Frozen Pipes on the Farm

frozenpipes2Have you ever been on vacation, and encountered hard water? Depending on where you live, you may have hard water at home. The kind of water that leaves towels stiff and won’t let soap build suds? We have been experiencing extremely hard water for the last week. Our water has gotten so hard that, at times, it has refused to flow through pipes or into cattle waterers. I am pretty sure the change in our water’s viscosity is due to the negative temperatures, and not mineral contaminants.

If you have a modern, well-thought-out structure, chances are low that your water lines will freeze.The chance is there though. Any cracks or gaps where cold air can infiltrate your house can result in a frozen pipe. Despite my efforts, we have frozen up twice at our house, once at my mother’s, and had one block of ice previously known as a cattle waterer.  It would seem that my poor record would disqualify me from giving advice on keeping water pipes thawed and running. Not so, my friends. Any experience you can walk away from is a chance to learn. Here is what I have learned so far.

Start looking for trouble areas when temps drop to the thirties and forties. Stick your hand into your livestock waterers.Is the water really cold? The heater may have burned out since last winter. Replacing it before a hard freeze will save you a broken water pipe later. Ice sculptures are beautiful. Unless your want to install some free-form, modern ice art in your feeding pen, I would suggest you check the heaters in your cattle waterers.frozenpipes1

Well and pump houses can be above or below ground. This is where your water gets pumped to and directed from. If you don’t have heat in a well house, at least add a heat lamp. One of our old water systems has a pressure tank and water valves below ground under a large trap door. After adding a heat lamp I layer old carpet on top of the door to stop cold air from flowing down. Make sure nothing flammable is close to the hot lamp.

Water pipes have frozen at my house where the new addition connects to the old structure.The problem did not come from cold air seeping through the walls. The cold air sneaked in from above. A little under-sight on my part caused the problem.When I connected the addition, I left the insulation in the connecting wall to act as a sound barrier. At the top of the wall are my pipes. This left them well insulated from much of the heat from the interior rooms, but inadequately insulated above. I have blown in 3 feet of insulation in my attic, making it look like a winter wonderland. This did not stop cold air from seeping down the old roof line and into the wall. I added a vent to the interior wall to allow warm air into the cavity, and stuffed more insulation into gaps above the pipes.

frozenpipes3If you are unsure whether or not your pipes can stand the cold, you can use an old standby. Leaving faucets dripping or dribbling, will keep the water flowing. Yes, it is wasteful, but how wasteful is it when a water pipe bursts and sends a few thousand gallons of water into your house? When the crew from “This Old House” is knocking on your door with crowbars in hand, a few nights of faucet dripping will seem cheap. As soon as possible, the cold areas around your pipes should be insulated to ward off problems in the future. As long as we are on the subject of house damage, let me give you a little tip many don’t think of. Take your family around the house and show them where utilities shutoffs are located, and how to operate them. When you are an hour from the house and get the kitchen-floor-is-covered-with-water call, you will thank me for that little piece of advice!

Do hot water pipes freeze first? Only if they get below 32 degrees before the cold water pipes. I believe this theory comes from the wastefulness I mentioned above. I grew up in a farm house with wood heat. Straw bales were stacked around the foundation on the North facing walls during the winter month to ward off air infiltration. Drip, drip, drip was heard all night long in an attempt to stave off freezing pipes. To let the hot water drip was more expensive than the cold water. The water heater would have to heat more water. This is why the belief still exists that hot water pipes freeze more often than cold water pipes.

frozenpipes4Before I get into the art of thawing frozen pipes, let me say one thing… Don’t burn your house down! There are commercial (aka “salamander”) heaters that can melt the insulation off of your wiring. Often, there are flammables where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Pay close attention to your surroundings, and don’t rush it. If you can determine where the pipe is frozen, a hair dryer is all that is needed to thaw things out (please note that a hair dryer can be hot enough to ignite flammables). If you cannot access the area, or cannot locate the frozen section, a larger heating unit, and possibly professional help, is needed.

For frozen livestock tanks and outdoor piping, you can turn up the heat. The kerosene and diesel “salamander” area heaters work well.There is still danger of too much heat. Of the 6 frozenpipes5older metal cattle waterers left on the farm, only one has all of its thermal and wiring insulation.The others have all been scarred by heaters placed to close in an effort to speed thawing. I still have a large kerosene, blower-type heater, but I prefer to use a smaller LP version when possible. A ten pound tank and an inverter in my truck make this a much more feasible option for one person than the heavy kerosene model.

In extreme temperatures, remember to use your noggin (that’s your head, for the younger readers). Your safety and well-being is more important than any equipment. Don’t leave open flame heaters unattended. Don’t place heaters to close to materials that can melt, or catch fire. Above all, don’t risk your safety in extremely cold temperatures.  

Beef Cattle Options During Drought Conditions

010It has happened again.  We are moving into serious drought conditions here for the second year in a row.  Corn has dried up early, and even the soybean fields are showing signs of giving up with large areas of wilt and dead leaves dropping.  Last year the rains stopped in February, but an additional kick of 5 inches in July helped beans and forage.  This year early rains delayed planting until late May, but that is where the precipitation ended.  The experts call our current condition a “flash drought”.  High temps, a lack of cloud cover, and low humidity takes a toll on vegetation.  This includes livestock forage.  Options for plant life are irrigation or death in these circumstances.  Cattle face direct health issues when droughts occur.  Handling drought conditions is paramount to cattle health, and a beef farmer’s bottom line.

In this age of large scale farming, there were a few issues that came to my attention last year.  Cattle growers were pushing pastures to the limit, while relying on distiller’s grain and other feedstuffs to take the place of good forage.  Operators calculated feed, gains, losses… and then ran out of water.  I was literally surprised by the number of larger cattle operations who had rented more ground year after year, yet failed to consider what would happen if the cattle had nothing to drink.  Granted, it is rarely a problem in my location, but hydration is a pretty important issue to ignore.  Even if your breeding program falls apart, there are 3 important issues when raising cattle: Fencing to keep them in, forage, and water.  Even spring fed creeks are turning into dusty ditches this year.  We have once again fallen back on stock tanks placed behind larger ponds to ensure the cattle stay hydrated.

rbales2Forage is a less dramatic, yet almost as important issue.  Depending on what is available in your area, cattle can be fed distiller by-products, soybean or peanut hulls, grains, and even citrus rinds.  The important thing to remember is cattle require roughage.  A pound of corn will replace 3 pounds of alfalfa hay as far as nutrition goes, but the threat of acidosis increases.  Grain should never replace more than around 10 percent of a cow’s diet.  If you have plenty of hay… feed it.  Cattle are built to handle many types of feed, but there is little that will replace good quality hay as a majority of a bovine’s diet.  In a drought situation hay can become scarce.  It is a good idea to conserve as much as possible. 

Hay volume can be lost quickly due to poor storage and improper feeding.  Net wrapped bales conserve hay compared to string tied, but there are few options that save hay as much as storing it in a shed, or covering the bales with tarps or plastic.  The tighter the bale, the less oxidation and moisture can permeate the stored forage.  Crunch some numbers.  Bale rings become a must, but those high dollar, hay saver types may be worth the extra bucks during a shortage.  Monitor hay consumption for a couple of weeks.  Calculate the amount of hay you would need to survive the winter.  If you are feeding hay early, and there is a possibility of running out before spring pastures rejuvenate, it is time to consider serious action.

feedcalvesFill up the creep feeders.  Supplying calves with extra nutrition removes stress from the cows.  Wean calves early.  With the right balance of feed and care, calves can be weaned as early as 3 months.  The cost may seem high, but calves convert feed almost twice as efficiently as older cows.  Cull heavily.  An unproductive cow is costly.  Older cows that don’t reproduce need to go.  Move cattle off-site.  Replacement heifers can be housed at feedlots that have feed available.  As long as they are restricted to silage, and gain is limited, it is a viable option.  When all else fails, it is time to send some cattle off to market.  There is always sentimentality when it comes to animals.  It is better to sell cattle to ranchers who have feed and water than to watch cattle lose weight and have to sell later.  The better condition a cow is in the more she will bring at the sale barn.  Cattle production is a business.  Selling a slaughter cow for $.75 a pound while she weighs 1100 pounds is a much better decision than getting $.50 after she has stressed down to 900.

Once you have your herd down to manageable size, you can consider options to improve your odds in the spring.  Re-seeding, fertilizing, and rotational issues can be decided during the fall and winter months.  Droughts stress both livestock, and the grower.  With a plan you can reduce anxieties, and focus on the future.  

Droughts are Depressing!

"Where the "heck" have you been?!"  I toned that phrase, which was overused by my Dad, down a few notches!  I will admit it.  I have been missing in action.  When last we spoke, a drought was drying everything up and causing every living thing to go dormant.  I, being a living thing, seemed to suffer the same malady.  When a 6 inch rain sent all plant life into recovery mode, I watched.  Bean pods filled, naked pear trees (with mature pears) sprouted new leaves and bloomed again.  The pastures greened up, but I remained still.  As the unusual Fall maple seeds fell, I watched and contemplated what I should do to break my dormancy.

To be clear, I have been physically active.  It was my web presence that had dried up. After writing drought stories for a few months, I found that I was out of new ways to describe dust.  I was thrilled when the hurricane rains moved through and broke the drought.  For some reason I didn't feel like writing about it.  I looked at some of my previous posts for inspiration, it wasn't there.

What I saw instead was an explanation for my lack of enthusiasm.  My site; posts, podcasts, etc... was mirroring the weather conditions.  The worse things got here on the farm, the more depressing the web site.  In a post in March, I mentioned the grass greening up.  By May I was writing about dust-devils and wondering if my hay would make it.  This spiral continued until I just quit writing about it.  I am quite sure I am not the only farmer who dealt with some depression over the dry summer.  Many farmers sold off their livestock, lost a year's worth of crops, and some completely lost their farms.  With that in mind, we were lucky to weather the storm better than some.

As I write this, I can't quit thinking about that pear tree.  It was covered with blooms in the spring.  By the end of the drought, some pears remained, but all of the leaves had dried up and fallen away.  I had pretty much written the tree off and we wondered if it would come back next Spring.  After the soaking rain I began to notice something unusual.  The pear tree was growing new leaves in September.  Not only did the leaves come back, but the tree was soon covered with blooms!

My disposition has changed as well.  Seeing everything green up before fall colors set in has brought me back to my old self.  I am ready for some fun posts, ready to talk to some folks on Blog Talk Radio, and ready to move into fall.  If you think a little drought is gonna stop us... My pear tree and I have a few things to say about that!

Twin Calves and Reality

Let's face it, there are at least three trains of thought when it comes to cattle.  There is the romantic, with storybook memories of the lush green grass and peaceful cows at Grandpa's farm.  There are the sciency-anti-cow folks, who swear cow farts are so volatile, they will cause the earth to spin off it's axis.  Then, there is reality.  Farmers and ranchers deal with reality everyday.  Let's take a look at one situation and see where you fall on the reality scale.

One of my large, healthy cows just had twins.  Is that a good thing?  Does it mean that I got a 2-fer?  Will a glut of twin calves cause the atmosphere to catch on fire and glow scarlet with methane?  Actually, no.  Twin calves often mean trouble for the mother and the cattle grower.  With the stress of heat and drought this year, the problem is compounded.

I have had more than my fair share of twin calves and have been lucky that my cows have usually accepted both calves.  Many times the cow will bond with the first calf that is born or nurses, leaving the other calf to fend for itself.  This was almost the case with my latest set of twins.  While the cow wanted to claim both of them, she was only letting the larger healthier calf nurse.  Mama "mews" and "moos" at the little twin, but is just unwilling to share her milk with more than one sibling.

This is where reality (and the farmer) steps in.  In many twin births, one of the calves is removed from the cow and bottle fed in an effort to save the calf's life.  This was my mission this evening.  It is often a lesson in reality that leaves romantics scrunching there noses, and the scientific minded claiming victory.  Let me put it in a way that both may understand.

Calves do not naturally take to being bottle fed.  You have to hold them still, get the plastic nipple in their mouth and coax them to suck.  To sort cattle, they are often captured in smaller pens.  Smaller pens mean closer proximity.  Cow poop is heavier than air.  Calves are shorter than cows.  The gravitational pull of the earth often sends cow poop plummeting towards calves.  Farmers must catch and wrestle poopy calves to get them started on a bottle fed regimen.  Thus, we can deduce that cattle farmers sometimes smell like poop!

I have said it before... "Farming ain't always pretty."  The reality is that animals often suffer or die in the wild, but farmers are experts in trying to save every animal they own.  Owning "domesticated" animals places a responsibility on the owner that most cannot understand.  The farmer relies on the livestock, and the livestock rely on the farmer.  Land is nurtured by the farmer so it will provide valuable food.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  A relationship that is often simply referred to as Agriculture.

Take A Kid Gardening

In show-biz, they say never work with kids or animals. I think it is fairly safe for bloggers though. Meet my 2 year old niece Kasey. She has come to visit Grandma (my mom) for the weekend. In true farmer fashion, I decided as long as she is here, she may as well help get some work done. (One of the advantages of being an Uncle, is being able to pester your sister's kids, then run away before it turns ugly!) "I see some tomatoes are ready in Grandma's garden. Let's go get 'em."

Before we make it to the garden, Grandma is there to make sure all of the safety rules are enforced. Kasey looks for me to rescue her, but rules is rules.  First you have to pin back your hair so it doesn't get in your eyes. Then we need shoes to protect our feet from sharp objects. I dragged Kasey to the garden before Grandma got the safety glasses and shin guards on her.

Kasey is a fast learner and was soon plopping tomatoes into the bucket. "Good job, but see this one, it's red." A couple more hit the bucket. "That's great, see if you can find a red one." Kasey, uninterested in the color, is good at picking both green and red ones. Oh well, Grandma has lots of tomatoes! I don't try to explain about not tossing them in the bucket. Green tomatoes are hard to squish.

Soon, we are both sweating. In her discomfort, Kasey discovers that someone has put something in her hair! With a few yanks, the band holding her bangs back is gone, and she takes on the appearance of a miniature blonde Elvis. As she watches Uncle Paul, her ratio of red to green tomatoes increases. She watches adults closely and likes to imitate everything she sees. Uncle Paul is about to mess up...

While Kasey continues her tomato training, Uncle Paul heads to the other end of the garden for a little clean up work. Grandma had a bunch of volunteer squash that start out looking like zucchini, but quickly change into some hard skinned pumpkin-cross kinda thingys. Since you can't cut them, I whack them on the fence to split them, then toss them over the fence to the cows. I soon become aware of Kasey yelling "Moos, Moos" over and again. I knew what to expect. I turned to see tomatoes, both red and green, flying through the fence. I gave her credit for squishing most of them on the fence first.

I don't mean to accuse her of doing her job incorrectly, It's just that kids don't work well unsupervised until the age of 3 or 4. I returned to Kasey's end of the garden and we continued plopping tomatoes into the pail together. Once all of the red ones were picked, it was a little hard to convince her to stop. By taking off with the bucket, I was able to lure her from the garden. She followed along yelling "No No" and flinging green ones at me. It was a good experience. Grandma got her tomatoes picked, Kasey got to play in the garden, and the Moos are glad to have something other than pumpkin-cross thingys to eat.

Will Drought Burn Consumers?

The effects of the drought in the U.S. have been mentioned in many local newspapers.  It is obvious that communities based largely in agriculture are watching.  Nebraska newspapers speak of devastated corn fields, The Arkansas Gazette has articles about families selling off cattle herds, but the drought doesn’t seem to be getting much attention in the business news.

In a July 5th New York Times article, Monica Davey described what farmers are going through, but fell short of showing the affect this drought will have on the U.S. economy.  Davey quotes experts as saying “…parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions.”  That is true, but a graphic showing areas affected by the 2012 drought would have told a more complete story.  Much of the U.S. is gripped in a drought at this time, and the effects to the economy are going to be dramatic.

The immediate impact will fall on farm families and insurance companies.  Crop and livestock losses are abrupt and conspicuous, the revitalization of the crop ground and rebuilding of livestock herds is not.  This drought is compared by some to the one we endured in 1988.  Over $5 billion in drought assistance was issued to farmers in the 1988-89 growing season.  This number is in 1988 dollars and does not take into account costs suffered by consumers.  Our use of corn for plastics, sweeteners, and ethanol, occurred after this era.  Let's just focus on corn for now.

With the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1990, ethanol production ramped into high gear.  According to the Department of Energy, consumption of ethanol grew from 2,000 million gallons in 1998, to 13,000 million gallons in 2011.   The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the annual amount of caloric sweeteners consumed per capita in 2009 at 93 pounds, of that, 66 pounds was High Fructose Corn Syrup.  Plastics made from corn include water bottles, shopping bags, and those clear “clamshell” containers used in the food industry.  Can we get by with 20% less corn, or maybe 40%?

I enjoyed Davey’s article and believe it does a good job of introducing the problem to the reader.  Watch for much more in-depth probes in the financial pages as prices for common goods skyrocket.

Drought 2012 Podcast


The Midwest has been baking.  We take a look at conditions on the farm, give a few suggestions for rural  computer users and, and have an update on Chronic Wasting Disease in Missouri's deer herd.

Honey Locust

Take a look at this photo. It was taken on our farm. It looks like a shady grove of trees with a creek meandering by. Well, I guess it is, but take a closer look at those trees. Why do the tree trunks look fuzzy? I can assure you it is not fuzz, or an out of focus shot. These are Honey Locust trees.  Folks from the Gulf of Mexico and up through the Mississippi Valley know exactly what a Honey Locust is.  If you are a tree hugger, I would advise you to avoid snuggling this particular species!

Looking like something from the desert southwest, or dark jungles of Africa, the Honey Locust is covered with thorns.  In the desert, they say everything scratches, grabs, or bites.  Desert plants have nothing on this bad boy from the Midwest.  It doesn't scratch or grab at all.  It stabs and impales!  I plant trees and encourage wildlife cover, but on my place eradication is too good for the Honey Locust.

According to experts, it is a short-lived tree, only surviving 120 to 150 years.  That makes me feel better!  The fact is, a large tree spreads seeds along creeks and streams and even the small ones flatten tractor tires and puncture cattle hooves.  If you have a tree old enough to go to seed, expect them to spread rapidly.  This is made possible through the development of seed pods.

The seeds of a Black Locust are poisonous, but the seeds from a Honey Locust are sweet and edible.  They were used as food by Native Americans and can be used to make beer.  The sweet taste of the seeds is where the tree gets its name.  Before I cut these down, maybe I should sell some pods.  Pick your own, of course!  (and bring your own bandages)

One of the redeeming attributes of the tree is providing excellent firewood.  It burns long and hot, but how do you get past those 4 to 12 inch thorns?  You have to sneak up on them with a chainsaw.  Creep in low under the branches, then use the top of the chainsaw bar to remove the spikes where you want to cut.  This throws the barbs away from you.  Clear a couple feet before starting to cut through the tree.  This keeps you from impaling yourself while rocking the saw.  You can guess from the pictures, this leaves dangerous thorns everywhere.  I prefer to cut 2 rings around larger trees, an inch deep and a few inches apart.  Once the tree dies, the thorns and bark fall off, but it takes a couple of years.  Be careful!  The spines easily pierce leather gloves.  Don't let a limb fall on you.  Have an escape route planned and use it.

The Honey Locust is excellent habitat for small birds for obvious reasons.  Nests often dot the branches and are easily secured between the sharp spines.  I see a lot of bird nests low in these trees.  The birds obviously know that predators cannot climb the prickly tree trunks.

There are other trees in the Midwest with thorns.  The Mulberry and Hedge (Ozark Orange) trees have small sharp thorns that can poke and scrape you.  In the world of thorns however, the Honey Locust reigns supreme.  It is definitely a unique tree and evokes hatred and demands respect from landowners.