As winter weather sets in our warm days and cool night transition into cold days and even colder nights. This is how it has always been and depending on your view of global warming and the rate at which our climate is changing, how it will be for at least the immediate future. So where does that leave us in terms of how we view winter? Is winter a good thing, a bad thing or just a thing? Over the next few paragraphs I’ll try to untangle the myth and the legend of winter and elicit if Frost is a friend to agriculture or a frenemy (for those of you from a more mature generation – frenemy is an enemy in disguise as a friend).
What does the cold do for you?
That’s a good question. I remember as a kid old timers swearing cold weather was important because it killed all the bugs. I also remember from tapping sugar trees as a kid, cold-ish weather is vital if you want to make some maple syrup. But what else can cold weather do to help you on the farm? Does it help fix troubled ground, can it lower other pest populations, and does winter weather help your deal with drought? These are but a few of the many questions we should honestly take a look at before we start writing letters to see if the government can get rid of winter altogether.
According to Doug Johnson (Extension Entomologist, University of Kentucky) cold weather can decrease insect pest populations in several ways. Specifically, cold, wet weather is hard on insects overwintering in the ground, and extreme cold (on non-snow covered ground) whacks a few of these critters as well. Repeated temperature swings in mid-winter, and sudden cold snaps also take a toll on insects. However as Johnson point out, “it is not so much a matter of if insects can survive as it is how many insects will survive.” So when it’s colder than a pile of snowman poo outside rejoice in the fact some bugs are dying. Having a lower population of insects at the start of the growing season can be very important in terms of keeping insect populations under control.
Trees are, for the most part, built for winter. Trees store nutrients deep in the ground and can add sugars to their saps to lower the freezing point. But there are some that don’t do as well as others. In my previous job as a county Ag agent, if I got one call I got 50, about a certain landscape evergreen that frequently suffers die back in winter. Seems when the ground water freezes and the wind blows and the sun is bright, some evergreens run out of water and the tips of branches begin to die. Similarly such bad weather has a tendency to freeze the ground and if it was wet enough, the heaving action can break the tap root on some legumes like alfalfa. My rule of thumb is simple, native plants tend to handle native weather, everything else has trouble coping.
What about our bothersome barn and pasture mates, the horn flies, face flies, and stable flies? Does winter weather impact them? West Virginia University Extension Entomologist Dr. Daniel Frank has found that the cold does not necessarily help as much as you would think or hope. He says “Many livestock fly pests overwinter in dung pats or protective structures, which help to protect them from cold weather.” Dr. Frank went on to say “What generally causes high mortality is a prolonged warm period in the spring immediately followed by a cold snap”. So it seems it’s not how cold as much as when it gets cold.
Soils Benefit From Winter
Cold weather, particularly the freeze and thaw cycle, can do a lot to improve structure in soil. Consider this, if you feed in one location too long and the soil gets a little “mashed” repeated freeze thaw could break apart that compacted soil. If there are cow pies in your pasture, the moisture expanding as it freezes should help break them up as well. Frost seeding has been around since moby dick was a minnow. We use the frost and thaw cycle at the surface to effectively seed in small seeds like clover without need of complex machinery. Freeze and thaw cycles may even open up large macropores in the soil profile pressed shut by hooves and tires. This could facilitate less runoff per storm event and more infiltration. More water you keep the better and longer your deep rooted pasture grasses will perform in dry spells.
February/March “Spring” Calving
Calving in colder dry weather has benefits too (assuming they don’t freeze to the ground because your cows are bad moms and you’re a bad herdsman). For example, low number of flies in winter means less spread of diseases and less chance of blow flies going after the messy bits following calving. Heck cold weather even thins the natural herd, wild herbivores, predators, and scavengers all get walloped by a good cold snap or 3-footer (a monster snow storm in WV).
I’m beginning to think this winter stuff is not so bad after all. But before we sign ole man winter up for the Nobel Prize let’s remember some of the negatives. First of all, many of you still make and feed hay to get through the winter. You should read more on this web site to find ways to reduce that as much as possible. Also, when it gets cold a lot of water sources dry or freeze up. Now this is only a problem for folks with very large farms who live in places where the government will not help them build cold weather proof water troughs for livestock. Luckily, I know none of the On Pasture readers let their cattle and sheep and even horses have unfettered access to surface waters when so much diseases and environmental damage is possible, so this point does not matter. Cold weather is hard on equipment and hard on farmers. So maybe the winter is not so great after all.
Overall, no matter where you live Mother Nature will test you so you need to prepare for the best and the worst of times. Personally I don’t like the cold much, and I like snow even less. However a childhood friend of mine pointed out cold is better than hot. He reckons as it gets hotter, you take off more clothes when working, and when it gets colder you add more layers. But, you can’t make hay naked (at least not in WV) and if get cold enough the tractor won’t start and you just stay home… Advantage Cold!