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July..... a month of challenges!

Posted 7/4/2018 9:50am by Kinley Coulter.

     The recent hot weather, while bringing summer fun for dogs and children here at the farm, also brings some challenges for farmers, equipment, animals and even for the lowly grass that our whole farming operation is built on.  


     The difficulties that come with the ‘dog days’ of summer for the farmer are fairly obvious.  There is a special kind of tiredness that comes from exerting yourself, day after day, in the hot sun during some of the longest days of the year.  Dehydration and heat stroke are never far away, as heavy farm work takes its toll.  We rely on lots of water and even Gatorade to get through a heat wave. Lunchtime is quiet, as we gulp our ice water and stare at plates of healthy farm food that, somehow, just don’t look appetizing.
 

 
     It seems that equipment has its own struggles in the summer heat, as well.  Hardworking trucks and tractors are boiling over their scorching radiators.  Even a farm tractor profits from a break under a shade tree once in a while.  Tires are blowing out… most recently in the middle of 7 lanes of speeding vehicles on I-270 on a market day.  It’s a terribly forlorn feeling to be broken down on the shoulder in 96 degree heat, with a trailer load of frozen meat and dairy products slowly cooking behind you!  To make matters worse, as the doomed tire beat itself to an ignominious death at 65 mph, a brilliant computer sensor on the truck decided the vehicle had experienced a major collision and disabled the fuel pump … requiring a tow.  (if this is 'Artificial Intelligence'… I would prefer an old-fashioned ‘Dumb’ truck)   Sigh... People wonder why I like fall and winter so much!  
 
     Walk-in coolers and freezers are bumping up against their alarm temperatures.  We have found that calling the refrigeration repair-man during a heat wave is pretty much an exercise in futility  (…he thinks he can get out here by November!)... so we have become our own repairmen… forced to troubleshoot electrical problems, and change out refrigeration units with spares we keep in our overstuffed basement.  Here at the farm, we are very much ‘jacks of all trades and masters of none.’   
 
     With July comes peak ice usage at farm market.  Ice tables sagging under the load of bottled milk, yogurt, kefir, butter and cheese are consuming up to 1,000 lbs of ice during a 4 hour market.  It seems we hardly get to enjoy our precious customers in the busyness of dumping fresh ice on the tables and hauling away the melted water.
 
     As you might surmise… the animals at Coulter Farms are not immune to heat stresses.  But, like the farmer, animals have a job to do… in all weather.  Dairy cows generate significant heat in their stomachs as their 55 gallon rumen ferments grass into blood sugar energy.  They can hardly be blamed for reducing their feed intake in hot weather…. cattle are not any more hungry on a hot day than people are.  So, at peak market season, when we need every precious gallon of milk we can produce, milk production invariably heads the wrong direction.  One saving grace this time of year is that we are weaning about 25 heifer calves off  40 gallons per day of whole milk, and onto lush green Certified Organic pasture.  Each calf has consumed well over two 55 gallon drums' worth of rich, organic, whole milk in their first three months of life.  They are looking robust, strong and healthy, but it is high time for them to get busy grazing and give our farm 280 gallons more milk to bottle each week.  
 
 
     Those of you who are gardeners know what happens to lettuce in your garden in hot weather.  It stops growing and gets bitter, right?  Well, our perennial grass pastures are cool weather plants just like lettuce.  The farmer tries to persuade the grass to continue growing and to stay sweet, when every fiber of the grass plant’s being wants to do the opposite.  Never fear… the grass farmer has some tricks up his sleeve that the grass plants almost always fall for.  By managing our grazing and soil fertility, and soil organic matter correctly, we can briefly prop up grass growth during a heat wave.  Inevitably, though, hot and dry weather will shut the pastures down enough that we, reluctantly, bring out the dreaded hay feeders for several weeks to let the pasture grass catch up.  Once the grass plants go dormant and brown in summer heat, the biggest favor we can do for them is to keep the cattle from grinding them into dust.  The challenge is to get the cows off of the pastures (free grass) and onto hay (expensive grass) soon enough to avoid damaging the pastures.  It’s always tempting to graze a few weeks too long when summer sets in with a vengeance.  Two weeks of abusing pasture in the summer will always cost us twice that much lost grazing when it finally cools down and rains.
 
 
     Surely, every cloud has a silver lining.  Hot weather does bring some positive things to the farm.   Like watching the cows graze in a misty morning meadow.... Fireflies!  We love to watch them on a summer evening.....  Even a poor farmer can make dry hay in this heat.....  The firewood we burn in our wood boiler to heat milk for cheese and yogurt and pasteurization is bone dry and burns plenty hot......  Ice cream is selling like CRAZY… $4.00 for a cone doesn’t sound so outrageous in 100 degree heat.....  And the children are having a ball playing in the sprinkler!  Ummm… what else?  Not much… unless you missed breakfast and want to fry an egg on the hood of the tractor… Oh well, fall is coming and then you might just get to hear about cold weather adventures on the farm :-).