Winter On the Farm

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wintering the farm

Photo by Ken Kashian

Harvested cornfields rest snowy and barren. The sun sets before the 6 o’clock news. And the wind chill encourages time indoors, if not the inkling to vacation in a warmer, southern destination.

Still, farmer Gary Speckhart starts his winter days the same way he does in summer – at the computer to check crop prices, the weather forecast and news. Then, he tackles the day’s to-do list, whether that takes him to the office, out in the barnyard or on the road to a meeting.

“We’re not spending the winter in Florida like some people think,” he laughs.

wintering the farm

Photo by Ken Kashian

Still a Hardworking Season

Winter provides a different, yet still busy schedule for Illinois farmers. When crops don’t grow, farmers take time during winter to make repairs and change oil in tractors. They market crops and review predictions. They focus heavily on bookwork and tax planning. They attend meetings to learn about improved production methods, current issues, marketing strategies or new ideas.

Speckhart grows corn and soybeans with his father near Quincy, about 130 miles north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River. Throughout winter, they repair equipment and haul stored grain to its destination. They take time to calculate profit margins and crop prices and order soil tests. They also purchase seed and crop protection products for the next growing season.

But as much as anything, Speckhart spends a significant amount of the winter season at meetings. He averages two to three days a week at farm meetings in January, February and March. The commitment calculates to about one month of meetings during the season.

“If a topic seems of interest to me or benefits me or my farm, I’m interested in finding out more about it,” he says.

Add in church and school activities, and Speckhart’s schedule appears fuller than most would expect on an Illinois farm in winter. He and his wife, Rita, also own Pointe D’Vine Vineyard, a farm with a renovated 1860s barn that hosts weddings.

Just like with crop farming, the family takes time during winter to determine ways to improve.

“There is always something coming up to consider,” he says.

wintering the farm

Year-Round Chores

Farmers with livestock still care for their animals. Al and Karen Lyman feed their cattle daily, regardless of Christmas Day or a blizzard.

Besides the chores, winter days on their farm lend themselves to planning, preparation work and analysis. The Lymans say the winter season gives Illinois farm families like theirs time to reflect back and look ahead.

“In the warm seasons, you get so focused on the day-to-day details of what needs to be done,” Al says. “When we’re not growing crops, we step back and look at the big picture of what we’re doing and what changes we may want to make in the coming year.”

Their fifth-generation family farm annually feeds about 2,500 beef cattle to market weight near Cambridge, a few miles south of Interstate 80 in Henry County. They also grow corn and soybeans, and feed much of the corn to their own cattle. The cycle comes full circle as the family fertilizes its crop fields with cattle manure. During winter, they analyze highly detailed records about manure application rates. They use global positioning satellites to record the amount of manure they apply across their fields. This ensures they apply an adequate amount of fertilizer, which benefits their crops and respects the environment.

wintering the farm

All the while, they watch for extreme weather that could intensify the daily chore routine.

“If the kids have school off, it means a longer day for us outside because we have either snow or cold weather to deal with,” Al says. “The animals come first. We have to make sure the water is working and the animals are fed.”

Extreme cold freezes water lines. Blowing snow drifts across driveways where they haul feed to their cattle. Either of these winter conditions adds hours of work to the day – whether they must thaw water for the cattle or use loaders and tractor-mounted snow blowers to move snow.

Indoors, Karen experiences her busiest season of the year. She manages the farm records, prepares financial statements and assembles details for taxes. Outside, Al and their employees work in the shop alongside portable heaters to maintain feed equipment, tidy the workspace, and prepare the planter and tillage tools for spring planting.

The Lyman family allots time for visits to farm shows and various farm meetings. Their son’s wrestling meets and other school activities fill any void in the winter calendar.

“We try to have some downtime to rejuvenate, too,” Al says. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to sit in my chair, and I’ll catch up on farm magazines.

“My father-in-law told me when you do this job, you’re always on call.”

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