Decemeber may be the darkest time of the year in Northern Minnesota, but the third week of January is the coldest. It seems to come without fail every year, those bitter winds and cold temps, combined with the clear cold sky of January.
Typically, it is the clear skys that scare you the most. Cloud cover means that the heat will stay trapped by the surface, a clear blue sky means that the cold is there, and likely their to stay for a while. And we can get those cold days in February, but the longer days as the sun fights a little longer in the winter sky each day means that the cold snaps might be colder, but rarely last as long.
In northern Minnesota, you learn to live with the cold. You put on extra layers. You plug in cars and tractors. Your body adjusts. But sometimes, those cold snaps will sap you of your strength regardless what you do, and with cattle to feed and chores to do, failure to fight the cold was not an option.
The coldest January that I remember was in 1994. I was a senior in high school. Mom and Dad were spending most of their time in Fargo as Mom was fighting cancer. My sister and I were holding down the home front and the cold snap hit.
It was cold.
For five days, the temperature didn’t get above -20F, and I mean that for the high. The lows at night ranged from -25F to -40F. And there was a cold, bitter north wind that cut through anything that man created.
You have to be careful in that type of cold. The cattle outside still need to be fed. You need to watch them carefully, but you also don’t want to rouse them too much as they need all of their energy for heat. You have to make sure that the tractors are working, that they are plugged in right. You need to make sure there is fuel in the furnace in the house. Dry gloves and socks are a must.
The one thing that you can’t control was the barn. Though well insulted, especially with over half a years worth of hay upstairs, the cows provided the natural heat. Thirty cows living side-by-side normally kept the barn a comfortable 45F to 65F all winter.
Except during those extreme days of cold.
A normal chore throughout the winter was walking through the barn and making sure that all of the cows had their self waterers (drinking cups) in good working order and thawed out. If they were froze, usually on the west and north side of the barn, it required a pail of hot water, a dipper, and some rags to get it thawed out. It was a cold, wet job.
Those January days in 1994 were some of the coldest that I remember. I missed over two days of school as I fought the cold. Because if the temperature dropped below freezing, the pipes in the barn would freeze and the cattle would have nothing to drink.
All week, it was get up, do chores, milk cows, thaw pipes, try to find a way to keep the heat in the barn, eat, thaw pipes, do chores, milk, thaw pipes, try to find a way to keep the heat in the barn, eat, sleep, and repeat the next morning.
As miserable as that time was, as cold as my fingers still get today from the frostbite and and cold suffered back then, the one thing that endured, was hope. January doesn’t last forever, the next warmfront would move in, the sun would win the battle, and the cows did survive.
What a lesson, what a time. One that I would never give up.