Josh is enjoying his Dad’s tractor cab where there is plenty of room for a rider and no danger of falling off. In the background are tablet-sized computer screens that have replaced the dashboard dials and added incredible information for the tractor operator. One has engine speed, oil temp and so on, but also how much the tractor tires are slipping as they roll forward in the soil, fuel use per hour (efficiency) and many other metrics to fine tune the power source. Another screen connects to sensors on the planter and actually counts the seeds in each row, delivering a constant tally of seeds planted per acre, while creating a map of the field that shows which variety is planted where, right down to the row, using GPS. There are alarms that signal when the tractor is nearing the end of the field or if a tube is plugged, limiting seed or fertilizer delivery to its row, and the list goes on and on. Josh will take this technology for granted as he grows up with it and doesn’t have to learn it all at once. If he does become a farmer, as he hopes, he will need the fuel efficiency and other cost savings and the ability to study all the details to maximize yields even more than his Dad does today.
I am prejudiced, but this photo of my granddaughter doing chores melts me. Totally unconcerned about her appearance and determined to get the job right and feed the baby, she is so like her mother and probably me, too at that age (4 1/2). My daughter says that when they had this opportunity to care for triplet goat kids the children misunderstood her and called the lamb nipples “nibbles”. Children of a compassionate vet have even more opportunity than most farm kids to learn to care for a variety of animals and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.
Last year they fed a lamb with a badly broken leg until it healed and then, let out for exercise, it chased and tried to bunt them. They hopped up on a woodpile, then one of the 6-year-old boys started for the house with the lamb right behind him, swinging its one stiff leg out sideways like a crutch. The boy just barely closed the door fast enough to prevent the lamb entering the house, then he ran out the back door and let it chase him back to the woodpile. I was there and wished for my camera but was laughing too hard to hold it steady, anyway.
We appreciate the fact that our girls get to experience the cycle of life first hand. From seeing the conception of calves, either through artificial insemination or our herd bull, and witnessing the birth of calves, our girls are gaining an understanding of the cycle of life. Today they watched a c-section be performed on a cow. Joe had been watching the cow labor for several hours but little progress was being made. So after he tried to pull the calf and quickly realized the calf wasn’t in the optimal position for birth and was a large calf, he called a vet.
We asked the girls if they wanted to watch, as c-sections don’t happen very often on our farm. They were both excited. They waited patiently and quietly as the vet prepped the cow, then made incisions through the different layers in her body, and then witnessed a difficult pull. The calf didn’t survive, but the cow did. I tried to prep the girls before each step the vet took: “He’s going to make a cut in the cows side and you will see blood. Remember that she is numb and cannot feel the knife.” “The calf may be alive or dead when it comes out.”
I chalk this up as another life experience for my girls. Zoe enjoyed asking the vet questions after the cow was stitched up. Hopefully, they won’t get to see another c-section for a long time. Especially after I saw the vet bill!
The more technology we have around the farm, the more odd maintenance issues come up, whether it’s with light bulbs, batteries, or various computer controls. Today our old Explorer that doubles for a farm pickup suddenly started blaring the theft alarm at noon. Why? The replaced windshield has a small leak that drips into the cupholder when the rain comes from a certain direction. The key was in the cupholder and froze in a half inch or so of ice. Either the ice squeezed the button or shorted the wiring when thawing, because I had to break the ice off it to push the cancel button and stop the noise.
Motion detector lighting poses a number of puzzles and false alarms. We think that wind sways the big shop doors enough to set one off occasionally, but other times we are mystified by its behavior.
I can see how farm folks in old times were tempted to believe that small, sentient creatures like elves or fairies caused little unexplained incidents, especially where there are livestock or wildlife. In a couple of our cattle sheds the light switches were just within reach of a determined steer or bull’s tongue. Once they have learned to turn the light on at night they do it repeatedly, so we had to protect or move the switches.
Mice have caused odd damage and puzzles in the old farmhouses we have lived in, from chewing all the batter-spattered edges off a cookbook to dying in the refrigerator fan, causing a repair call. One even “stole” and hid Grandma’s hearing aids and we didn’t find them for months.
John drove about 100 miles to attend seminars on soil for two days this week. He maintains crop advisor certification by getting at least 20 hours of instruction each year to better help him advise seed customers, but I think he would go to this conservation tillage conference anyway. And after listening to him describe what he learned, I think I will go next year.
He always wants to know more about what’s new and how to better manage soils and fertilizers. That’s more complicated than you might think. For example, not tilling the fields has been touted as the most environmentally friendly way to farm. The crop residue we used to turn under with moldboard plows protects soil from wind and water erosion and increases organic matter in the top layer, more earthworms and other life forms actively loosen the soil and so on. But soils with more clay content become more compacted and with all fertilizer applied to the surface, nutrients are concentrated in that top layer. It turns out that more rain runs off such soils and carries more nutrients with it into streams, particularly the soluble phosphorus which contributes to recent algal blooms in Western Lake Erie.
Another complication is that while clay soils generally trap phosphorus and other nutrients much more than sandier ones, they also develop deep cracks in dry summers. Those cracks, with connected earthworm and root tunnels called macropores, allow soluble phosphorus to wash more directly into drainage tile in later rains without filtering through the soil that would otherwise trap it. Farmers have been discouraged from applying manure in winter when snow melt can carry dissolved nutrients to streams; now they have to be more concerned about summer applications as well. Research indicates that where soils have more phosphorus, including no-till fields where the top layer becomes rich, this is more of a problem. It may be that the shift away from plowing has increased this lake pollution issue when everyone thought it should help.
Of course many non-farm sources of phosphorus contribute, too. Runoff from lawns is a big issue. Have you noticed lawns are generally sloped toward the storm drains along streets? Educational campaigns attempt to keep homeowners from applying high phosphorus fertilizers to lawns where it is not needed, but “environmentally friendly” organic fertilizers often have a high ratio of that nutrient. Soils are complex and absolutely essential to life. We all should know more about them. A good place to start is the Smithsonian website on soils http://forces.si.edu/soils/
With each pregnancy, Joe has been good at pointing out how pregnancy/labor in humans and his cows are pretty similar. Calving season is officially underway on our farm. We have three calves on the ground (farmer talk which simply means “three calves born”). We try to have our calves born from March through the end of April so that they are ready for showing next summer. I’m currently 19 weeks along with this pregnancy and starting to feel more movement, so talk about babies is abundant. Here are a few comparisons:
Keep ‘em moving
Joe likes his cows to stay active throughout the whole pregnancy. Currently his cows have a large pasture to roam and he likes it that way. He knows that cows who don’t lay around all day will have an easier time at labor and delivery. I’m the same way. I know that my delivery will be much better if I’m physically prepared. This pregnancy I’ve been doing a lot of pilates and yoga. My midwife helps keep me accountable because she specifically asks at each appointment how I’m staying active.
Leave ‘em alone
When the cows are in early stages of labor, they will often isolate themselves from the rest of the herd. They choose a quiet corner in the barn or walk to a far-off part of the pasture to labor. I’m the same way. I need to focus and concentrate on what my body needs to do to deliver a baby. I could never have a room full of people at my delivery because it would be too distracting for me.
Let their body do their work
Cows don’t read birthing books, scour the internet for pregnancy tips or talk to their mommy cow friends about giving birth. They let their body do the work for them. Yes, there are times when Joe has to assist a cow and pull a calf and other times he has to call a vet to do a C-section, but the majority of cows can give birth freely without interference. When I was at a particularly painful point of labor with Sophie I asked my incredible midwife, “what should I do?” She said, “your body knows what to do.” That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but it was the answer I needed. It was absolutely true. My body, just like any other animal’s body, knows what to do if we get out of the way, trust our instincts, and let it work.
Mamma’s milk is best
It is imperative that newborn calves get milk from their mom as soon as possible. This first milk is called colostrum and is rich in antibodies and vitamins that are critical to a calf’s survival. Sometimes we have a cow that isn’t a great mother and may reject a calf (kick at the calf when it tries to nurse). Survival for these rejected calves is bleak. One of my favorite things about being a mom has been nursing my children. I know how beneficial it is for their health. While it hasn’t been as instinctive for me or my girls as it is for most cows, with some guidance (lactation consultants rock and a chiropractor made a huge difference for Sophie), persistence, and patience, I had a beautiful nursing relationship with both of my girls for over a year.
I savor being pregnant. It is truly a miracle to have a baby. And comparing my pregnancy with our cow’s experiences just adds some fun to this exciting time.
When I was a young teenager, our family of four moved into the farmhouse with my grandmother. She had lived through the great depression, and I remember watching her in the kitchen. Nothing went to waste. After mixing a meatloaf for example, she would empty the bowl, then scrape it clean, first with a spatula, then with her finger. Not a bit was left!
The occasional scrap was mixed with water and heated on the stove, a treat for the barn cats. Brown paper bags from the grocery were saved and reused as wrapping for packages she mailed, or as carriers for the many fruit pies she took to church bake sales.
I remember my mother cutting down old Carharts for our chore clothes, and making an empty bleach bottle into a scoop for fishing ice out of our 4-H steers’ water buckets.
Mom usually has some odds and ends saved for fun projects for my kids when they visit, or small useful items I can use. No wonder I have a cupboard in my kitchen full of various paper and plastic bags, and a couple of half glasses of kids’ unfinished milk in the fridge (works fine for cooking or baking!) A stack of various shapes and sizes of cardboard boxes on the porch recently yielded a couple of valentine’s day containers. The top half of a spic’n span bottle makes a great funnel so kids can fill the birdfeeder more easily.
My husband has spent considerable time and effort in the past two winters remodeling and updating the farm shop. In addition to insulating, adding heat and better lighting, and more storage, he also had to clean out 30+ years of accumulated spare parts his father had saved, “just in case”. Although tedious and time consuming, it reminds us of what our parents had starting out, and how our farm has grown and progressed. Though we should not, and do not save everything, we do try to make good use of as much as we can!
The brown coveralls are ubiquitous on farms and even worn nowadays by folks who like to be outdoors but don’t work them very hard, as farmers do. They are difficult to mend either by hand or on today’s light sewing machines, so it is not unusual for them to get to states like this pair. I remember having to jump in the truck and race to the vet’s office in mine one winter day because a calf we had just treated was having an allergic reaction to penicillin and we needed the counterpart of an Epi-Pen ASAP. Not only was my outfit worn to the point of hanging insulation like these, they were spattered and my barn boots crusted with you-know-what. No one in the office commented as I sped in and out, but the next day when I stopped there after substitute teaching to pay the bill, wearing a light blue skirt and blazer with heels, the receptionist did comment: “Oh, you WORKED today!” Anyone see the irony?
Mom is staying with me for the winter months again. She lives alone in Vermont where nearly daily snowfalls make trips to her car and mailbox risky, so this is a good solution, allowing her to remain part of her large family and small community there the rest of the year. Someone gave us the book Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene, about the North Platte canteen in Nebraska where WWII soldiers were greeted and fed as they passed through the country. Incredibly, the town of 12,000 provided all-volunteer welcomes with free food and treats for more than 6 million GI’s. They had help from surrounding towns and churches, and Mom told me, “Aunt Edna helped with that. She wrote home about frying donuts each week to send to the canteen. She said throughout one summer she used the lard from a whole pig making those donuts.” A bit of family history I might never have known.
I was not the first farmers’ daughter in my family to forsake the hills of Vermont and learn Midwest farming, my Mom’s mom reminded me from time to time. She wrote about how her older sister Edna was in Nebraska in the first place: “Neil Findlay came from Nebraska to visit his cousins in Vermont. He stayed quite a long time and before he went home, Edna and Neil became engaged. Seven years later he came back to marry her and take her west. Edna had sent wedding invitations to their aunts and uncles to attend the wedding on a Wednesday. Neil was to arrive by train from Nebraska on Monday, a trip of three or four days. A neighbor came to Edna on Sunday with a big grin on his face saying it would be illegal. The groom must have the license three days before the marriage. Of course Edna was very much upset. She and Neil went to the town clerk’s office on Monday. In studying the law, Neil noticed it said ‘if neither one were a resident of the town where they were to be married’. Edna had always lived in Glover, VT, so the town clerk said he felt that made it all right.”
I guess if you had waited for seven years…
Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones. Maybe it was Paul Harvey’s voice. Or maybe it was just because it was a well-done commercial that I had tears in my eyes after this ad:
Did you see it last night? His words described all the farmers in my life and made me sentimental and thankful. I’m thankful I’m married to a man who doesn’t have a lazy bone in his body. I’m thankful the farmers in my life take care of their animals and land as best as they can. I’m thankful my girls will see what hard work is and will learn from the successes and failures that are bound to come with this lifestyle. This morning on the way to work I heard a radio deejay comment that this commercial was “overdone and too much.” Really? Apparently this man has no farmers in his life or has no clue what farming is like on a day to day basis. Farming isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Thanks Ram Trucks for creating my favorite Super Bowl ad ever!