12 February 2021 – snowing, high of negative 2, minus 15 this morning.  Brrrrr.

Oh boy am I eating my previous words about what a mild winter we were having.  I know we aren’t the only ones getting the five-finger icy death choke-hold from the polar vortex.  I see frigid temps and snow reaching much further south than normal, and I know the folks in North Dakota and Canada are really feeling it, or not, they may just be numb! As for us, we are on day six of what is forecast to be a ten day stretch where we won’t be seeing anything higher than 10 degrees.  Actually for the next three days we won’t get above zero and the evenings are much colder than that. It’s like Mother Nature said, “Oh, aren’t you enjoying this mild winter?”  and Old Man Winter said, “Ha ha, hold my beer!”

Cattle looking pretty cold

I can’t express how grateful I am, however, that the wind seems to have been shut off and by some miracle we are getting a bit of sun during the day.  This makes a huge difference in the real feel of the temperature. Also, as we are off-grid solar, the sun in the afternoons has made a huge difference.  Unfortunately, we have had about a week of really cloudy, snowy mornings which makes everything a pain regarding being dependent on solar energy.  

A rancher friend that we know has a much larger operation than we do. He has several out-buildings and runs quite a bit of heat on electricity.  He complained to me one time about how high his electric bill could get in the winter and I laughed to myself and thought, “Well, our electric bill is zero!”  But it really isn’t zero if you consider how many man hours can be required because we are not plugged into the grid.  This last cold spell has made Dave and I realize that getting on grid is a priority.  While solar is nice, it is not as convenient as good old fossil fueled electricity, especially when trying to heat water tanks overnight  and firing up block heaters to warm up tractors and other equipment.

Here’s the panels, or array after scraping once today. The black box beneath the panels is the propane generator that is called “emergency back-up” but has trouble starting with east wind and snow, so we put up a wind block of plywood.

When it’s full-on winter and there is little sun, our chores become a bit more involved.  Typically we get up and make coffee on the wood stove. Dave then puts on 40 layers of clothes and he and the Sheriff head to the barn to start the gas generator to plug in the block heater for the tractor. Then he slugs through the snow down to the house generator and takes down boards that protect it from freezing in the East wind and snow.  I see him do this and I start the house generator from inside while he scrapes the snow off the solar panels. When it is minus 15 degrees the house generator, which runs off of propane, sounds like it does not want to start and we both hold our breaths as it whines about its startup cycle. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s feet get cold and he comes running back to the porch wanting to come back in.  He needs better winter gear.

Sheriff Joe will start holding his feet up out of the snow when he gets too cold. Then he pouts if you put him inside before chores are over.

Once the generator is running and powering the house it also begins charging up the batteries. I get some coffee brewing with the electric coffee pot and fire up the oven to get some breakfast going before we get out to feed.  Dave comes in for coffee and toast and to let the tractor block heater get warm.  After a bit, we both winter-up with our 40 layers of clothes and we go to the barn to start the tractor and Mule. About 10-15 minutes later once everything is warm (if it started) the Sheriff and I hop in the Mule and go open the gates.  Dave follows in the tractor and scoops a lane in the snow drifts while he unrolls the hay for the cows.  The Sheriff and I head up to the stock tank and start chopping ice and running water.

Rancher Dave headed to feed.

After the food is out, Dave opens the gate to let the cows come out for breakfast.  Lately, they have been packing into the shed at night.  I am so glad we got that project done this fall, it really is a big deal for them to have a place to stay warm and dry overnight and while they look at us like it’s our fault it’s so dang cold, no one really looks like they are having a problem with the temperatures and snow.  They are in fact the most spoiled cows in South Dakota.

Lucky looking pretty angry about the cold.

While the cows have breakfast, we check them over, looking at their eyes and noses, how they are walking, making sure no one looks like they are going to calve.  It’s still pretty early but the stress of the cold can cause bad things to happen. After cow-checks, Dave and I meet up at the shed and scoop out the manure that isn’t completely frozen to the ground.  We put down a fresh bed of pine shavings and make sure their room is all made up for the next night.

All lined up and waiting to go feed.

This morning was the coldest we have seen since we’ve been here.  The Mule wouldn’t start and we thought it would be easier to just feed square bales in the corral since there is so much snow.  Because the Mule wouldn’t go, we just put the bales of hay in this calf-sled and pulled it into the corral and fed everyone.

Feeding the old school way. I’m so glad we only have a few cows! We use this shed if we have to drag a newborn calf into the barn to get warm.

The next problem of course is keeping the water tanks open.  This would be easier with an electric tank heater, but again, this is a drawback of being on solar energy only.  We do have a propane water heater but it only works when it is about 20 degrees and above, so we are left to find other solutions.  Obviously we chop ice with shovels, spuds, and a pick axe, but when it doesn’t get above minus two for three days it is difficult to keep the water open for the cows. We never fill the tank to the top so we can always put in water from a hydrant and a hose.  This morning, the hoses were frozen as well, even though we kept them in the barn.  We filled a giant 32 gallon cooler with hot water from the house and several 5 gallon buckets and drove them up to the corral and melted all the ice in the tank.  

Watering the old school way, after filling the buckets/cooler inside with steaming hot water we delivered it to the cows 5 gallons at a time.

Oh yes, while all of this activity was going on it continued to snow.  I went back to the panels and cleared them with the snow rake, and then raked some of the snow off the house and garage roofs.  Dave went back in the tractor and cleared the barnyard and the driveway.  He was going to do the whole road, but it’s supposed to keep snowing tonight so he won’t waste the diesel fuel by doing it twice.  Instead he’ll do it tomorrow….if everything starts!

That has been morning life on the ranch the last few days.  It’s “things break cold” weather but the cattle need feeding and the snow needs clearing.  I am not complaining, at least we don’t have a power bill…hahahaha.  We are going to work to make our lives a little easier in the future winters by hooking into the grid.  We have new neighbors to the north and east and are trying to work out a way to split costs to get everyone hooked up out here. After hearing about our winter solar shenanigans nobody seems to want to be off grid.

It’s early afternoon, the snow finally stopped for now, and the sun is peeking out.  The cows are still shuffling around in the corral and they will probably hang out there or go back in the shed until we feed again in the early evening.  Sheriff Joe is passed out in front of the stove and the barn kitty ran back to the barn to hang out in the hay bales.  He has been staying in the mud-room at nights because it is so cold.  Notice I didn’t say “sleeping” in the mud-room. He likes to start meowing around 3AM but it’s way too cold to throw him out. 

And that is how things are on the Holler.  As hectic as the morning seemed, I still feel it was better than going to an office, or even flying in bad weather.  Plus, I get to work with my two favorites, Rancher Dave and Sheriff Joe.  The cows look cold but they seem to be doing fine and are enjoying their extra rations and hot water.  Valentine’s toe is fine, by the way. God Bless all of you reading this.  I hope you are warm and toasty and hanging on to your liberties out there in the real world.  Cheers!

Fatz after getting a drink of hot water.