December 9, 2012

Winter a time for reflection

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator

— Like every other morning, I got up this morning and before breakfast I took a ride out to feed the cows. Unlike during summer, when I usually walk, it was cold and there

was a dusting of snow on the farm road and the reality of the long winter still ahead is sinking in.

It was only a few months ago that summer was in full swing and the view was very different. Today there was no sun shining warmly, no lush pastures and no feeling of the vitality of summer.

One thing we can count on in the North Country is our contrasting seasons. While there is a world of difference between this morning and the glorious mornings of last summer, I still appreciate the beauty and variety of seasons we enjoy. The mountains cradle the horizon, the wind whistles through the trees and the cows beller in anticipation as I approach. For them, nothing seems to change.

One of the lessons I learned as a youth raising goats and chickens for 4-H was that the animals under our care had to be fed, watered and comfortable before I could eat, play or sleep. While the science of animal husbandry has evolved over thousands of years, the basics remain the same. From a herdsman or farm manager tending a herd of hundreds to the backyard goat herder who has only a few animals, the livestock that we raise will grow faster and produce more when we care for them and treat them well.

There are many types of animal husbandry. Most modern farmers employ breeders, herd-health specialists, feeders and milkers to help care for the animals using the latest scientifically researched methods and techniques. Others may use a more down-to-earth, holistic approach, raising their livestock with natural or organic methods that worked for small farmers in the past. While more modern methods of farming are efficient and scientifically sound, it doesn't mean that these farmers have lost sight of the basics of animal husbandry.

On my visits to Clinton County farms last year, I was impressed by how much emphasis farmers are putting on cow comfort, hoof health and calf-raising facilities. Farmers are modest about their success; not bragging about their superior farming ability, but attributing much of it to simply providing their livestock with comfortable housing, good feed and low stress.

Looking at a large herd of cows recently really told the story. Cows were lounging comfortably in roomy free stalls, chewing their cuds contentedly, some feeding at the bunk with very little stress or urgency. They even had an automated cow brush to scratch the unreachable itch that cows must have, too. These were happy cows. Modernization and mechanization has benefited them by providing a safe, controlled environment, consistent feed and labor efficiency.

Some producers prefer to take a different approach. Clinton County still has a growing number of smaller farms, including a few using organic production methods. With the modernization of agriculture and the concentration of food-processing conglomerates, more and more consumers are looking for local foods produced in a more natural or organic fashion.

Local livestock producers are scattered all over the county raising goats, chickens, sheep, beef cattle and even deer. Some may be raising them for their own use, others for sale to their friends and neighbors. For most, it is not a full-time endeavor. But there is something viscerally satisfying about owning, raising and consuming your own food, whether it is vegetable or animal. A sense of independence and pride is obtained by seeing the fruit of your labors ripen and be harvested.

Regardless of how many animals one may raise, or whether the methods are conventional, organic or just small scale, all farmers should be thoughtful about the livestock in their care. During the bitter cold weather, chilling wind and snow of winter, I’ll be making sure that my herd of beef cows gets an extra bale of hay, a full tub of water and a little extra attention all before breakfast.

For more information about raising livestock, starting a small farm or agriculture in Clinton County, contact the Clinton County Extension office at 561-7450 or email me at

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email