Icy Work on a Sheep Farm

Sally Bowen

Shimmering sheep on Christmas Eve day. (Photo by Jacob Murray)
[This article appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of The SCOOP.]

The December ice storm hit us on the second day of breeding season.  The lamb count next spring will reveal whether the breeding action was affected. We suspect the rams' footing might have been dicey; otherwise, the sheep seemed content, with their ice-coated coats clanking like out-of-tune bells.  But the farmers struggled with all that ice.

My son Jake set off that first morning with a baseball bat, a bag of kitty litter, and a razor.  He needed them all. The rolling doors of the workshop were plastered with about 500 lbs of ice that impeded rolling. The men used flat shovels to bash the ice off the door and the perimeter around the door frame had to be excavated. Finally, they were able to access the plugged-in machinery which fortunately started, but unfortunately the tractors had virtually no traction on the ice. It helped to add some weight with a large round bale set on the back of the tractor, but getting up the laneway to the stored hay still proved to be tricky.  We watched as it drifted sideways but with some speed and momentum they were finally able to gain access to the bales.

Each bale of hay was coated in thick layers of ice and a lot of energy went into breaking the ice loose and then lifting it off. Christopher used a metal pipe and Jake used his baseball bat to smash the ice loose to get at the recyclable plastic wrapping. Removing the wrap proved a challenge, as the outer layer of hay was glued onto the wrap. They kept lifting and dropping the bale, moving it forward and backwards in order to get the huge wad of ice, the snow and the plastic wrap to separate. This laborious process had to be repeated fourteen times since that’s the number of bales needed to feed all the sheep.

Getting through the gates that separated the fields was another challenge. The ice needed to be removed in order to access the cedar poles at the bottom that weighs the page wire down. The baseball bat and shovel continued to be the most frequently used tools.  Even the knotted plastic ropes, normally requiring seconds to undo, were difficult to manage since they too were encrusted with layers of thick ice.

You need gravity and friction to unroll a bale of hay in the field. However, with the ice coating everything there was no friction – so the bales kept sliding around.  Jake had to continuously manoeuvre the tractor back and forth to get the hay bale to unroll.

Finally, the first bale was loosened and the sheep were able to start feeding, but there wasn’t enough traction to get the tractor up the laneway to hoist the next bale up.  Jake had to spread a bag of non-clumping kitty litter on the ice since the sand pile was solidly frozen under the equally frozen tarp.  Driving the tractor quickly up the laneway, while it was sliding sideways, was scary since there were cars parked close by.

The freezing rain was constant that morning.  Jake's hood froze into a solid helmet of ice preventing him from having any peripheral vision. He couldn't rotate his head to see anything.  At one point he dragged one of the bales for awhile, thinking it was unrolling, only to discover that it was still a solid lump. The tractor windshields were icing up on three sides so he couldn't see. The squeegee had no effect.  He had to use a razor utility knife to carve a hole in the windshield ice then shaving the window like an old style barber; each opening lasted only 10 - 15 minutes.

Standing on crystal fields of ice while sheltered by the hedgerows, the Topsy sheep, with their well-insulated wool and lanolin and their shining armour of ice, peacefully ate their hay or they continued in their breeding mode.  The Topsy men, however, struggled to achieve this peaceful vision. Chores that should have required about 2 1/2 hrs took them over 5 hours.