In the coldest and hardest days of winter the tasks of the farm family took a different shape. The stores of hay, feed grain, and silage were parceled out with eyes fixed in principal directions– feeding for market, maintaining body heat and weight, and making the stores last until spring. Heat was critical, to keep liquid water available for all the animals, and, to provide extra heat for the small and the weak, we had to place heat lamps and electric water heaters and regular supplies of fresh water in accessible places. We had to make sure adequate shelter was available, and for access to shelter we had to cut pathways through ice and snow for ourselves and sometimes for the animals themselves. Often births came on the worst days, and special care had to be given. It usually fell to the youngest child to care for the weakest of the litter, the runts, by bottle and bucket feedings.
We had to bundle up warmly and wear heavy boots and gloves and hats that made anything that we did harder to manage, but the task of protecting ourselves was at least as important and difficult as protecting the animals, as we went from barn to barn and shed to shed.
Although there was no work in the fields beyond spreading manure, there was plenty of paper work to do, placing orders, updating records, filing taxes. This was the time to sort what we had set aside for planting, so that only the strongest plants would provide seeds and bulbs for the spring planting. We would make sure they were protected in their clean and dry containers.
In the barns and the sheds the work took on an urgency that was about survival in the cold and ice, for the newborn and the growing and the breeding stock. To keep the chickens laying their eggs, we had the usual daily rounds of feeding, watering and collecting, within a henhouse that seemed dustier and more confining than ever, while the brooder house would be newly filled with two hundred baby chicks clustered under a heat lamp, to provide the next crop of laying hens and a supply of chicken for the freezer and the table.
The milk cows needed milking twice a day, but the herd of milk cows had long since dwindled to one or two by the time I was old enough to help with that. Usually it was done before I got around to doing it. Fresh milk, cream, and butter were luxuries that I have long missed. Churning the butter on Saturday morning was an activity I looked forward to doing.
Many of my farm dreams surround the least critical of the chores– caring for the rabbits. Rabbits were not critical to the success of the farm but they were my job alone for several years. Their hutches stood in the open, and they needed tending at least twice a day for food and water and providing care for the new litters. Pieces of sheet metal and bales of hay provided the makeshift wind breaks that protected the hutches. Once in a while I still dream about forgetting to tend them, returning to the hutches and finding their carcasses starved and frozen. To my knowledge I never forgot, but I certainly wanted to on particularly miserable days, and I always lost some to the cold anyway.
While winter tended to isolate people, there were times when the neighborhood came together. Card parties gathered neighbors. So did the shelling of corn from the crib when farmers tired of waiting for the price to go up, and decided to empty the crib in readiness for the next season’s crop. Extra hands were needed when we loaded the truck with steers for a trip to the Chicago stockyards, and the trip itself was an adventure into alien territory. Any combined effort became the occasion for a meal shared with neighbors.
These days when only the birds call for my tending, and only the sidewalks require my efforts to clear them, the tasks are greatly reduced, but the needs of many people around us in the world still require our willingness and readiness to do the chores that mean survival and prosperity for the seasons to come.