'We push a lot of snow.' Heavy snowfall has farmers working extra hard this winter season
Snow removal takes time and man hours, but necessary to good operations
MITCHELL — Farming is a tough job year round, but the weather cycle this season is making the winter of 2022-23 one of the toughest winters for farmers in recent memory.
“This is exponentially worse than what we’ve experienced in a long time,” said Scott Stahl, who farms in the Emery and Bridgewater neighborhood and serves as the president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.
With snowfall totals around South Dakota exceeding anything seen in at least the last decade, snowplows have worked since November at keeping the rural roads and city streets free of snow. Home and business owners have pulled out the shovels and snowblowers to create a path for customers to simply 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. Farm yards need to be cleared so work can proceed and vehicles can operate smoothly. Pathways must be cut to make sure feed can be hauled to livestock. If a township or county road gets blocked with snow, it can keep farmers from picking up supplies or even groceries.
Mitchell has recorded 18.1 inches of snow for the season since early January, well ahead of 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 experiencing increased snowfall totals.
It’s a drain not only on machinery but manpower, said Stahl, who both trades in row crops and livestock.
“There’s been a lot of extra labor involved and machinery time just managing the snow, and working hard to give the cattle and the livestock the maximum comfort possible,” Stahl said. “It’s what you deal with in South Dakota. We’ve experienced all sorts of weather this year, and now we’re getting a snowier winter.”
Some farmers contract snow removal from sources outside the farm, and some do what they can to handle it themselves. Stahl said he has an array of equipment that he throws at the mounds of snow and so far he’s been able to keep up.
That’s important, as cattle need care, especially in snowy, cold winters like this one, with recent temperatures dipping below zero.
“I’ve got a payloader and snowblower and skid loader and tractor loader and box scrapers. It’s taking an army to get the snow moved but you do what you gotta do because you want to make sure those cattle are well taken care of,” Stahl said.
Steve Friesen, who has farmed near Freeman since 1976, said he occasionally brings in outside help to manage the snow, and it’s still a challenge to keep up. He has seen some tough winters in the area and they all bring their own challenges.
“It’s as much snow as I’ve seen as far 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 had. I don’t know why exactly it’s so bad, but we didn’t burn out the ditches like we usually do.”
Friesen said he had already hired a bulldozer to clear some space, and he and his crew work alongside extra hired help when needed to get things cleared on his yard. Like Stahl, keeping pathways open so he can feed cattle is a must.
“You spend four or five hours after a snowstorm opening up everything so you can grind feed or haul in corn if you need to put feed in the feeders. You need those alleyways clean,” Friesen said. “We also try to keep the lots clean where the cattle are and put some straw down on top to keep them dryer.”
Even in the relatively open space of a farm yard, finding places for snow can be a challenge. Snow crews in towns and cities stack snow high on right-of-ways and parking lots, but on a farm snow can be pushed into fields if convenient. If it’s stacked on the yard, the pile can stay there until it needs to be moved.
“We’ve got little piles all over, and if it gets too big we have a payloader and we haul it out to a bigger pile in the field. Right now there’s all kinds of little piles, and some are not so little anymore,” Friesen said.
Matt Mehlhaf, manager at Menno Livestock Auction in Menno, needs to keep his in-town parking lot and yard clear for the producers coming from around the region to the regular livestock sales. And this year’s snow is keeping him and his employees busy hauling the white stuff around.
“I would say this is the most we’ve seen in at least a dozen years,” said Mehlhaf, who also farms north of Menno.
Mehlhaf has to make sure his parking lot can accommodate the 50 to 60 people who show up on average for a typical weekly sale. Counting the auction employees, Mehlhaf said about 75 to 80 people can converge on the auction every week, and most of them are driving large pickups with livestock trailers.
The space is vital not only for visiting farmers, but for the livestock as well.
“It’s not just for the people but for the livestock. All those pens need to be cleaned out,” Mehlhaf said. “You gotta move snow, and we’ve made it so you have the major alleyways you’re using. If we have to feed hay we push it all the way to the hay pile. We push a lot of snow.”
Being an auction located inside Menno, Mehlhaf and crew don’t have the wider range of options when it comes to relocating the snow. They tend to find a place to put it and then continue to add to it until they need to start a new pile.
“We’re not out in the country, where there’s lots of room to push it. Here in town the piles just keep getting taller,” Mehlhaf said.
Stahl said even in the country relocating snow can be difficult, but it’s a task that needs to be done. It’s a necessity that eats up daily work time and equipment hours, and it continuously costs money in man hours and fuel.
“You do what you gotta do, and hopefully you find room for it,” Stahl said. “That’s the goal. It’s a negative return on investment shoveling it around, but it’s one of the things you do to keep moving forward.”
There is still plenty of winter left to go, and producers will be keeping an eye on the weather right up to the traditional start of spring. In addition to operating the Menno auction, Mehlhaf raises livestock and calves, though he waits until May, unlike some of his friends who do their calving earlier.
It’s too early to tell what conditions will be like in May, but he’s glad he’s not doing it in January.
“I have friends who do it this time of year, and they truly are tough. We pushed our date back to May, and that’s when we’ll lamb our ewes, too,” Mehlhaf said. “(We wait) not just for the fact that we get rid of some snow, but because you have nicer weather. It’s a little more natural for calving and lambing.”
While the snow is a nuisance this time of year, the spring melt should help get some early moisture into the ground. That’s no substitute for healthy spring rains, but it’s a start, and every little bit helps.
“I’m an eternal optimist. I think it’s going to help. I would have loved to see it come as rain, but that’s the way it is,” Mehlhaf said.
“They usually say snow doesn’t break a drought, so when I get that two-inch rain in spring, I’ll feel better. I just hope it doesn’t come when we have two feet of snow on the ground,” Friesen said.