South Dakota

‘We push a lot of snow.’ Heavy snowfall has farmers working extra hard this winter season

Feb. 1 – MITCHELL – Farming is a tough job all year round, but the weather cycle this season makes the winter of 2022-23 one of the toughest winters for farmers in recent memory.

“This is exponentially worse than what we’ve seen in a long time,” said Scott Stahl, who runs farms in the Emery and Bridgewater neighborhoods and serves as president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

With total snowfall around South Dakota surpassing anything seen in at least the last decade, snow plows have been working to keep the city’s rural roads and streets snow-free since November. Home and business owners have pulled out the shovels and snowblowers to create a path that customers can easily navigate the sidewalks safely.

It’s more work for everyone just to get around, and it’s no different on a typical South Dakota farm. Farms must be cleared to allow work to continue and vehicles to function properly. Paths must be cut to ensure feed can be transported to livestock. When a municipal or county road is blocked by snow, it can prevent farmers from picking up supplies or even groceries.

Mitchell has recorded 18.1 inches of snow for the season since early January.

well above last year’s pace, with Mitchell receiving 10.2 inches of snow at this point in the 2021-22 winter season. Other communities in the region are also reporting increased snowfall totals.

It’s not just sapping machinery, it’s also a labor force, said Stahl, who trades in both row crops and livestock.

“It took a lot of extra labor and machine time just to deal with the snow and work hard to keep the livestock and cattle as comfortable as possible,” Stahl said. “That’s what you have to deal with in South Dakota. We have experienced all kinds of weather conditions this year and now we are getting a snowier winter.”

Some farmers contract snow removal from off-farm sources, others do what they can to take care of it themselves. Stahl said he has a number of devices that he throws at the snow mountains and so far he’s been able to keep up.

This is important because cattle need care, especially during snowy, cold winters like this one when temperatures have been falling below zero lately.

“I have a utility loader and a snow blower and a skid steer loader and a tractor loader and a box scraper. It takes an army to move the snow, but you do what you have to do because you want to make sure the cattle are well taken care of,” Stahl said.

Steve Friesen, who has been farming near Freeman since 1976, said he occasionally enlists outside help to manage the snow and it’s still a challenge to keep up. He’s experienced some harsh winters in the area, and they all bring their own challenges.

“It’s as much snow as I’ve seen for as long as I can remember,” Friesen said. “Just the main roads from the farms to Highway 81 – the township roads are probably the worst we’ve ever had. I don’t know why exactly it’s that bad, but we didn’t burn out the trenches like we usually do.”

Friesen said he’s already hired a bulldozer to clear some space and he and his crew are working together, with extra hired help if needed, to clear things around his yard. Like Steel, keeping pathways open so he can feed cattle is a must.

“You spend four or five hours after a snowstorm opening everything up so you can grind feed or haul in corn when you need to put feed in the bird feeders. You have to clean up these streets,” said Friesen. “We also try to keep the plots where the cattle are kept clean and sprinkle some straw over them to keep them drier.”

Even in the relatively open area of ​​a farm, finding snow spots can be difficult. City snow crews pile snow high in driveways and parking lots, but on a farm, snow can be pushed into fields when appropriate. If it’s stacked in the yard, the stack can stay there until it needs to be moved.

“We have little piles all over the place and if it gets too big we have a payloader and we tow it to a bigger pile in the field. There are all sorts of little heaps out there right now, and some aren’t that small anymore. ‘ said Friesian.

Matt Mehlhaf, manager of the Menno Livestock Auction in Menno, has to keep his inner-city parking lot and yard free for producers who come from all over the region for the regular livestock sales. And this year’s snow keeps him and his staff busy lugging around the white stuff.

“I’d say that’s the most we’ve seen in at least a dozen years,” said Mehlhaf, who also farms north of Menno.

Mehlhaf needs to make sure his parking lot can accommodate the 50 to 60 people that come, on average, at a typical weekly sale. Counting the auction staff, Mehlhaf says, about 75 to 80 people can attend the auction each week, and most of them drive large pickup trucks with livestock trailers.

The square is vital not only for the visiting farmers but also for the livestock.

“It’s not just for the people, it’s also for the cattle. All these stables have to be cleaned,” said Mehlhaf. “You have to move snow and we made it so you have the main lanes that you use. If we have to feed hay, we push it up to the haystack. We push a lot of snow.”

Since this is an auction in Menno, Mehlhaf and his crew don’t have much of an opportunity to move the snow. They tend to find a spot to put it down and then keep adding until they have to start a new batch.

“We’re not out in the country where there’s a lot of room to push. Here in the city, the heaps are getting higher and higher,” said Mehlhaf.

Stahl said even in the countryside, shifting snow can be difficult, but it’s a job that needs to be done. It’s a necessity that eats up daily labor and equipment hours, and it continually costs money in labor hours and fuel.

“You do what you have to do and hopefully you find space for it,” Stahl said. “That is the goal. It’s a negative return on investment when you shovel it around, but it’s one of those things you do to keep moving forward.”

Growers still have a long winter ahead of them until the traditional start of spring and are keeping an eye on the weather. In addition to running the Menno auction, Mehlhaf also raises cattle and calves, although he waits until May, unlike some of his friends who calve earlier.

It’s too early to tell what conditions will be like in May, but he’s glad he won’t be doing it in January.

“I have friends who do this this time of year and they’re really tough. We have postponed our appointment to May, and then we will also lamb our ewes,” said Mehlhaf. “(We’re waiting) not just for us to get rid of some snow, but because you have nicer weather. It’s a little bit more natural for calving and lambing.”

While snow is a nuisance this time of year, the spring melt should help inject some early moisture into the soil. It’s no substitute for a healthy spring rain shower, but it’s a start, and every little bit helps.

“I’m an eternal optimist. I think it will help. I would have liked to see it as rain, but that’s how it is,” said Mehlhaf.

Friesen agreed.

“They usually say snow doesn’t break a drought, so I feel better when I get two inches of rain in the spring. I just hope it doesn’t come when we have two feet of snow on the ground,” Friese said.

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