From my home state of North Dakota to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, farm and ranch friends have endured below-freezing temperatures, below-zero windchills and rolling electricity outages. Despite the ice, blowing snow and piercing wind, they never — not once — neglected to care for their livestock.

Pigs and poultry are tucked away in modern barns, dairy cows haven’t missed a milking and mama beef cows are being brought up to the barn to calve, if possible.

While farmers and ranchers have been hard at work around the clock, animal rights activists have been particularly quiet during the polar vortex.

No one is screaming to let the animals out of the barns to roam freely across the snow-covered plains. They want free-range animals … until there’s a polar vortex. It might be best for those removed from animal agriculture and unaware of what it’s like to care for livestock in cold weather to learn from the real experts — the farmers and ranchers braving the elements for the sake of their livestock.

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Modern barns offer comfortable, consistent temperatures with access to ample feed, fresh water, natural or artificial light, ventilation and insulation. Millions of pigs, chickens and turkeys live in an indoor, low-stress environment, rather than outdoors in the high-stress elements that could kill them.

Cattle are hardy in cold, but to maintain their animals' condition and welfare, ranchers provide extra feed and bedding in cold conditions and have to keep a close eye on water lines. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)
Cattle are hardy in cold, but to maintain their animals' condition and welfare, ranchers provide extra feed and bedding in cold conditions and have to keep a close eye on water lines. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)
Outside of the warm buildings, farmers and ranchers are hauling feed, thawing waterers and keeping watch 24 hours a day so their animals are safe and comfortable. Diesel tractors won’t start, and everything seems to break, but the animals have no idea because one way or another, they have feed and water in front of them and they’re warm.

In my experience, farmers and ranchers sacrifice for their animals. Animal welfare comes first in frigid weather. Farmers are coaxing mama cows inside barns so calves are born in a warm, dry environment. They’re helping cows who are having trouble delivering on their own. They’re caring for newborn calves by drying them off in the warmth of the truck or even the house. I saw on social media where a friend made earmuffs from old leggings for her calves so their ears don’t freeze off.

Heating systems have been running nonstop in hog buildings. Pig farmers have been checking thermostats and water and feedlines because the cold weather is hard on everything. From birth to six months, pigs can’t withstand temperatures below 50F for extended periods of time. Mature pigs can’t thrive below 40F, according to Penn State Extension. Hot summer conditions also provide the need to protect livestock.

While it might be nostalgic and picturesque to see pigs in an outdoor pen wallowing in the mud on a warm July day, it’s not realistic for large-scale animal production. Farmers and ranchers raise food animals following detailed animal welfare standards in humane conditions year-round. To meet the protein needs of consumers in the U.S. and around the world, indoor housing provides stability and safety to animals.

When the activists warm up and thaw out, they’ll be back at it, attacking farmers’ and ranchers’ choices and freedoms when it comes to raising animals. The next time you read or hear about a slanted view in regard to animal agriculture, remember this past week. Stand up for choices and freedoms that give us the ability to raise food from North Dakota to Texas in all weather conditions.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.