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Celebrating a new year on top of the world -- or at least a frozen silo

After surviving a rough New Year's Eve party, the author recalls that the cows must still be fed even on a frigid New Year's Day.

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A pair of stave silos offer a hint at the dairy farming that once went on at this farm in rural Milnor, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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A few volunteer trees, which I had planned to cut down last summer, poke through the snow in the flower bed. If I was inclined to make New Year's resolutions removing the volunteers would be near the top of the list.

Mom was among the church-going folks who thought the only priority as the new year arrived ought to involve working at being a better person with keeping our eternal destination in mind. It was tough to keep from being short-tempered and generally disagreeable as winter made our lives difficult.

Water pipes froze yet again despite the barn’s stanchions being full of cows and too often a drinking cup overflowed and sent water spilling into the gutter. Demand for bag balm — often used to salve cracked hands and wrists and cow udders — surged.

First marketed in the 1800s, bag balm’s original ingredients remain unchanged even as the product has gained immense popularity with non-farming consumers. Lanolin, petrolatum, paraffin wax, and something called hydroxyquinoline have remained constant ingredients.

Sparrows that sought shelter in the silo chute scattered when a human began his reluctant climb. He had hoped feeding 20 bales of hay would be a sufficient substitute for silage on a miserable day, but bales were in shorter supply. Frozen silage clung to the silo’s sides, making it necessary to use a pick. Sparks could be seen as the pick hit the concrete side.

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Because the three-garage was full, the 1962 Ford Galaxy 500 — including its leather seats and 100,000 miles on its speedometer — sat outside. Although there was no place to go, it would be a badge of honor if the car started.

However, despite a prayer and coaxing it would not. Ether — a product of last resort that might work — was sprayed into the carburetor. The key to making the car start was to use ether sparingly. However, when a person is frustrated more seems best. The over-application caused a ball of fire to explode from the carburetor that blackened the hood’s insulation.

The carburetor had already been flooded by overuse of the gas pedal, which meant the car would remain dead until it was pushed into the garage.

“What kind of oil are you using,’’ someone asked, adding that it was essential that a lightweight engine oil be used in winter.

The question was impossible to answer, given that the car used so much oil that I had recycled a great deal from oil drained from tractors. A quart refill was needed for each 50-mile round trip.

There was no place to go anyway. That was the case until a neighbor called to say he has been invited to a New Year’s Eve party in town and I could go along. I didn’t think I’d make it to midnight, but then there was mention of unattached women.

He volunteered to drive, which was more a curse than blessing because his car thermostat wasn’t working. It meant the car didn’t have a defroster or heat. He handed me a scraper to keep a periscope-sized hole open inside the car while be drove and insisted that we would make it safely to the destination.

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The party was a bust, but the cold ride home was certainly exciting with enough ice on the inside of the windshield to support two 300-pound fishermen.

The morning after, sundogs circled the sun. Dad said a sundog’s appearance meant the cold spell would last for at least a week more. That’s a good thing, he said, because it would snow when it warms up. The horrible winter from 1935 and 1936 had taught him that.

The country was just escaping the Great Depression, a disaster that left a scar on those who endured it. Living on a rented farm, Dad spent the winter shoveling coal from railcars parked in Mankato, Minnesota. Pitching silage amounted to a vacation compared to coal shoveling.

He couldn’t convince me of that, perhaps because I’ve never shoveled coal.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

Related Topics: MYCHAL WILMESRURAL LIFE
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