Reflecting on the Winter Months: Snow, Repairs & Crops, John Gilbert, Gibralter Farms

This winter has kept us plenty busy, even if much of the activity isn’t real visible to a casual observer. As always, we’re glad to have winter behind us. Welcome to this winter update from our farm. 

Outside of two to three weeks of intense winter cold, snow and wind, Iowa has had a mild winter — the kind of “nice” weather that makes folks nervous. You see, anyone with more than a couple Iowa winters under their belt knows winter isn’t over til it’s over…even if that means snow in April. 

On the farm, winter is when the main focus is on ensuring the comfort and wellbeing of our animals. That means more time spent feeding, adding bedding, cleaning outside pens and making sure water supplies aren’t freezing.   

Winter is also the time when we do repairs on machinery and equipment, tackle a couple projects that have been put off until more time is available, and make sure everything is ready for the coming growing season. It’s also the time when we try to take a little down time, catch up on reading, occasionally finding time for friends, and especially enjoy family time and the holiday festivities. Oh, and especially this year, enjoying college basketball, which Iowa is blessed with in spades. 

The point of our updates is to give a more rounded picture of what happens on our farm. As always, your interest and participation as part of the Niman Ranch community is greatly appreciated…and it’s a big part of what motivates us to continue striving to raise our pigs in the most humane and sustainable ways possible. 

One of our bigger left-over projects got tackled in early December when we erected a “leg” to make it easier to get grain and soybean meal into our feed mill. A “leg” is a vertical bucket elevator that is permanently installed with separate spouts to each of several bins. In our case, this leg replaces augers that we had to put up and take down each time we needed to add corn, oats or soybean meal to the mill.

We have always ground and mixed our own livestock feed, using the grains we grow. We purchase the soybean meal protein supplement — which is what is left of the soybean after the oil is extracted. We add a mixture of vitamins and minerals to make a complete feed.

December was mild with lots of fog and closed out 2023 as the warmest on record for most of Iowa. A series of winter storms pushed through the Midwest in January with snow, wind and increasingly cold temperatures. We were hunkered down, fighting frigid conditions and drifting snow for about two weeks.

Making sure everything was well bedded, well fed and had plenty of water consumed our days. Although our area saw temperatures a few mornings bottom out in the teens below zero, the cold didn’t last too long. The pigs are able to burrow into the bedding to help handle the cold, especially when the cold doesn’t persist for weeks. Being acclimated to outdoor conditions helps them, but ample feed for energy, protection from the wind and dry bedding also help them handle severe conditions.

Harsh conditions obviously also affect area wildlife, but most have evolved various strategies to deal with winter. For those who pay attention to such things, there are ample signs that life goes on for those who also inhabit this corner of nature. The bald eagles have been common sights. We hear owls and coyotes often at night. The great horned owls nest in February and the barred owls can be heard calling many evenings. The Canadian geese weren’t gone long — if at all. Their calls at dawn and dusk are ubiquitous. Deer and turkeys gather up during severe weather, but are less visible once the snow recedes. Traffic at our bird feeders has been much less than normal. There are many reports of robins staying all winter. 

One caveat to the snow is that it brought some moisture. We are currently facing another year of extremely short soil moisture. The mild conditions before the snows meant the soil did not freeze, allowing the melting snow to soak in rather than running off. Every little bit helps, but precipitation since the snow is not keeping up with evaporation from the bare fields. Spring rains are badly needed.

Once the weather warmed, we had lots of snow to move, pens to clean and other projects to complete. That means heading into the shop for machinery repairs and using mild days for outside carpentry chores, like making sure the A-frame huts the sows will use for April farrowing are ship-shape. Sometimes projects are major — like repairing a wornout drive on one of the farm’s skid loaders — and other times they are as simple as oil changes and replacing parts like bearings that have worn out. Sometimes it involves welding and steel fabrication. There always seem to be more than enough things to fix to keep us busy. 

Practical Farmers of Iowa had a great January conference, held in Des Moines, with a strong turnout despite frigid weather. Southfork Watershed Alliance is hosting speakers for our regular monthly meetings, as well as having special 25th anniversary observances. There are always more meetings and informational sessions to attend than we have time for, but it’s always good to catch up with friends. The Iowa Farmers Union continues its campaigns to garner support from the Iowa Legislature for local foods, cleaner water and healthier soils. 

One special event for Beverly and I were at lunch with University of California, Berkley doctoral student Anaya Hall, during her final research trip to Iowa. We’ve enjoyed visits with Anaya during the past three years as she’s worked to better understand how farmers make land use decisions. It’s been very gratifying to see her progress and we offer what insights and guidance we can. She is only the latest researcher or grad student we’ve hosted here over the years. Research and education are consistent with the varied purposes we feel our farm should serve. 

Winter is basketball season, and we’ve enjoyed the successes of the Iowa State men’s and women’s teams, the exploits of the University of Iowa women and Caitlin Clark, as well as Drake University and the University of Northern Iowa men in the Missouri Valley. We even accept Creighton University as an Iowa team to follow as they’ve triumphed over some top ranked teams. March Madness is now upon us. We invite your support of any of these teams if you are so inclined.  

Much of the winter manure accumulation has been hauled, and seed for this year’s crops is arriving on the farm. It’s highly likely that by the time you are reading this that we’ll be seeding oats, the first crop to be planted each spring. While the oats provide feed and bedding, a big part of the reason the crop has been a staple here as long as I can remember, is because it serves as a nurse-crop for alfalfa and clover seeded for use as forages for the next several years. Seeding oats with the 12-foot Minneapolis Moline drill my late father purchased shortly after his WWII naval service is more than another spring job…it’s a tradition, a ritual. It’s also the starting flag for the crop year. 

We hope you all have had a safe, productive and healthy winter, and are primed for a great spring. Again, your support for Niman Ranch is a big part of what makes Niman such a special part of our farm and our lives.  



In 2023, the Gilbert family, along with four other hog farming families, celebrated 25 years of partnership with Niman Ranch. The Gilberts were the ninth family to join founding hog farmer, Paul Willis, in marketing “free-range” pork branded Niman Ranch soon after the 1998 hog market crash. In a time when the art of hog farming was transitioning to the big business of pork production across the country, these farmers were dedicated to raising hogs in their natural environments, with outdoor access, and preserving family-scale farming on their generational farms.