We are heading into another busy season in the cattle business: feeding, calving, and much more. This is a time to put the finishing touches on readying the facilities and equipment for the demands of the winter ahead. When preparing to tackle all of the things that need to be inspected, repaired, and restocked, I try to organize the projects in order of what must be done before the ground freezes to those tasks that can be done in the relative comfort of a shop or warm house. And I am not alone.
“There is always plenty of day-to-day damage that must be fixed as you go through the winter,” says Nicholas Lee, manager of Rocking Horse Ranch near Salmon, Idaho. “But it helps a lot to spend time in the fall going over the facilities and making repairs before everyone is busy feeding and calving cows. A lot of things get wired together once everyone is running on empty — just trying to survive till spring.”
Lee says it is important to inspect the fencing in the pens and corrals to be used throughout the winter. “It is very important to make sure that all of the gates you intend to use all winter swing easy. It is very difficult to remedy this problem once the ground is frozen. We try to set all of the gate posts for any heavy cattle gates in a concrete thrust block, below at least a foot of dirt, to prevent them from heaving from the force of frost.”
Cattle handling equipment
While inspecting fences and gates also look at the condition of cattle chutes and head catches. Look for rust damage, broken welds, broken springs, and other needed repairs. Apply a light oil to moving parts. Do not use a heavy grease as cold temperatures will cause grease to be thick and very stiff.
“I have repaired many chutes in the area for ranchers,” says Bob Miller, a professional welder located near Leadore, Idaho. “I’ve put new diamond plate floors in chutes, rebuilt side panels, and repaired tailgates and head catches. If the rancher calls before the manure has eaten away too much of the base steel, I can usually clean them up (the chutes) and fix them.”
To prevent the corrosion from manure, and the adversity caused by frozen manure in the chute, take time before freeze-up to remove any manure from the chute left behind after the fall cattle working.
Inspect feeders and bunks that you intend to use. As in the case of the chutes, damage caught early enough can be repaired by cutting out bent and broken sections, and welding in new pieces.
Special care should be given to barns and shelters. These facilities can take a lot of punishment from the livestock and the elements. Make sure the doors open properly. Check the condition of hinges and remove obstructions from the path of travel. Inspect windows, siding, and roofing. Left unrepaired, wind and stock can work on the damaged areas, increasing the overall damage to the building. Inspect lights and electrical outlets. These components can be easily overlooked until you need them. If lights or outlets do not work, check for corrosion in switches, fixtures, and wiring connectors.
Inspect water systems. Make sure troughs are not leaking to aaaprevent ice flows. Check float valves and heating elements. Float valves can become plugged with sand and rust scale preventing them from working properly. If you cannot free a float valve of sand by working it open and closed with water present in the system, you will need to disassemble the valve and clear the debris. Check heating elements in the pans and the heat tape on the water supply lines. If you are not sure if they are working, check for continuity through the element using a multimeter.
“It is a big crisis when you discover a water supply line frozen on an automatic waterer on a -30 C morning,” says Lee. “If you have any doubt about the heat tape, replace it.”
Once you have inspected and repaired the facilities, you should winterize all of the vehicles and machinery that you plan to use to provide feed to the cattle through the winter. It is a good idea to go over trucks and tractors and make sure the engine heaters function properly. While servicing the engines, be sure to check the antifreeze is rated to the coldest weather you expect. A 50/50 blend is adequate protection for most of our northern regions, but if you are unsure talk to a local mechanic about the blend. Next make sure that you have changed fuel filters and water separators on all engines operating on diesel fuel. Treat the fuel with a good anti-gel water dispersion agent.
Bruce Carpenter, who farms near Gooding, Idaho and operates heavy trucks in the oil fields of North Dakota, believes in preventative maintenance. “The best solution is prevention,” he says. “It is a good idea to replace the fuel filters and water separators in anything that runs on diesel before the cold weather sets in, and treat the fuel with a good anti-gel supplement. The leading names in diesel supplement are rated for year-round use, so don’t worry about adding it too early in the fall. If you expect to use a truck or tractor hard all winter, it’s a good idea to have spare filters on hand and change them every month or so.”
After making sure that your vehicles and tractors are prepped for winter, inspect all of the machinery that you will use to feed the cattle. Hay processors and choppers may not see service for part of the year and it is easy to overlook the condition of some of the components.
Check the tires to make sure they are not weather-checked and are properly inflated. Grease the bearings to all moving parts and drive lines. Check the oil level in gearboxes and make sure seals are not leaking. Inspect the condition of flails, teeth, auger flighting, etc. Clear any old twine or wrap from last season.
Now, if you have checked all of the outdoor preparations off of your list, it is time to turn to the final process of making sure your herd health, calving supplies and tools are in order. It is convenient to have these items consolidated to one room or area with cabinets and shelves to organize items by type and purpose. As you organize these items, take inventory and restock any needed vaccine, antibiotics, oxytocin, uterine boluses, syringes, needles, rubber gloves, OB sleeves, OB scrub, iodine, colostrum replacer, milk replacer, etc. Make sure to locate and clean items such as: calf pullers, OB chains/straps, OB handles, calf drenches, bottles, nipples, ear taggers, banders, etc. Also, make sure that you are prepared for the type of record keeping that you use: notebooks, pens, pencils, or laptop, for examples.
“I like to have all of the medical supplies on hand before calving season,” says Lee. “Due to the distance to town, combined with the busy nature of the season, we can’t count on getting a veterinarian out in time to save a cow or calf. We are set up to handle about any malpresentation, with the exception of a C-section, that we encounter in the average calving season.”