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Skating on thin ice

Farm Safety

Recently an Alberta cattle producer had a run in with ice that she’ll likely never forget. It was late November and a balmy 3 C. She was moving bales with a tractor when about 15 of her cattle spied an open gate, raced through it towards a dugout on the farm, and proceeded to fall through the ice. The woman and her family spent the next four hours fishing cattle out of the dugout with a lariat. One calf died and her husband broke his hand in a hitching mishap with a rope and backhoe. Amazingly, the remaining cattle survived, a few treading water for about an hour and a half before they were rescued.

Besides wanting to “kick her own butt” for leaving the gate open, she admits that they’d been talking about fencing off the dugout on the farm for years, but never got around to it. Her story, now immortalized in an ag publication, ends with a quote: “If someone else can learn from my stupid mistakes, I’d be happy.” The family spent the next day setting up temporary barriers to the dugout.

Her cautionary tale is very poignant this time of year. Winter temperatures can fluctuate wildly, and with children looking for some entertainment during winter break, now is a good time to review the ice safety situation on your farm.

Begin by assessing the water bodies on your farm. Do you have a dugout, manure lagoon, natural pond or creek on or nearby your property? What precautions have you taken to limit access to these features? It’s advised to fence off and properly mark water bodies to prevent kids, animals, wandering neighbours, or snowmobilers from accessing these surfaces when they shouldn’t be.

Each water body is different. If you have an aerated pond, it probably won’t be safe to use for recreational purposes as the ice will become increasingly thin and dangerous the closer you get to the aeration system. When dealing with natural ponds, springs, creeks or marshes, deep water freezes much more slowly than shallow water. Strong currents and organic debris can create thin spots. At the water’s edge, cattails and tree roots can slow and weaken ice formation while rocks, logs and docks can absorb heat from the sun. If your water body is near a roadway, or is crossed frequently by off-road or other vehicles, vibrations might weaken the ice. If your water body is subject to salt or other chemicals, this can also reduce ice strength. Monitor water quality in the summer so you have a good idea of the composition of your pond when it freezes over.

Once you determine that your water body is suitable for recreation, it’s time to measure the ice thickness. Start by assessing the ice colour. Clear blue ice is the strongest. White or opaque ice, which is formed by wet snow freezing on the ice, is half as strong as blue ice. Grey ice is unsafe as it indicates the presence of water. Try chipping at the ice. If it comes off in chunks, it’s strong. If it comes off in thin, crispy pieces, the ice density is low and probably not safe. Use an ice auger or drill to measure the ice at various spots on the pond. Fifteen centimeters is safe for skating, walking, or ice fishing alone; 20 cm is safe for hockey games or skating parties; 25 cm is safe for snowmobiles and ATVs; and 40 cm is safe for mid-sized pick-up trucks.

Once you are ready to clear the ice, make sure it is strong enough to support the weight and reverberations of your vehicle or machinery. Cross-check its tonnage against an ice thickness chart, or consult with your machinery dealer. If you’re not confident the ice will be strong enough to withstand your equipment, don’t do it, or find lighter equipment that you know is safe.

Once you are out on the ice, bring a buddy to keep an eye on things from the shore. If this isn’t possible, tell someone what you are doing and how long you will be gone. If you are clearing the ice with a tractor or front end loader, keep the door open. If the ice cracks, this might allow you to escape the vehicle in time before it submerges. Steering and breaking on ice is difficult as most two-wheel-drive tractors only have brakes on their rear wheels. This problem may be exacerbated when carrying heavy loads of snow. So go slowly.

Once the ice is cleared and you’ve warmed yourself up with some hot chocolate, make sure to talk to your kids about ice safety. Children should not venture out onto the ice without adult supervision and pre-testing of the ice by an adult first.

Develop an emergency plan in case the ice breaks. Do you have rescue equipment near the site such as a ladder or weighted rope? Do you have a system in place to call for help? Does everyone know what to do if someone falls through the ice?

Skating is a fun, active way to spend time with your family during the holidays. By taking a few extra steps, you can ensure it stays that way. †

Canadian Agriculture Safety Association – www.casa-acsa.ca

About the author

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As a national, non-profit organization, the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) promotes farm safety in the agricultural sector.

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