Off the Charts at -90°F and Colder than Hell

We fell off the wind chill chart…

Someone wrote me asking about the temperatures last night here in Vermont. It was -34.2°F on Sugar Mountain. The 70 mph winds were the real killer giving a windchill of about -90°F. This is not a night to be lost wandering about on the mountain. Everything was hunkered down and not even the coyotes talked last night.

North End of a South Bound Ark

They also asked “Did the greenhouse live up to expectations for an below average cold night?”

The answer is a resounding yes, the pigs are very happy to be in the Ark.[1, 2] It is above freezing in the Ark without the need for any heaters. The pigs and the deep bedding pack’s composting action warm it from the ground up. There is no wind chill as well making it pleasant to bed down in the warmth of the composting deep bedding pack of wood chips and hay. My goal with the Ark was to give us October in January and February. We have done better than that – it is even September-ish in there right now on perhaps the coldest night of our winter. The Ark is completely open on the south end and has two large openings on the north end for pigs to go in and out. This also provides ventilation. The pigs can choose to be in the Ark where they have food – the composting wood chips and hay – or walk in to the whey troughs and waterers. This ensures exercise and distributes their manure across the winter paddocks where I’ll grow sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, beets, radishes, broccoli, turnips, mangels, sunchokes and such next summer in the winter paddocks which become summer gardens. This will then feed the livestock in the following fall and winter as pastures wane.

Temperature Console

The butcher shop temperature monitor revealed just how cold the night had been. That low of -34.2°F is only 10°F warmer than the -44°F I’m running our flash freezer. Touching the flash freezer or products in there with bare hands can give you a burn, actually frost bite but it feels like a burn. Similarly one does not touch things with bare hands outdoors in the winter. Humans sweat too much and freeze quickly to metal, ice and other conductive surfaces. The dogs and pigs have a distinct advantage here since they don’t sweat on their pads, or pretty much anywhere.

The SoLow flash freezer goes down to -121°F which is just a bit colder than it was last night outdoors with the wind chill. I have fans in the flash freezer to turn it into a blast freezer so that for a mere $2.62 it will freeze down 50 lbs of meat colder than dry ice for when we ship meat. Dry ice is expensive around here at $2.50/lb and more than an hour away so the SoLow flash freezer has more than paid for itself.

Shrouded Winter Waterer

The water still flows through our buried shrouded waterers. We water our livestock using springs about 165′ higher and 2,500′ away on the mountain. These flow continuously year round serving our various pastures. Waterers are setup as buried 55 and 65 gallon plastic food grade barrels set into alcoves in the mountain to protect them from the winds. The water flows from the springs through 2″ and 1″ pipes from barrel to barrel. While passing through the earth the spring water picks up heat which it loses a little of at each waterer. The continuously flowing water doesn’t freeze, most of the time. When it occasionally does between two barrels we have had to drill it out with long sections of PEX tubing and hot water – an unpleasant task we have fortunately not had to do this year. Knock on wood.

Invisible Pigs in a Blanket

Can you find the sow and five piglets in that photos? No? Well they’re well hidden, buried in the hay on this cold winter day. During the day it got up to a high of -16°F and the wind died down, most of the way. The 0°F is the high from the previous three days. This is seasonable temperatures for our area in January. Usually February is a bit warmer but it’s been like this before. Don’t count on warmth until July when it will get up around 70°F during the day. Even then we have had snow…

This young first time mom is not in the Ark because she refused to stay there. She had gone down the road to the Sugar Shack looking for the perfect site to build a nest. After the third time of bringing her back in Ben and I just put a fence around here next to the bale at the loading dock. She has been quite happy there. It gives her privacy which she needs while the piglets are small. This is something sows seek out along the margins of the pastures during the warm months. In the winter we provide it by segregating late gestation sows from the main herds into maternity suites. After a week or few they join up with other sows on pasture and form co-nursing cohorts.

In the cottage it stayed up in the 50’s this weekend with just our little wood heater running for part of the day and none at night. The secret there is our 100,000 lbs of thermal mass inside an insulating blanket. Each winter we burn less than 0.75 cord of firewood in our tiny masonry stove I built – scavenged dead wood from our land. Even with our super insulated quadruple pane windows we still got ice build up on the inside this morning which has lasted all day. Next year I plan to add shutters for extreme cold like this.

Back in the greater than 200 year old farm house when it dropped to -45°F I remember the frost coming in through the walls following the path of the nails. You would see dots of hoar frost all over the walls from this effect. We fortunately don’t get that in the tiny cottage.

Similarly the butcher shop, with no auxiliary heat, is staying at about 37°F because of it’s 1.6 million pounds of thermal mass, six shells and heavy duty insulation. During the summer the butcher shop stays cool, lagging far behind the summer heat, cycling through a narrow range of about 37°F to 55°F over the course of the year. Heating and cooling are the number two expense after labor in most meat processing facilities so I designed ours to use natural systems to mitigate that high cost. Saving energy keeps the green stuff in my pockets. It’s not just good for the planet, it’s good for my bank account.

Outdoors: -16°F/37.2°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 50°F/55°F

Daily Spark: When I was little I burnt my finger on the stove and my mom told me don’t do that again. She had warned me before I did it. I purposefully touched the red hot burner to test her theory. I like science. But sometimes science hurts.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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18 Responses to Off the Charts at -90°F and Colder than Hell

  1. aminthepm says:

    September temperatures in February sounds nice .

  2. Marsha says:

    I really respect you guys! Vermont interests me in many ways: independent thinkers and its entrepreneurial spirit, but I would hate dealing with cold, mud, and mosquitoes ;o) I hope it warms up a bit for you there.

    • We have very little mud, just a short mud season in November and then again in March or April. It can be as short as a couple of days. Good road building makes a difference and our town has an excellent road crew. As to mosquitos, even though we live surrounded by forest and just up hill from a large marsh we have very little in the way of black flies and mosquitoes. My secret: chickens and ducks. Mosquitoes and black flies are free food and the poultry are very efficient at suppressing them.

  3. After reading your post I feel much better about our “cold” temperatures here in VA. Our lowest temp. this winter was around 13 degrees. I don’t know how you do it. There are only 2 things I like about winter, less mud and not having to cut the grass. Whenever I worry about my animals farrowing/kidding in the winter I remind myself of how others raise them in much colder temps.

  4. Servius says:

    “Colder than Hell.”

    Is that a Dante reference?

  5. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    We Davisites have been shivering in temperatures in the low-to-mid-forties for a few weeks, with high humidity from recent and persistent rains. I dug out my MacKinaw. This week we’re seeing high sixties and almost seventy degrees. You can pop a sweat if you try. I’m back in shorts and singlets. The fields are planted, almond orchards deep in spring grasses, highway verges are knee-high green wild oats, with blossoming wild mustard, which will all, in the California perversity, become fire danger come July.

    I do enjoy the adventure of your Vermont environment . . . at a safe distance.

    David the Spoiled.

  6. Steve Green says:

    Walter. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to help everyone who reads your posts. We are new to raising pigs and your knowledge is priceless. We have about 10 acres of pasture we are going to put cattle in as soon as the budget allows the fencing to be repaired, but we have cut the hay off a few times. We have a LOT of round bails and I have been thinking of putting them in with our pigs. I mentioned this to a frend who said to be sure there was no mold in them or it will kill the hogs. I honestly don’t think there would be any mold. It was dry when bailed and has been in the hay shed. I’m just wondering if I need to be worried about this? Given what they eat in the pastures I question if a bit of mold would make them sick? Would this be something you would know about?

    • There are some molds which are a problem. There are other molds which are not an issue. The problematic molds are primarily on grains is my understanding. The create mycotoxins which may not harm larger pigs but can kill fetuses and small pigs. Dust can also be a respiratory problem. Our hay is typically round wrapped bales which smell sweet and slightly alcoholly from fermenting. I’ve also used compost bales with the pigs and they like those. They smell earthy. Our pigs do not like the black slimy type of mold that happens with very wet baled hay. Neither do I.

  7. Lizz Smith says:

    Hi Walter. I have a couple questions for you …
    1. How do you keep whey from freezing in the winter?
    2. How long in summer (vt) can whey be stored before you can’t give it to the pigs? If that ever happens where it can go bad for pigs?
    Thank you :) lizz

    • We use a combination of the thermal mass, incoming heat energy with the whey, earth heat from ground contact, foil-bubble-bubble-foil insulation + a tarp and snow banks on the windward side in particular to protect the whey tanks. If a tank freezes you lose it until spring. It’s too much energy to thaw it 1,000 gallons of ice. A tank heater could also be used – electric consumption will be high.

      In the summer whey can store as long as two weeks if yogurtized in the shade in our cool climate. I’ve never stored a tank full that long but have experimented with 5 gallon pails full to test this.

      • Farmerbob1 says:

        Walter, I drove through the mountains in Wyoming the other day, and saw that they have solar panel-powered signage on I-80. The solar panels were free of ice and snow, and the signs would have to stay free of snow in winter.

        The weather in the Wyoming mountains in winter is comparable to yours, if not worse. If solar is reliable enough for interstate signage there, it may be possible to find a use for it on your farm.

        I know we’ve talked about it before, and you didn’t think solar could benefit you because it would freeze over and fail. I’m not trying to tell you that you need to do it, just that I have seen it work in an environment similar to that of your farm, so you can perhaps thinking about re-evaluating solar.

        • With the advancement in solar panel technology and reduction in cost I think they are an option even here in Vermont. That is being proven at many sites around here now. I don’t know if I will ever use solar electric panels in any major way although I have always found them fascinating. I also have ample wind and micro-hydro opportunities. Not sure which I’ll tap. A project down the road.

  8. Lizz Smith says:

    Oh and one more thing? Is there a premix u can buy around here for seeding pasture/forest lands that would be good for pigs?

    • I don’t know of a premix that does what I do. We plant:
      soft grasses (bluegrass, rye, timothy, wheat, etc);
      legumes (alfalfa, clovers, trefoil, vetch, ect);
      brassicas (kale, broccoli, turnips, etc);
      millets (White Proso Millet, Japanese Millet, Pearl Millet);
      chicory; and
      other forages and herbs.

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