Recent record-breaking cold in the region made life harder for local farm animals and the men and women who raise them, even spelling disaster for the most vulnerable — newborn calves and lambs and aged animals already weakened by high winds and snow that just wouldn’t go away.
Ongoing periods of overnight single-digit temperatures, followed by days with highs below freezing, were well below the county’s historic average temperatures of 40 degrees in February and 48 degrees in March. The timing of this brutal weather could not have been worse for farmers who managed breeding to produce early calves and lambs for strong spring and early summer markets. The average temperatures usually makes this a ‘go,’ but when the thermometer hovers in the teens, getting newborn calves and lambs up, dry and nursing becomes a race against time.
Jim and Carolyn Manwaring of Red Oak Ranch have worked day and night during the past six weeks to save newborn calves produced by their herd of 220 cows on their spread in the shadow of Red Oak Mountain. Of the 100 born so far, they have lost 15 to the extreme weather. Despite Jim’s patrolling of the pastures on a four-wheeler three times a day, they found dead calves defeated by the winds and cold. Last Sunday morning alone, he said, they found seven.
“I plowed paths for the cows each time it snowed, giving them places to give birth and also to get to the hay,” Jim said. “But there were still cows who gave birth in a snowdrift, and that makes it doubly hard because the calf has cold above and below him.”
Even for those who survived such a tough start, Jim found dead calves who were two and three days old. He attributes this to ongoing environmental stress, exacerbated by tired cows producing inadequate milk. “This weather is really tiring for the mother cows, too,” he said.
If they found a weakened calf in time, they loaded him onto a sled and, followed by the mother, towed the little fellow to their house, where they have a nursery in the basement. Using an electric blanket below him and another on top, the calves were soon revived. Meanwhile, they put the mother cow in the barn and milked her to provide a first meal for the little patient. As soon as the calf could stand, he was returned to his mother, keeping the pair penned at first to make sure they were bonded.
Carolyn is particularly proud of a calf who could not stand for the first two days because of contracted tendons. In addition to keeping him fed, Carolyn performed rudimentary physical therapy on the calf’s legs until he was able to get up. Soon, he was back with his mama and nursing on his own. “That kind of success almost makes up for the lost calves,” she said with a slight smile.
At Wits End Farm in Amissville, this reporter had lambs in the house from early February until last week. Of the seven housed first in the bathtub and then in a dog crate, six survived. This success was dampened, however, when the shepherd discovered during an early-morning barn check a set of full-term triplets dead and already frozen hard. Between the extreme cold and the fact that the ewe had to divide her attention among three, the lambs were probably lost in less than an hour. Lambs who were at least a week old, however, seemed to do fine in the cold, thanks to shelter, sufficient milk, a few heat lamps and jackets for the youngest.
One morning in the single digits, Kristen Covert of Covert Farrier Service in Amissville became concerned when Cajun, her tri-color paint gelding, did not eat his breakfast. He’d been with her for two decades, so she knew something was wrong. She gave him a pat and hurried into town to purchase alfalfa cubes to entice him to eat.
When she returned an hour later, he was not at his customary station at the gate. As she searched the pasture for him, big dents in the snow showed where he had gone down as he wandered. When she found him in a far corner, he was shivering despite his heavy rug. They treated him for colic and began to walk him. She continued for hours trying to get him to eat with no success.
At the end of the day, she was joined by her husband Chris. By 2 a.m., the 25-year-old horse refused water and would not take another step. At that point, they had made the decision to put him down. “I must have walked him seven miles that day, but he just did not want to go on,” Kristen said.
It is not yet possible to gauge whether livestock losses were higher in Rappahannock County as compared to other counties in the commonwealth. The process of compiling statewide livestock loss statistics is just beginning, with officials in the Farm Services Administration soliciting reports from affected farmers. Meanwhile, county Extension agents are tapping local sources to collect anecdotal information. Kenner Love, Extension agent for Rappahannock County, said he has not been contacted regarding local losses, but he says he would not be surprised that animals were lost this winter.
“It’s really late in the season to have this kind of extreme cold. It makes it really difficult for farmers who are trying to keep young animals alive,” he said.