Jeff Ryan 1

February 12, 2016

16 Min Read
<p>Snow can be quite artistic when shaped by the wind.</p>

Several years ago, when I had proposed to Sherill and we were trying to figure out what time of the year we would get married, a thought crossed my mind. I shared it with Sherill to gauge her response. The vast majority of my year is active and demanding from a work perspective. It ramps up to really, really busy when we start getting calves in April and is quickly followed by everything associated with planting, growing and harvesting a crop until around December. If we went with a wedding date somewhere between April and December, there would be plenty of stuff to conflict with my ability to get free consistently.

On the other hand, if we went with a cold weather date, I'd be willing to bet that I would be way more likely to be talked into a trip somewhere warm to celebrate. Hence, the January wedding date.

We have found that our January anniversary date is frequently followed by severe weather. It's not at all uncommon to come home from a trip and be greeted by arctic blasts of sub-zero temperatures, or high winds, or huge quantities of snow. Sometimes we get all three in one package. That's when it gets really fun.

All of those animals I take care of outside require water, feed and a decent place to live all year long. If I take care of them, they take care of me. That usually means moving snow to keep all of the cattle fed, watered and comfortable. That also means keeping all of the staff fed, watered and comfortable, too.

We live in the northern tier of counties in Iowa. That puts us at the border of several TV markets to the north, south, east and west of us. Every one of them, it seems, likes to throw a special caveat into their forecasts during the winter. "It shouldn't be too bad . . . except for the counties in the extreme [insert direction here] part of the viewing area. They will be much colder / wetter / windier than everyone else."

Right tools for the job

Since we can't change the weather, we learn to deal with it. That means a lot of mechanical solutions these days. We have tools we can use to move and handle snow that we didn't have in years past. One of the old photos I remember well is a picture of my oldest sister and brother on top of a mountain of snow in the yard. It had snowed so much that Dad had to hire a bulldozer to come out and clean out the yard so that the milk truck could get into the yard to haul away the milk that all of those Holsteins cranked out each and every day. Dairy cows don't take time off for weather. They don't run two hours late in bad weather like schools do, either. The resulting mountains of snow stacked in the yard was every kid's dream. They were every milk hauler's nightmare.

That mess was probably what got us started in acquiring equipment for handling snow. None of it has gotten much smaller since then. We now do a lot of work with a skid loader when it snows. The skid loader has an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning, and a really good radio for me to listen to as I spend hours moving snow. I like to plug my iPod into the radio and completely lose track of time as I listen to whatever I want as I reshuffle all of the snow in front of me.

We got an adapter for the skid loader a couple years ago that lets me hook up to three-point hitch equipment with a PTO shaft using my skid loader. That means I can now hook my three-point snow blower up to the adapter and use it to move major quantities of snow instead of hooking and unhooking a tractor for those jobs like we used to do. The skid loader is a lot more agile than a tractor.

That also means that the county employees and other people notice when the road gets cleared before the county shows up to do it. There are still milk trucks driving around the neighborhood, and there are plenty of people who have to get to work at their off-farm jobs. If I get it done before the county gets to it, some people notice. That's also when they either call or let it be known that they would kind of, sort of, in a way, like to get in and out of their yard as soon as possible when it snows.

Anniversary tradition – severe weather

Upon our return from Florida after this year's anniversary trip, we had severe weather once again. There was snow, wind and cold. That meant lots of snow to move initially, as well as more drifts to move the day or two after it quit snowing. That weather front moves through, dumps a bunch of snow on us and then quickly turns into high winds to create drifts like you wouldn't believe. Sure, the official total for snowfall may have been eight or nine inches, but the 45-mph wind that quickly followed left us with a lot of bare ground and four-foot-high drifts!

I had my priority list in front of me. First, I'd do enough of my own yard to be able to get chores done later in the afternoon. After that, I'd head over the hill in one direction to get the road and yard cleared for Guy No. 1, who lives about a quarter-mile away. Our cousin lives right next to him, just below a big hill, and milks cows. He would more than likely have a milk truck coming that morning. Guy No. 1 prepares tax returns for people through the winter, so he frequently has people stopping at his place for that. If I don't get his yard cleared out, that means I'll get to go down there and pull someone out of a drift when they beach their vehicle as they try to drive in or out. His UPS and FedEx delivery drivers also have a habit of getting hung up from time to time.

Next, I head down the road in the other direction and clear out a path at my folks' place so that they can get out. They're high-priority, because they need to get uptown to drink coffee with other retirees each morning. If I don't get down there, The Chairman Emeritus will be outside in what we call The Baby Skid, moving snow with a tiny loader bucket and no heated cab enclosure.

"Tommy Ryan looked like he had frostbite this morning. You know, he has to sit out there in an open skid loader to move all that snow in his yard, because that worthless kid of his doesn't get down there soon enough to do it for him!"

My parents are many things. Brimming with patience isn't on that list. Dad won't just do a simple path from the garage to the road, either. He does the whole yard. Gotta make sure that everything is spotless so that any work that might need to be done by me at that place doesn't get put off because of snow being in the way! There is nothing they hate more than me with time on my hands.

The next one on my priority list this year is my Aunt Ellen. Uncle Phil always handled snow moving at their place, but that changed this past year. Her son, Jason, farms with her, but he isn't able to do much with snow, because he drives a snowplow for the Iowa Department of Transportation. If there is snow to be moved in the yard, that usually means Jason has already been out plowing snow on the road for a few hours already.

A new tool for winter

One of the new tools in my snow arsenal this year is a set of tire chains for the skid loader. I actually got them toward the end of another snow season, but never used them. A particularly slippery event this winter convinced me it was time to slap those puppies on my tires and see what a little more traction could do for me. Up to that point, I'd usually been taking the loader tractor to retrieve round bales of hay or baleage to feed the cattle. A skid loader tends to bog down in deep snow and gets stuck easily. Then I'd get to do The Walk of Shame back to the machine shed and get a tractor and a log chain (or The Snake) to fish myself out of the snow. 

Chains looked like a good deal. Oh sure, a set of tracks would be nice when it gets muddy later in the spring, but tracks are a couple thousand bucks and tend to freeze up when my skid loader is parked in an unheated shed every night. Chains are only a couple hundred bucks and could be taken on and off a little bit easier.

Sure enough, chains made a big difference! I quickly discovered that I could hook the snow blower to the front of the skid loader and get a lot more done with a blower than I could with a bucket, and I could go further down some slopes than I could without chains. I'd send those drifts into a thin stream in the atmosphere instead of into a big pile for future drifting when I used a bucket. The scene out my skid loader cab was like one endless snow globe with my Deep Brain Stimulator turned off and my Essential Tremor at full blast . Piling snow with a bucket was boring. I'd make my own blizzard!

I would also take the other three-point adapter that my cousin Merlin The Metal Magician made me and hook a blade to it. Then I could do a better job of scraping surfaces clear of snow without all the big ugly divots I'd get when I used a bucket. (The neighbor who power-brooms my yard with his lawn mower each spring probably wondered where all of the pseudo-badger-mounds-of-sod came from the first year he did it . . . right after I had gotten a bigger, deeper, sharper loader bucket for the skid loader the previous fall.)

Another blizzard showed up and I was ready. My yard was done first, then I moved to the Guy No. 1 area. My cousin was clearing out his driveway nearby, getting ready for his milk truck's arrival when I cleared the road off with my 8-foot bucket and stopped to talk. He felt tire chains were cheating. Takes too much of the challenge out of moving snow, he felt.

Nope. Quite the opposite, I explained. Chains give me the confidence to do stupid stuff I probably wouldn't try with just tires. I'll probably end up getting stuck in places I wouldn't go without tire chains.

Next up, I headed to corporate headquarters. Dad had some snow moved, but not all of it. I got him a path cleared out and then I headed down the road in the opposite direction to see if the path to town would be better going that way instead of past my house. I quickly decided that the drifts were worse, so I turned around and headed back before making it to the intersection. This route would require a snow blower instead of a bucket. Once I got done at Ellen's, I'd be back with the blower.

Then I spent a half hour or 45 minutes at Ellen's and got enough of a path cleared out for her to get to the buildings and places she needed to in her yard before Jason came home later. He would be using his tractor-mounted snow blower to blast the yard clean, so I decided to head home and grab something to eat before switching tools for more work. The county's road grader snow plow was coming down the road in the distance, so I figured he'd be at my place in another hour or so. 

A problem arises

I walked out of the house after having a quick bite to eat and made a troubling discovery. Only one of my two rear skid loader tires had a tire chain on it. The other one wasn't just off to the side. It was completely gone.

My brain's flow chart was pretty clear at that moment. "Is your tire chain gone? Yes? In that case, a snow blower will be in a direct line of travel to find your chain!"

And how do I know this? Well, if you go back to that giant dozer pile we had years and years ago, it ended up with us getting a tractor-mounted snow blower a bit later so that we could move more snow ourselves. Someone called and asked if we could come over and blow out their yard after yet another "only-in-the-fringes-of-the-viewing-area" type of snow event. This yard wasn't a showplace. We quickly found some "antiques" buried in the snow and put one through the blower.

Not good. Definitely memorable, but not good.

Surprisingly, it wasn't me who did it, but an impression was made upon me to be choosy on exactly where the snowblower goes. Now it appeared that I could very well be the guy planting antiques for Jason to find with his snow blower a few hours later. My small favor of snow moving wouldn't look so good about the time a long chain got wrapped around an auger and probably took out a shear pin or a gearbox!

I hopped in a truck and headed for Ellen's to see if a tire chain happened to be anywhere between my place and there. The county's road grader snow plow was stopped at the highway as I turned off the road. I stopped to chat with the driver and the supervisor for our area shop. The plow driver thought I was probably trying to find him to get after him about not doing my road yet. He had a hose that was leaking, so the supervisor was there to check it out and help. I told them I was actually looking for a tire chain that had come off my skid loader within the last hour or so. A plow like this guy was running probably wouldn't feel it or hear it as he sent it flying into the ditch, but it might not hurt for him to at least be on the lookout for it.

He felt my pain. Turns out he'd lost a chain off his plow earlier that morning. Let's just say that my chain replacement was going to be more affordable than his if neither of them were found.

I made a quick route through the building site at Ellen's to see if my free-range chain was anywhere in sight. It was nowhere to be seen. That either meant it was in a pile of snow I'd created and would be found when things meted this spring, or it was somewhere between there and headquarters when I'd last been out of the cab and knew it was still attached. As a hedge, I sent Jason a text to let him know that maybe, just maybe, there might be a chain sitting in his yard somewhere if he was thinking about blowing snow.

Then I made a slower-than-normal return trip to headquarters to see if my chain happened to be along the side of the road on the way there. If it wasn't at Jason and Ellen's yard, it would be a bit more poetic if I ended up putting it through my own snow blower, in my own yard, with my own hands at the controls of the dagger I would jab through my own gut in a few more hours.

A drive through the yard revealed nothing metallic anywhere that it shouldn't be. Surely this thing should gleam like a polished gemstone after all of those hours of moving snow, shouldn't it? I turned to head back to my place when something caught my eye in both directions.

To the left was the county snow plow coming down the road. There was a big plume of snow flying into the air as the plow came up over the hill a half mile away. In the other direction was a dull line that didn't seem to fit on the horizon. I drove in that direction and got within a few yards of whatever it was that caught my attention.

Right there in the middle of the road, where I had turned around after my previous attempt at clearing the road all the way to the next intersection, was a pile of chain! I quickly jumped out of the truck, gathered up my rogue chain and put it in the bed of the truck. Then I threw the truck in Reverse and made good time getting back to headquarters. The county snow plow was making its way toward me at a good clip.

I parked a few yards into the driveway, hopped out of the truck and held up my trophy in one hand as the county plow drove past. My other hand was outstretched with a big thumbs-up to the driver.

Bullet dodged.

The broken link on my tire chain was fixed in short order and I was ready for more fun in no time. This is only early February, after all. There are several more weeks of screwing up snow-related stuff for me before I move to warmer-weather mishaps in more comfortable clothes.  

Guy No. 2

About the Author(s)

Jeff Ryan 1

Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.

Jeff farms during the day, but in the evening he e-mails his observations about life on the farm to his city-dwelling friends. He weaves these observations into entertaining stories that are sure to bring recognition, sometimes tears, but mostly a few smiles and outright belly laughs.

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