Staying warm in the cold

Unlike this year, our early lambing season — from about the middle of February to the middle of March — is typically a very cold time in Iowa. When you are spending hours each day in sometimes sub-zero temperatures, it’s a huge help to have proper cold-weather gear. In my early years of shepherding, I wore whatever we had on hand: usually layers of long underwear topped by jeans, layers of sweatshirts, and an old coat. I had grown up in the suburbs, and although I played out in the cold, I didn’t actually live in it the way I do during lambing. I had a lot to learn about staying warm in a drafty barn.

Over the years I’ve refined my work wardrobe through trial and error and sometimes due to suggestions made by others in similar circumstances. Now, no matter the time of year or the weather, I have what it takes to keep me warm and dry. This enables me to sit a night vigil when a ewe is in labor or to hang with the flock when a lamb is in trouble. It has taken both time and a bit of financial investment, but having the proper clothes is well worth it. There’s nothing like knowing that you used to freeze in conditions that now don’t bother you at all — no matter what Old Man Winter is throwing at you! (I’ve included links for photos and descriptions only; feel free to search for the best prices.)

First, we wouldn’t survive without good boots. Through the warmer months, we get away with inexpensive muck boots that you can get at nearly any farm store. In the winter, however, feet get cold quickly as you sit and wait on a laboring ewe. I need multipurpose boots, though: cozy enough to keep my toes warm when I am inactive (watching labor) but comfortable enough to wear when I am active and working up a sweat (mucking out the barn or feeding the ewes). The answer is Bogs classic winter boots rated for -40F/-40C. They are waterproof, so you won’t have wet socks, and they’re comfortable even on warmer spring days. Although they aren’t as inexpensive as muck boots, you’ll wish you had a pair when your feet are numb with cold!

For outerwear, I have several choices, depending on the weather. My go-to jacket is a Carhartt with quilted lining. I use this jacket through three seasons, and it is surprisingly warm. If it’s bitterly cold outside, I pair it with either Wrangler Thinsulate-lined jeans (super warm and comfy, although they come in only men’s sizes), or my Carhartt quilted bib overalls. If I will be busy lambing in the barn, the overalls work best as I don’t have to worry about the jacket riding up and exposing my lower back to frigid air — but I love the Wrangler Thinsulate jeans for anything and everything else. For lambing, I also have two pairs of Carhartt quilt-lined coveralls that are many sizes bigger than I need — perfect for when I have many layers underneath. Having two pairs allows me to peel off the coveralls in the laundry room and throw them into the washer, then wear the other pair on my next trip to the barn. And a cautionary tale: since I always take my cell phone to the barn with me (in case I need a vet FAST!), I try to remember to take that out of my pocket before I throw the coveralls into the washer. I always seem to forget this once each year, usually around 3 a.m. on one of the cold and wintry nights after a particularly grueling barn check. This is why I now always buy insurance for my phone!

I used to wear a scarf to shield my neck and keep body heat from escaping through the top of my jacket or coveralls. But a scarf always tended to flop out of my jacket and get in the way as I worked. Two years ago, I got a warm loop scarf — sometimes called an infinity scarf — and I’ve never looked back. It’s easy to put on and to take off if I get overheated, but it doesn’t unwind as I work. It’s just perfect for what I do! If I wear a hat — I usually don’t during physical work — I choose a simple wool hat lined with a soft fabric against the skin.

Finally, gloves are a major issue when you do the kind of work we do. I used to use regular work gloves, but they were not warm enough. My fingers would quickly get numb, sending me inside. We tried snowmobile gloves, but they didn’t allow the dexterity we need to handle bale twine or unscrew medicine bottles. Finally my son pointed us toward skiing/hiking/climbing gloves from Outdoor Research. They are not inexpensive, but they work well to keep our hands from freezing while providing enough dexterity to perform our activities. Although my one pair gets worked hard every day through the cold season, they usually last at least two years before they develop a hole. With leather in the areas that take abuse and cloth in those sections you might use to wipe your face, the gloves are durable, waterproof, windproof, breathable, and moisture-wicking. They’re long enough to cover my wrists no matter what I’m doing. I have pretty good circulation in my hands, so the gloves are plenty good for me, but Rick needed something warmer. We got him 3-finger gloves that allow him to pinch with thumb and index finger, but give him the advantages of mitten warmth for his other three fingers.

When I know I’ll need to spend time in weather that’s particularly cold, I pump up the warmth of my gloves with metallic glove liners. These not only retain my hands’ body heat; they also have a pocket to hold a heat pack against the top of each hand, right over the blood vessels. As the heat pack warms the blood in the hands, the metallic cloth of the liner spreads additional warmth from the heat pack. If I am spending hours in the unheated barn, these are a godsend! Note: these liners require that you buy gloves big enough to accommodate the thin liners and still allow good circulation. Thankfully, the same company that makes the heat packs for hands also makes them for feet. (Make sure your boots are roomy enough.) I often stick a pair into the toes of my boots if I know I’ll be outside for hours — just in case!

Getting through a cold lambing season requires the right gear, and for too many years, we froze! After much trial and error, we have now figured out what we need to stay warm in Iowa’s rough winters — and I hope that what we’ve learned might also be of some help to you. Happy lambing!

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