On Fauquier County, Va., cattle farm, life goes on even in the deep snow

John Seymour has been farming for 30 years, waking most days before dawn to tend to cattle. At 3:45 a.m. Thursday, as snow continued to blanket the Fauquier County pastures, Seymour rose from bed, his thoughts immediately focusing on the babies in the fields.

The weather concerned Seymour. It has been a brutally cold winter, and seeing the 10 inches of snow in his front yard, he wanted to check on the newborns that had opened their eyes for the first time just hours earlier. It’s calving season, and Seymour is a herdsman helping tend a farm that has 70 head of beef cattle roaming not far beyond his back door.

Unlike schools, government offices and businesses that can close up shop for a storm, the cattle farm needs tending. In Seymour’s world, there’s no such thing as a snow day.

Seymour, 50, his face covered with a grizzled beard, layered for the cold. He donned two shirts, a black sweatshirt, jean overalls, thick rubber boots and a camouflage hat.

Instead of his usual pickup truck, Seymour hopped into his tomato-red tractor, a four-wheel-drive front-end loader equipped with a bucket. The machine bumped and slid through the snow-covered hillocks as he spoke above the rumbling engine and the whir of a heating fan.


John Seymour checks on cattle and newborn calves in the snow at a farm in Fauquier County on Feb. 13, 2014. (T. Rees Shapiro/The Washington Post)

“We got them in the farthest field — just happened that way,” Seymour said. “There’s 80 acres back here. Got to check all the nooks and crannies because cows like to be off by themselves when they calve.”

The calving season began in early January, Seymour said, and the last of the cows are expected to have their babies any day now. The conditions are right, he said: “Between the storm and the full moon coming up, we’ll get them all calved.”

“It’s not the greatest time to have babies; we know that,” Seymour said. “The ornery cows will calve in the worst conditions.”

One cow — its ear tag read “816D” — had given birth Wednesday afternoon, and the baby was doing fine, despite the weather. Cattle are Arctic animals, Seymour said, noting that cows lack sweat glands.

As Seymour drove by, the cattle in the fields glanced his way, their backs and faces frosted with snow.

“They’ll be standing there chewing their cud, happy as all get-out,” Seymour said. “People think ‘Oh my God, they’re miserable.’ But calves’ bellies have extra fur. Think about it: Laying on the cold ground, that little bit of extra insulation goes a long way.”

The first hours are crucial for the calves, he said. He gives special attention to those born during the coldest winter days, even bringing them inside his home to warm up in the laundry room.

His cellphone rang. It was his son, also a cattle worker.

“I’m busting trails for the cows . . . so they can get to water, get to the hay,” Seymour said. “Flakes the size of quarters coming down here.”

Born in Berlin to an Army family, Seymour grew up in Arlington and graduated from Yorktown High School in the 1980s. He later moved to rural Virginia, where he started working at a milking operation near Sperryville and met a boss who inspired him.

“I fell in love with the country,” Seymour said. “It’s not easy work, but he made me love it.”

Seymour watched as the cows noshed on bales of hay and nosed through the snow, searching for the fescue and timothy grasses buried beneath. For the bull calves that thrive this winter, Seymour said the biggest and best — 15 or so, if he’s lucky — will head to Montana for a life of breeding.

“The man upstairs,” Seymour said, his eyes looking skyward. “I put a lot into his hands. I only do what I can do.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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