Unlike on a vegetable or fruit farm, farming doesn’t stop during the winter on a livestock farm. At the very least on a livestock farm breeding animals are overwintered and therefore need to be cared for.
On our farm we overwinter slaughter animals as well. We don’t reduce our “production” at all, actually, so there continues to be, through the coldest and most tempestuous days and months a lot of animals to feed and water. But, unless something goes wrong — a paddock fence gets knocked down, a shelter board or panel comes loose, a watering tub cracks — there is little to nothing else to do on the farm.
With each round of chores only taking about thirty minutes to an hour, in between we go into a sort of torpor, which builds our energy — emotional and physical — reserves back up so that we are able to go flat out from the end of March until November or December. My friend Thomas says that winter is for exactly that; it is a time of rest and recuperation.
It is also a time of monotony, of boredom. By the beginning of March, I am always itching to get back to work, any kind of work other than throwing feed and water at the animals. Nevertheless, the transition is not easy. It is difficult, in spite of one’s excitement, to pull oneself out of one’s torpor. The first few weeks are a challenge because you feel pulled in two directions, towards the new beginning and towards the habituated winter sloth. Projects that you should dive into head first are started halfheartedly, and finished slowly. Others are simply put off.
But then one day, as if a switch is flipped, something grand happens. Usually because of the weather you get to do some thing or series of things really farmish, and that catapults you out of your torpor back into farming mode again. For me, this happened last week, and yesterday. Last week the weather was beautiful — warm, hot even, and dry — dry enough that I was able to hook the disc up to the tractor and run over a three acre field. Watching the discs slice through and churn up the soil was like a study in anticipation as I imagined the field peas and barley seed that I would plant in it sprouting and growing inch by inch into a monstrously dense field of pig feed. It was invigorating.
Then yesterday, Peter and I got to do what I heard an Irish dairy farmer recently say makes for “the best day in a dairy farmer’s life.” We moved a group of pigs, the breeding stock, who are just weeks away from giving birth, from their 2000 square foot winter paddock, to their one acre spring maternity paddock, and while they didn’t hop and skip about, kicking up their heels like David Tiernan’s dairy cows, they wandered here and there, happily jabbing their snouts into the soft ground, plowing great furrows.
I have come out, nearly completely now, of my winter torpor, and I am itching and eager to get back to farming again. Forty more pigs are going to find themselves today on fresh grass, with rich, nutritive soil beneath their feet to root up and munch. Indeed, David, I agree, “it does a farmer, [and the pigs], good.”