Farmers work overtime during recent polar vortex


Jolene Griffin, director of industry relations for United Dairy Industry of Michigan, said farmers install curtains in the barns to protect cows from harsh weather. Courtesy United Dairy industry of Michigan 

Before winter arrives, farmers who work year-round have to take a multitude of precautions.

According to Jolene Griffin, director of industry relations for United Dairy Industry of Michigan, dairy farmers prepare for the winter by putting up curtains on barns to protect the cows from the harsh winter weather and also prepare a lot of feed, which is made up of corn and hay, for the animals.

“When it gets super cold, we might change up the balanced diet that we give them, so we can give them more energy, so it can help them deal with some of the cold,” she said. “We have to make sure we have enough water and that it doesn’t freeze. That means, for some farmers, they have to check repeatedly throughout the day. That is a big priority of ours because cows drink about 50 gallons of water per day. We also have to make sure that calves have coats to keep them warm during the fall and winter months.”

Those precautions were desperately needed as farmers across nearly 180 dairy farms in Kent, Allegan, Ottawa and Muskegon counties faced enormous challenges after the region endured a polar vortex at the end of January and awful weather in the subsequent weeks.

Denny Heffron, owner of Heffron Farms in Belding, said he and his family had to work overtime as they cared for hundreds of calves and other livestock during what some say was the coldest weather in a generation after temperatures plunged into negative digits amid heavy snowfall over the course of several days.

He said he had to go into survival mode, using the limited resources he had.

“We didn’t have electricity for four days,” Heffron said. “So, we had to use generators and keep the heaters on so the water in the well would stay warm and didn’t freeze up for the livestock. But the cattle did pretty well because they had heavy coats on.”

Griffin, who comes from a family of dairy farmers, said cows like cooler temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees.

As the temperature dropped rapidly, Heffron said his cattle and calves ate more than usual, especially when it got below zero.

“Their food consumption increased about 25 percent,” he said. “They got a little more corn because it is high in energy. We were fortunate that we had plenty of feed this season because I know a lot of farmers were short on feed. We put up extra feed each year because if we get something like this, we are able to feed them good because we have to feed them good.”

Heffron said they have about 200 baby calves that still are on milk and on a normal day, they get fed twice a day with about 200 gallons collectively per day, but they were fed more during the winter blast.

Although Heffron and his family had to be outside tending to the animals and shoveling snow and ice, he said he left some snow on the ground to cover the water lines that are buried underneath because the snow is a great insulator.

“No matter if it is 30 degrees below zero or 100 degrees, our dairy farmers work hard every single day,” Griffin said. “They love their animals, and they are providing us safe and clean nutritious food for us all to enjoy.”

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