The long winter…


A guest blog by Wayne McDonald

Is it just me or has this been a long winter? I mean exceptionally long. Ultimate marathon long. Earth to the moon long. Every winter in this part of the world is long, I suppose. Not for us the 2 or 3 weeks of “winter” they experience in Vancouver where the temperature barely dips below freezing and any snow that falls is gone by mid-morning the next day. No, no, no. Instead we get weeks of mind numbing cold and howling winds. Stupid Polar Vortex.

Honestly, though, I don’t mind the cold that much (OK except for that Sunday this January when it was -28 celcius during the day and the wind was blowing 40 gusting to 60km from the NW. That was ridiculous). I mean it is winter in Manitoba. You have to expect some cold, obscene amounts a little bit of wind, and a few feet of snow. And when you accept that winter is going to consist of some combination of those things every day, it becomes, if not exactly enjoyable, at least tolerable.

For farmers winter brings challenges beyond the weather. Yes we are outside for hours every day, regardless of how cold or windy it is, but you can dress for that. Lots of layers, cover up anything you don’t want to see fall off, and away you go. Yes equipment freezes up and doesn’t want to work. Yes livestock water sources freeze up and need to be thawed out again (at -30, never at -3). But once again we’re used to that. We can handle that and even take a perverse pleasure in MacGyvering (obscure ‘80s reference for those of you born after 1990) a solution.

I think the hardest thing to cope with for most farmers during a Manitoba winter is the monotony. I’m not referring to the sameness of the weather.   As I said that’s a given and manageable. No I mean the day to day repetitiveness of the tasks that every farmer performs day after day, all winter long.

I suppose I should interject here; by “every farmer” I mean “every livestock farmer”. I have absolutely no idea what grain farmers do all winter. Polish their combines and fondle their canola? No clue. I’m sure they are busy with things during the long winter months. But I doubt that their tasks, whatever they are, approach the same level of uniformity that a Manitoba livestock farmer faces from October to April every year.

Ok back to my central thesis/senseless babbling. Every day when I get up, to a large extent I know exactly what I am going to do that day. It’s the same thing I did yesterday, and the same thing that I will be doing tomorrow. Sure there are subtle variations. Maybe this group of animals doesn’t need another bale of hay today. The one I gave them yesterday still has over half remaining and they will be fine until tomorrow. But essentially the series of tasks that I am going to accomplish when I role out of bed in the morning is largely unchanged from the day before or the day before that, etc, etc.

And that lack of variety introduces a tedium to the winter months that can be challenging. To give you a sense of what I mean, here is a typical winter’s day for me. Wake up. Eat and spend some time with Maria and Emma. Go outside. Start the tractor and let it warm up. In the meantime feed and water the lambs in the yard (about 100) and the boars in the yard (about 10). By this time the tractor is warm so head down the road a mile or so to our other farm yard where the bulk of the lambs are housed. Get a couple of bales of hay from stack to feed the ewes. Get a hay bale from the stack to feed the lambs. Fill hopper bottom feeder with soybean pellets for the lambs. Sweep out troughs of snow, bits of straw, etc. Auger pellets into troughs for lambs. Let lambs into pen to eat pellets. While the lambs are eating at troughs roll out bale of hay for lambs. Hook back onto hopper bottom feeder and fill it with canola pellets for ewes. Drive ½ mile over to where the ewes spend the winter. Put out pellets for ewes. Let ewes in to eat pellets. While ewes are eating pellets roll out hay bales for ewes. Feed pigs before you leave ewes. Drive back home (1 mile) and grab 2 bales of hay from stack for cows. Drive ¼ mile across pasture to cows. Roll out bales for cows. Head back home. Park tractor. Feed lambs and boars in yard a second time. If there is nothing else to do you can go back inside for supper. Spend time with Maria and Emma. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat.

It’s the “repeat” that gets you.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact really none of it is doom and gloom. Can the list above get tedious over the course of a 5 or 6 month winter? Sure. But so can everything else. After all isn’t life just a series of tasks we repeat day after day? Wake up. Eat. Work. Sleep. Repeat. But most of us don’t think of our lives that way. If we did we’d never get out of bed in the morning. In life, as in farming, we learn to enjoy the day to day. We find satisfaction and joy in all of the little moments. We find a way to balance our family, our friends, and hopefully our liveihoods. Yes I have my list. Yes there are mornings when I wake up, look outside, see the wind howling and the thermometer dipping, and “Sigh”.

But not very often. The truth is, I kind of like the day to day grind. It appeals to my nature I suppose. I know that some people can’t do it. They can’t handle doing the same thing day after day, even though it’s not really the same at all. There are always subtle variations. Little challenges to overcome and small pleasures to experience.  That’s the stuff I love. Anyone can glory in the big moments. Farming is about appreciating and savouring the little ones.  Farming has given me a great life. I make my own schedule. I’m outside all day, not stuck inside, behind a desk. I have the satisfaction of knowing that at the end of the day, all of our animals are well fed and content. And I know that I’m not just raising a commodity that is going to be shipped off to God knows where to be processed into God knows what. I’m growing food for people in my province. There is a definite sense of satisfaction to be found in that.

And if all else fails I get to come home to this. Kind of puts everything into perspective.

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