COALVILLE It's dropped to 20 below the past two nights on Brown's Lane just south of town, where Glen Brown's dairy farm juts up against the foothills.
That's as cold as Michael Brown, Glen's son and superintendent of Brown's Summit Valley Dairy, has seen it in a couple of winters.
But you sure wouldn't know it from the cows' reaction.
"One thing about cows," says Michael, "they don't whine.
"They might beller a little after a while if you forgot to feed them, but they don't complain that it's too cold."
The fact is, Michael explains, mother nature gave cows a warm enough coat, even for when it's 20 below and they're outside around the clock. They've got thicker skin than a border crossing guard.
"It's like when you're snowmobiling or skiing and you're dressed for it, you're fine," he says. "Well, so is a cow. She's dressed for the cold. As long as she's got enough to eat, she's happy as a lark."
For the dairy farmer, though, the super-cold weather makes it tougher to make sure a cow gets enough to eat.
First off, you have to understand that your average milk cow eats 60 pounds of feed and drinks 30 gallons of water every day, which means maintaining a massive supply of good chow. When the weather turns cold and frosty, the farmer has to make sure the feed is dry, includes a proper mix of grains and hay, and that the water troughs, which are outside, don't freeze."It's all about energy," says Michael. "A milk cow that produces 120 gallons (of milk) a day uses a lot of energy. What you're trying to maintain is that milk production and also enough energy for their own body heat. You want to make sure they can get to that feed bunk and watering trough whenever they want to. It's all about health. The only way a cow is going to freeze to death is if it's sick."
And then there's the additional problem of making sure the cows don't slip on the ice and incapacitate themselves on the way to and from dinner.
"Most people probably don't realize it would even be a problem," understates Michael, "but cows have four legs, and if it's icy and you haven't put enough sand down, odds are when they're walking from the milking pit to the feed bunkers to the watering trough and free stalls one will fall down. When it's cold the challenge is to manage your cement."
But Michael debunks, at least partially, the notion that cows are idiots for life. The older a cow gets, he says, the more it acquires the good sense to walk next to the fence, where it's always less icy."Cows are dumb in one sense, but in another sense they have good instincts."
The bottom line, says the dairy farmer, is that the colder it gets, the harder it gets.Comment on this story
"It's easier when the weather's warmer," he says. "Wintertime's a lot more stress. You have to be alert when it gets cold, or you can be in trouble in a hurry. This time of year, it means you have to see every animal every day, there's just no way around it; you have to make sure they're healthy."
At Brown's Summit Valley Dairy, where 750 cows reside, that adds up to 750 visits every day.
The cows don't demand it, they don't even mildly ask for it, nor do they stay up at night and watch the weather to see how cold it's going to be that night.They are smart enough to leave all that to the farmer.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and faxes to 801-237-2527.