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Agriculture in Winter

Patrick Bigelow, Kensington Metropark Farm Center Supervisor

The first snows of winter have now blanketed farm fields and pastures of southeast Michigan. With fields gleaming white, what do farmers do until spring? While it is true that winter is a slower season for agriculture, it is far from vacation time for farmers.

For farms with livestock, winter is business as usual with animals to feed, stalls and sheds to clean, and bedding to spread. Winter does add the extra challenge of keeping water tanks, pipes, and hoses from freezing. “How do you keep the animals warm in winter?” is a frequent question from fall visitors. While farmers do provide sheds, coops, and shelters to help animals through dangerous conditions like freezing rain and chilling wind gusts, most farm animals grow a warm winter coat of fur, wool, or feathers and prefer to be outside as much as possible. These winter coats are excellent insulation and to see snow resting unmelted on the back of a sheep, cow, or horse is a common sight around the Farm Center after a snow.

For row crop farmers, the fall harvest of their corn and soybeans is a marathon sprint with tractors and combines frequently running late into the night. That means that one of the first tasks of winter is cleaning and repairing farm equipment and vehicles. Once the last dust and debris from fall harvest is cleaned away, and all the clogged filters and worn belts replaced, equipment maintenance shifts to planting preparations. The perfect conditions for planting can be brief so all the needed equipment must be ready to hit the ground running – literally. Although most people traditionally think of spring as the planting season, wheat in Michigan is actually planted in the late summer or early fall. Next year’s wheat crop is now a few inches tall and slumbering under a blanket of snow until it can resume growing in the spring. A good layer of snow is vital to the success of a wheat crop as the snow insulates the young plants against the bitter winds of winter.

However, a farmer’s most important task in winter is more mental than physical, using the cold months to plan and prepare for the upcoming year. New seed, fertilizer, and equipment must be budgeted for and ordered. Deciding what to order requires predicting not only the weather, but also pest and disease pressures, market trends, and even labor availability.

In predicting the weather, historically farmers have looked to past growing seasons to plan for the coming year. Today’s farmers have access to better and more climate data than ever before. Despite this, our world’s changing climate has made using past weather patterns to predict the future increasingly challenging. This year was a rough one for Michigan farmers with heavy rains affecting both ends of the growing season. Low crop prices, and uncertainty in the export market due to trade disputes did not help farmers either.

As winter’s silence spreads with each new snow, Michigan farmers are now asking themselves and each other what 2020 will bring. While I don’t have a crystal ball to give them an answer, I know that our farmers have the knowledge (of their land, their crops, and their animals), the determination, and the support of their families and fellow Michiganders to make 2020 a good year for Michigan agriculture.

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