Weather, not the calendar, determines winter work on local farms
Area farmers start making decisions about cold-weather work way before Old Man Winter blows into town.
For third-generation farmer C.J. Isbell Jr., it’s still T-shirt weather when he starts thinking about wintertime and its related farm tasks.
“Planning and preparing for the winter starts in the summer,” Isbell says. That’s when he plants warm-season vegetation and stockpiles grasses on which his animals will graze through the winter. Cold-weather forages offer cattle a quality diet and enhance soil sustainability.
“Utilizing annual cool-season and warm-season forages elongates the green-grazing season, allowing the pastures to rest and grow.”
At Keenbell Farm in western Hanover County, farm work is determined by a thermometer, and not designated days on a calendar. Isbell manages the 175-acre farm, producing grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, free-range chickens and turkeys, eggs and non- GMO grains.
While days are shorter in the winter, cold-weather farm tasks are anything but abbreviated. Cold-season chores include providing food and water for the animals, and maintaining and repairing farm equipment and machinery.
Utilizing annual cool-season and warm-season forages elongates the green grazing seson.
Isbell says seasons were more predictable when his grandparents, Joe and Kathleen Isbell, purchased the original 175-acre farm in 1951. Today’s weather patterns fluctuate frequently, so the forecast determines the workload.
“We’ll bring out some hay bales to make windbreaks in a severe winter storm, which gives cattle refuge from blowing winds and snow.”
At Spring Hill Farms in Caroline County, winter doesn’t equal relaxation for brothers Johnny and Lynwood Broaddus and Lynwood’s son, Bates.
During the cold months, the trio fixes equipment and grows cover crops to protect the soil quality for spring planting of corn, soybeans and small grains.
The Broadduses say the farm’s off-season typically starts around New Year’s Day, but each year the wintertime slowdown period seems to grow shorter.
The goal of winter work, they say, is to keep the farm running smoothly for spring. Crop planning for the next growing season begins in October, and fertilizer is spread as early as January.
‘BUSY ALL YEAR’
Before production starts in the spring, the Broadduses protect the soil with a rotation of winter cover crops, including 200 acres each of winter wheat and rye, and 50 acres of barley.
“We spread our cover crops over the course of winter so there’s always something green growing in the ground,” Bates says. “That way, the crops are holding the nutrients instead of them being leached away, and once those crops decompose, it provides organic matter.”
Once spring arrives, the farm’s focus shifts to its regular three-year rotation of corn and soybeans. Most of the harvested soybean and corn crops are sold for use as feed for chickens and hogs.
“The fact is, we’re busy all year,” shares Lynwood, who also serves as Caroline County Farm Bureau’s president. “You really need the winter to get everything fixed, everything fertilized and to make sure your paperwork gets taken care of.”