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Season of 'snowmageddon' and its effects on farmers and animals

Snowfalls have reached some records this winter in some areas requiring extra efforts from farmers and wildlife to get on with everyday life. Michael Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

 In the midst of a record-breaking winter where space to put more plowed snow is dwindling, local farmers and wildlife may have slowed down but they haven't backed down from everyday living.

The National Weather Service has recorded between 6 and 8 feet of snow has fallen in total since September 2018 in west-central Wisconsin. More snow is predicted before spring has the chance to make an entrance.

The unpredictable weather and long winters demand animals and people adapt, especially when snowfalls deem rural areas nearly impassable.

Animals adjust

Common wildlife like deer and birds conserve energy by traveling slower and at shorter distances in heavy snowfalls, said Jed Hopp, local wildlife biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

"The snow that we do have is really fluffy snow," Hopp said. "The crust layer makes it harder for them (deer) to move through it. They just reduce activity levels and utilize fat reserves."

Birds who stick around through Wisconsin's winter fluff their feathers to slow down their metabolism along with tapping into their fat reserves, according to Natural Lands, a non-profit pro-environment organization.

Hopp said according to the Winter Severity Index (WSI), this winter hasn't been tough enough statewide to greatly affect the deer population.

This index uses a scoring system with 49 or less points indicating a mild index, 50-79 as moderate, 80-99 as severe and 100 or greater as very severe. Scores are calculated and accumulated through the winter by "adding the number of days with a snow depth of at least 18 inches to the number of days when the minimum temperatures were zero degrees or below," according to the DNR. These scores are tracked in northern Wisconsin, Hopp said, but some readings are from the National Weather Service stations.

In the west-central Wisconsin region, the score is sitting around 40 in the mild range after February but is about 10 points shy of a moderate score. At the end of January, scores were marked at 10-15.

2013 was recorded to be "Very Severe," with a score of about 150.

Hopp said people can aid some wildlife by putting out specific feed or seed, but should be cautious about what and how much they allow deer, birds and other species to have access near their residences.

Farmers deal with icy water, places to put snow and frostbit animals

After 34 years of farming together as a couple, Beth and Craig Ingli have seen their share of tough winters.

This 2019 season full of dozens of inches of snow and a Polar Vortex, however, is still taking a toll on their Spring Valley/Elmwood area family farm.

"One challenge has been in the cow yard. With all the fencing it's really hard to move the snow," Beth said laughing. "You have barriers of all this fence with the snow drifts and then to keep dumping it over the fence ... Where do you put the snow when drifts are too big?"

With so much snow, there is anxiety over whether roofs might collapse. Beth had to stand on a 4-foot-tall snow drift to clear some snow on a roof.

Once the snow melts, that's another story; 200 acres of corn and soybeans are in jeopardy of being flooded along with their barnyard, which was recently redone.

"We're afraid that could wash away after work was put in two years ago," Beth said.

The Inglis have 40 beef cattle to care for and they're finding keeping them well to be another challenge, especially during the cold snaps.

"It takes three times as long to take care of the animals," Beth explained. "If you have two animals, it doesn't matter, you still have to keep them fed and watered."

Snow has drifted over water sources and ice fills them, which must be broken out. Their water pipes have also frozen up, and some have light bulbs underneath to warm them.

"It's an endless battle sometimes," Beth said. "Anything metal doesn't want to run."

Fortunately, the Inglis have not sustained injuries themselves or lost any livestock.

Land of Milk and Honey Farms, a River Falls family farm run by Jaclyn and Trevor Wahlquist, is in its infancy stages this winter.

The farm full of 25 cattle and 50 egg-laying chickens has been battling a few bouts of frostbite.

The Scottish Highland and Hereford-Angus mix cattle have fared well, Jaclyn said, as they eat more and huddle together in a structure for warmth.

But the chickens were having a harder time.

"Six roosters got frostbite and one lost a comb on top of his head and all his ridges eventually snapped off which is a bummer," Jaclyn said. "Nobody died."

To properly house the chickens in the bitter cold, the Wahlquists have converted an ice fishing house into an insulated chicken coop. Heating lamps are plugged in and give the chickens enough light to prompt them to lay eggs.

Cayenne powder is mixed in with their usual food to keep them warmer as well.

Along with the chickens, the two livestock guardian dogs are dealing with the snow. The long-haired Great Pyrenees get snow stuck between their paws and balls of snow stick to their hair.

If they lick their paws raw, Jaclyn rubs coconut oil on their feet and the Wahlquists heat the garage to thaw the dogs out.

Like the Inglis, hours have been spent just moving snow.

It took six hours over two consecutive weekends to plow snow and gain access to the wrapped food for the cattle.

"It was a huge time commitment but it's not like he couldn't do it," Jaclyn said.

Although the Wahlquists don't worry about flooding as they are situated on a hill, they do have 70 recently-planted 3- to 5-year-old fruit trees that they're afraid may not survive.

Rachel Helgeson

Rachel Helgeson

(651) 301-7864