader and taken to dry straw to lie down and recover.

If ultimately the cow cannot stand, the farmer has to call the rendering plant.

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