Blankets of snow and resting pastures
Snow doesn't always receive the warm welcome it deserves from people. But like all things in life, it's not all bad, and in fact - the good it offers, really is great! Especially here in Wisconsin, where our soils are adapted to cold, snowy winters. Here on the farm, we welcome snow (within reason) for a multitude of reasons.
Because snow is an insulator, it helps:
1. Minimize freeze-thaw cycles. An early snowfall helps keep soil temperatures warm. Regular snow cover acts to maintain consistent soil temperatures throughout the winter, thus avoiding the damage incurred by freeze-thaw cycles to plants and infrastructure, as the soil expands and contracts in response to changing temperatures.
2. Prevent deep freeze. Insulating snow prevents the frost layer from expanding even deeper. Having less frozen soil results in a quicker spring thaw, which leads to #3.
3. Alleviate spring floods. Quicker thaws equate to quicker availability of the soil to absorb water, thus reducing spring runoff of otherwise frozen soils. In addition, when the soil is warmer, it is able to hold more water (just as warm summer air holds more water - aka humidity - than cold winter air, which is much drier).
4. Protect plant root systems. Insulating snow helps to protect plant roots from the damage of freeze-thaw cycles, which can break, shift, and even uproot perennial plants.
5. Protect small mammals. Snow is an ideal cover for overwintering rodents. Why would we want small rodents? Because they help bring our pastures to life! Small rodents help to aerate and incorporate organic matter into the soil when they burrow, resulting in greater water and root infiltration. They also are a prey source for raptors, like owls and hawks, as well as larger mammals, like foxes and coyotes, all of which help to keep the ecosystem in balance.
6. Add aesthetics. You can't deny the wondrous feeling you get when you look out and see evergreens dressed in white, bronze oak leaves contrasting in the canopy, and mighty crimson barns standing out in brilliance. It's simply Midwest magic at its finest.
7. For all the reasons we haven't learned yet. Humanity learns new things about our environment every day! There are surely a multitude of reasons we have yet to discover as to how the simple variable of snow can alter and impact all of the other factors in the ecosystem. Who knows how it impacts the microbial world - that's a whole other venture! We accept ignorance and trust that nature knows what she's doing. :)
Those are just a few of the reasons we are grateful for Wisconsin snowfalls! We'd be amiss to not note, though, that frozen ground (to a given depth) is beneficial, too. A frozen top layer of soil helps to protect the ground from compaction delivered by animals, equipment, etc. Compacting soil results in irreversible damage, thus, industries that use heavy equipment, like logging, are dependent on the freeze to succeed.
Consistent freezing temperatures also serve as a natural pest control, as many insects have a bottom threshold for the cold and thus, die overwinter.
There's snow place like home
While some would rather have one without the other (or neither - in which case, there are plenty of other places in the world to suit such taste), Wisconsin soils, and thus, our farm, need both the freeze and the [snow] fall to perform well in spring and summer, and so, we are grateful!
Visit the Soil Science Society of America at www.soils.org for more information.