Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Time for snow?

Summer faded slowly, oh-so-slowly, into a lingering, mostly pleasant autumn this year. Other than the few skiffs of snow, a handful of nearly cold days, and the brisk hammering of intermittent wind spells, the weather has been pleasant for a long time. These nice conditions made fall chores on the ranch a good bit easier than in many years. We had little trouble finding pleasant days for moving herds, sorting calves and weaning, preg-checking and sorting cows, vaccinating and pouring, and hauling grain and hay.
But as they do every year, the days got shorter and the temperatures fell off. Now that we’ve passed the winter solstice and the days are getting longer, winter – real winter – is just around the corner. And that’s as it should be.

Last year winter came early. Looking back over my weather log I see that first frost came on September 28, the first hard freeze on October 3, the first snow fell on October 8 and snow fell every day for a week. We had a nice warm up for a couple of weeks, and then winter settled in for good on October 27. From then until the spring melt there was snow cover on the ground.

This year was different.

It was frosty cold on Christmas morning but the skies were clear and the dawn came like thunder. A second daybreak with warm, bright sunlight was sweet and welcome after a pair of solstice-dark, glowering mornings.

Wheat fields and clean fallow were crystalline bright with frost; countless pinpricks of sparkling brilliance dazzling eyes and mind and heart in a near-explosion of up-sun splendor. Stubble and prairie were drab in comparison, brown and gray and lumpy, but tinged with their own brand of frost, not as spectacular, perhaps, but lovely in their own right.
 I turned on the tap in the northwest quarter and started filling the tank and watched as the cows trailed in single file, providing most of the ground color against a bright blanket of sparkling white frost. The tall junipers were a glowing green accent around the edge of the pasture. A few handbreadths above the western horizon hung a bright, slivery, waning gibbous moon. As I drove in to feed the calves kicked up their heels, throwing dazzling pinpricks of sparkling frost into the air, then dashed to their places at the feedbunk. If I wasn't in church Christmas morning I don't know where I was.

The air cooled quickly Christmas evening, but the sky was clear and the wind calm. As the sun set in the south-southwest, it produced one of the Great Plains' signature treasures - a gorgeous sunset. I don't think I longed for a white Christmas this year.
Welding gauges glow in sunset light on Christmas Day south of Kimball.
By Monday the weather-guessers were predicting the first real winter storm of the year, due to sweep into the region Wednesday night. Predictions are for arctic temperatures, chilling north winds, and somewhere between four and 10 inches of blowing snow for the lowlands. More snow was predicted, of course, for the high country.

I’ve enjoyed the snow-free days we’ve had this year, even though I know they are a double edged sword. No snow means no precipitation, and each day without precipitation drives us deeper into drought. As I drive around the county I see a lot of wheat stands in very poor condition and know that a thick blanket of insulating and, eventually, water providing, snow may mean the difference between a crop and no crop.

As the sun sets on Christmas Day on a south Panhandle ranch, a hay-feeding truck casts shadow on a light-washed outbuilding.
There’s nothing we can do about the weather, of course. We take what we get. There are upsides and downsides to every weather event, and the trick to survival seems to be to never get too high on the upside or too low on the downside. Easier said than done.

Still, I’ve enjoyed our snow-free days. And I’m ready for the snow-filled days to come.


  1. I like that picture with the shadow of the truck against the old white-washed shanty.