This story was originally published in January 2020.
No one ever said farming or raising livestock in Maine was easy. And if they did, they certainly never said it was easy during the winter when temperatures drop to well below freezing and snow drifts are higher than some agricultural outbuildings.
Just ask Alex Zetterman.
On any given early winter morning, some of the only lights on in St. Agatha are at Zetterman’s family farm. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, Zetterman’s days begin around 4:30 a.m. when he rolls out of bed and heads the 500-feet up his driveway to the barn for morning chores, regardless of the weather outside.
“Farmers don’t get snow days,” Zetterman joked on a recent wintry morning as he made the 5 a.m. rounds in the barn. “This is our daily thing, no matter what it’s doing outside.”
On that particular morning, it was 13 degrees Fahrenheit and Zetterman was dressed in insulated Carhartt coveralls with a headlamp strapped to his hat. His breath came out in white clouds, the light reflecting off them, as he spoke on the frigid morning. Nearby, cows munched on fresh hay that Zetterman had just given them, clouds from their breathing also rising around them.
“They are happy as can be in this temperature,” Zetterman said. “Inside the barn, their body heat keeps it warm [and] they can go outside into a small [fenced] area if they want.”
The snug barn is the winter home for the two dozen head of cattle, a half dozen pigs, a draft horse, a barn cat and two rather cranky guinea fowl.
For Zetterman, the two biggest challenges that come with raising livestock during the winter are wind and fluctuating temperatures.
“When you have a winter like we’ve been having with real cold temperatures and then warmups, that’s not good for the animals,” he said. “It makes keeping their bedding dry a real pain.”
For much of the winter the dirt floor of Zetterman’s barn is frozen, but the moment the temperatures rise above freezing it thaws out and becomes a muddy mess. To protect his animals, Zetterman rakes out any bedding the moment it gets damp and replaces it with dry material.
Sharon McDonnel has the same issue with her flock of chickens in Yarmouth.
“When there is melting [and] freezing alternating the mud is a drag and [it is] hard for the chickens to get dust baths,” she said. “We improved our drainage this year, so I am very optimistic.”
Rapid changes in air temperature can also create the right conditions for livestock like cows to develop bronchial issues, including pneumonia, Zetterman said.
“So far, that’s not been a problem for me,” Zetterman said. “But I’m keeping a close eye on them.”
Then there is that wind, which blows off Long Lake across the road and right over his farm and over anyone or anything else in its arctic blast path. Like a lot of other farmers, for Zetterman, wind is no friend at chore time.
“I guess my biggest thing in the winter is the wind,” Zetterman said. “It creates a lot of snowdrifts I have to dig or plow through to get to the barn and makes the temperatures even colder so machinery does not want to start — yeah, wind is the worst.”
If it’s not the wind, it’s the water
“I don’t use any sort of heater for the water,” Zetterman said. “I have a 200 gallon tank for the animals and I check it every day [and] break any ice that forms off the surface.”
Crystal Sands, who raises chickens and ducks in Eddington, is all too familiar with the added time and effort winter brings to keeping her flock happily hydrated.
“I’m busting the ice [in] the water and then adding fresh water,” Sands said, “This means trips to the house and doing it several times a day on the coldest days.”
Adding to the winter water woes are the short days and lack of sunlight during a Maine winter. Many farmers who hold down paying jobs off the farm never spend daylight hours in their barns. Rather, chores are completed in the predawn and early evening darkness.
And not all animals or fowl are particularly fond of eating or drinking in the dark, which is an issue for Maine farmers without electric lights in their barns or coops.
“Frozen water is an issue when it is dark when you leave for work and dark when you get back,” said Angie Foster. “Chickens won’t eat or drink in the dark, so if it’s cold and dark when you refresh their water and then leave for work, it may freeze before it’s light enough for them to drink it.”
Susan Holmes learned the hard way to use an extension cord run from her house to keep her ducks’ water thawed all winter.
“Ducks are much harder than chickens,” Holmes said. “They need at least enough water to dunk their heads daily and they also love to get water dirty [and] splash it.”
Splashed water, Holmes said, can freeze to the coop floor and freeze the door shut.
“I spent one winter crawling through their little [duck] door to get eggs and add fresh shavings,” she said. “Now we use the extension cord [and] electric bowl [and] it’s totally worth it.”
At the Zetterman farm, a hose is run from the house every morning and evening to the barn to refill the waterers for the animals. Once they are filled, Zetterman carefully rolls the hose back up and brings it back to the warmth of his house to keep any water inside the hose from freezing.
Farmers for all seasons
As difficult as winter chores are, these are not fair-weather-farmers and none would give up their lifestyle or animals simply because of some cold weather. It takes a special breed of person to farm and care for animals.
For some, it’s a break in the daily grind of a 9-to-5 job off the farm.
“I love the daily chores and being able to step out of my work world and into my goat, chicken and duck world,” said Jen Winter of Falmouth. “Everyone is so appreciative of all my efforts and it’s like Easter every morning looking for the eggs.”
For others, like Zetterman, it’s the opportunity to pass along the farming life he learned from his parents to his son.
“When it’s not too cold my 2-year-old son Samson joins me for chores,” he said. “He has a little pail with feed in it and he just tosses [feed] at whatever animal he sees [and] it’s so great seeing him getting started doing chores.”
Coiling up his hose after filling the waterers on a recent morning, Zetterman took a moment to reflect.
“It’s work, hard work,” he said. “But this is what I do.”