Category Archives: Family

Buh-Bye 2015

I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions. I think you can and should start resolutions any time the need or desire arises. However, that said, I do take this time of year to reflect on the past twelve months and in the next week or so will sit down with my DF, my partner in life and on the farm, to look ahead and brainstorm some goals, expectations and plans.

I will admit that I am somewhat glad to be moving on from 2015. It wasn’t a bad year, (I’d probably never admit it if there was one) but it had its moments. From not getting many Jersey heifers, to a tough year for crops and equipment breakdowns, to dropping milk prices, to finding balance with a new off-farm job and raising two budding independent farm boys, to juggling care for a family member in need. The year 2015 filled our plates and then some.

Spring and early summer brought cropping challenges to the farm. While early on, with parts ordered well ahead of time and work completed and ready for a window of good weather in May, we encountered a breakdown right off the bat. And then another, and another and another. The entire month of June felt like it dragged on while we dealt with the repairs and waited through rainy weather. The highlight was when my DF drove our big tractor in reverse (it was stuck in gear) through town to get it to the mechanic. Boy I wish I got a picture!

Shortly after the backwards tractor incident, we accepted the fact that “it is what it is.” That is, we are doing the best we can and will make adjustments along the way. For example we feed a “total mixed ration” or “TMR” throughout the year. By not putting up the highest quality feed we would have preferred to, we will be working with our nutritionist to come up with a balanced diet utilizing other feedstuffs to create the best feed for our cows, and it might cost us a little more. But that’s okay. It happens.

I also had a tough year with my Jerseys. I unfortunately had to say goodbye to several – including a few that carried my high hopes. You see the girls have to in a sense, pay for their way to stay as we only have a certain amount of space. There were a couple who we had to sell because they were not coming back into calf for us, and since our farm relies upon their ability to produce milk and reproduce offspring, they couldn’t stay. There was also an old girl who went far back with me, pre-marriage and kid days, whose time had come.

And there was an awful tragedy at the end of May: losing my best cow. In the past I would have written about a loss like that but for some reason this time I just couldn’t. I was incredibly sad for days. I tear up a little now even thinking about it. This was supposed to be her year – in her prime, looking great after freshening (having her baby). I felt a little hollow, like a little piece of me gave up a little at the time, but you know what, there are 103 other cattle here who need me, need us, just as much. And besides, I’d written about losing calves and cows before and didn’t want to seem like that’s all I write about. But maybe, like songs, the prettiest stories are somehow the saddest ones.

In addition to the girls we had to say goodbye to this year, I also had a “run of bulls.” While we raise many of our bull calves now either for Jersey beef or for polled service sires, there’s still something special about getting heifer calves. They are the future of the dairy. They carry in them potential, and the promise of what is to come.

Since January I have only had three heifer calves born out of 17 calvings. On top of that, two out of the three were by polled bulls and only one was polled. The other heifer, “Lady,” who has horns, was by a polled dam (mother) and a polled sire (father). Ready for a lesson in genetics? The polled gene is actually a dominant trait which means if it shows up, your offspring will be polled. So, with two heterozygous parents, I had a 75% chance of the calf being polled and at that, a 25% chance of it being homozygous polled. Homozygous polled would guarantee polled offspring for the next generation from that calf. Instead, I ended up with the 25% chance of the calf being horned! Fit right in with the way my luck had been going.

Despite the bad luck with getting Jersey heifers, we had an awesome year for Holsteins with a 67% heifer rate. Overall, we were at 52% for heifer calves, which is slightly better than expectations, so no complaints there.

Geez, this post is starting to feel a little whiny to me. Nobody likes whiners, including me. Perhaps this is why I didn’t write so much this past year. Perhaps I should use it as a reflection point because, of course, there were wonderful things to happen in 2015 as well.

We are all healthy and happy, embarking on new adventures, facing challenges and cherishing every day with our farm boys and time with our families. We are blessed and feel responsibility to live up to our good fortune and do our best by it.

Here’s looking forward to a new year and a clean slate. Cheers!

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Filed under Family, Farm life, Jersey Beef, Jersey Cows, Life Balance

Things Relearned in 2013

As we head into 2014 I am excited for what the year holds for us. There are lots of things on my list that I would like to do like so many others – lose that last ten pounds, watch our home budget closer, plant a garden this summer, prepare healthier meals and snacks for my family and myself and take time to blog a bit more (!). But I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, preferring instead to focus on the day to day, stringing together a year that we can look back at and say “not bad.” I think I’ll be doing just fine if I am able take these lessons re-learned in 2013 into 2014 with me.

Here’s my version of taking inventory of 2013:

  1. Time sure does fly; don’t forget to live in the moment. For the first three months of Baby E’s life, I told myself as long as I can get through these first three months and we can establish some sort of routine, I’ll be all set. Guess what? In hindsight, those first three months passed like a flash and all of the sudden Baby E was smiling, rolling over and cooing. And now that he is approaching ten months, I find myself realizing that I didn’t really need to “wish” that time away. I just needed to find more patience.
  2. Patience, patience, patience. I always thought I had a lot of patience without having to think about it. What I found out with two little boys 19 months apart, a full time job and a dairy farm is that maintaining patience is a skill that needs to be practiced. Sometimes things seem to bubble up until I can’t take it any longer, and yes, I need to walk away, but I’ve found that by maintaining perspective I’m able to get through the tantrum meltdowns, fussy babies, never ending farm work, late-night catch up work sessions and even the constant clutter that doesn’t seem to unclutter itself. A reminder or perspective-check from conversations with close friends, family and the DF helps to keep that big picture view.

    One of the "farmer-rigged jobbies."

    One of the “farmer-rigged jobbies.”

  3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. TK is BIG into tractors, particularly pulling wagons or some other sort of farm implement. At first, he used red implements that went with red tractors and life was copacetic until…he started wanted to use the wooden train cars as wagons. For about a week I tried to explain to my two year old that it could not be done. They were not the same and the two things didn’t go together until…one evening after a particularly pathetic meltdown I had a brainchild to use a twist-tie from a bread bag and hitch the two things together. Voila, problem solved. Besides, I had it on good authority that Santa was bringing him a new green tractor and green wagon and blue tractor and blue wagon and I wouldn’t have to deal with my “farmer-rigged jobbies” anymore. And yet he still comes to me, now saying “Help you?” wanting to mix up the sets again.
  4. Take time to connect with the people you care most about. A friend of mine lost her battle with cancer a few days before Christmas. Not in close contact and having recently seen her vibrant and full of life this summer, the news of the downturn in her health caught me off guard. She went into hospice care shortly after Thanksgiving and her family started a blog where they posted updates about her health. People could also leave messages for her. Once you posted, an email notification was sent each time someone else did too. To say it was inspirational to read about the impact this woman hand on so many lives seems too simple. How often do you have the chance to say thank you to someone for the impact that they had on you in your life’s journey? And she impacted so many! She was one to share her thoughts openly and honestly in a way that endeared her to you, making you feel comfortable to share freely as well. Just a thought, but maybe if we took the time to say thank you a little more often we might live fuller lives and help others to feel more free as well.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. In turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home and a stranger into a friend.”- Melody Beattie

Thank you to my family and friends who fill my life.

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On Sustainability, but Not Really

I was thrilled when my friend Tyler wanted to write a guest post for farmlifelove.com. He chose an important topic, perhaps the most important topic that unifies all farmers who simply wish to continue to farm especially if they plan to pass on a healthy business and way of life to the next generation. My DF and I think about this more often than we realize. It’s in the air up here. We ARE the next generation currently picking up the ball to give it a go at running this farm. While the next “handoff” is a bit off in the future, it’s exciting to think that we may actually be looking at their faces when they get out of bed each morning. Enjoy.

I hear farmers talk a lot and I like to listen to them. Not just to what they say, but what they mean. When I hear them talk about “sustainability” it’s like they put on someone else’s clothes, or start speaking in French or Pig Latin and pointing to clouds in the sky. They don’t seem to be using words that mean the same things to them as to the people who want them to use those words.

Here’s what I think they mean: Being sustainable is being able to pass the farm to the next generation. Black and white.

Behind that decision point follows a lot of other fractionally impactful decisions . Those are the ones that the neighbors seem to want to talk about, but not really.

At that point in the conversation I think farmers end up talking past their neighbors; they cite the improvements in technology or technique that have made an impact on their farm’s ecosystem. No till, cover cropping and minimal spray techniques are all a little too technical, and seemingly insignificant to the observer. It’s a whole lot easier to see and understand and still the impact of cover cropping across so many acres is going to be difficult to understand for someone not used to thinking in those terms. And when a farmer has made a decision not employ a certain beneficial practice they often hear, “Why aren’t you organic?”, frequently phrased as an accusation, and have to justify their decision to a stranger. Each farmer has made a calculation balanced with cost and impact about what to do and what they can afford to do. Sometimes that means waiting to do something impactful until they can afford to, not because they don’t want to.

Most people don’t talk about money away from their kitchen table, and most never talk money with their neighbors, but believe you me, there is nothing less sustainable than handing an under-qualified successor an unprofitable farm. If the farm has struggled for a long time, it’s entirely possible the kids have already given up on it. And likewise, it’s hard to be a positive force in the community as an overworked farmer with limited financial resources who’ is hustling but still losing money. When a neighbor asks a farmer to donate to their church’s food pantry, it’s hard to know if the farm can spare the foregone income or not. It’s not about being a good and charitable person; it’s about paying the electric bill.

Let’s not forget that some very profitable farmers and some very progressive farmers are taking risks here. Sustainability measures that some communities most want to see enacted could be a death knell for farms in the name of global environmental progress. Or simple NIMBYism. Or both. Then a community on the urban edge is faced with a change in values: a farmer is selling his farm and we don’t want a housing development there. Unfortunately his farm wasn’t sustainable and now the town has a broader tax base . Personally, the farmer is probably devastated, or angrily bitter about his change in direction. Or just defeated. Who knows how the rest of his family feels.

Being sustainable for the sake of being sustainable is a non-starter for most businesses, and I feel like that’s not enough of an open secret to the neighbors who want to influence their neighborhood businesses. It kind of feels like a shakedown, with some cartoon thug cradling a Louisville Slugger with a big scripted “sustainability” across its barrel. “Sustainability” needs to have a positive incentive and a more personally realized effect for it to be valuable. Otherwise it’s a convert-or-die mentality that doesn’t have any room for tolerance or alternatives. Farmers are frustrated that their neighbors don’t see the connections they do, that things like no till across 1,000 acres of silage corn can have a huge difference in water quality in the community. Frustrated most of all when they are characterized and generalized as destroying the environment. First, they work in the environment and understand it very differently than the abstracted version in the “conversation” and second, why would they ruin the land they want to pass to the next generation?

It’s hard to know the inside of somebody else’s farm and what factors led them to the decisions they make . It turns out that issues of sustainability are much harder and more personal things to have a conversation about than is realized by those neighbors who “want to have a conversation about sustainability.” Because they’re probably not talking about the same things. Not really.

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Tyler Matteson is a freelance writer and farm finance expert, working as Controller at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury, MA. He has previously worked for Farm Credit East and the Boston Flower Exchange and written for Green Profit, Grower Talks and Progressive Forage.

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September, What September?

September has been a blur. It seems like life is moving at warp speed lately. I’m working on a few ideas for blog posts, but to actually get something posted, and I’m stealing this idea from another blogger, I thought I’d share five things (she did 10) that I learned in September.

1. I actually can get calves fed while toting the baby and dragging the toddler along, though it takes me about 3.5 times longer than if I did them free-handed.

2. I was right not to plant a garden this year. I haven’t even been able to keep up with the few container plants that I have near the house.

That's a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

That’s a lot of parsley! Is it even still good?

3. I’m learning PC Dart, the software we use to keep track of herd management details (like when cows have calved [had babies], were bred and how much milk they’ve made) and my DF appreciates it. At a herd check-up earlier this month where our veterinarian comes out to check the cows to see if their pregnant and also to vaccinate the calves that are of age against certain diseases, it was so easy to just print out the list from the program versus the other convoluted way of getting the information that involved determining the position of the sun that my DF used to use.

4. My dog is afraid of thunderstorms and he needs my help to suffer through them. We tried a few different strategies throughout the summer to help try to keep him calm, hoping to keep everyone else sleeping while he was up pacing about. I found myself explaining the situation when I had family coming to visit and realized that I have just accepted that he still needs me too. So if there’s a thunderstorm in the forecast, I make sure there’s a clean sheet on the couch, a spare blanket if needed and an acepromazine pill in the cabinet (for the dog! not me).

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

Buzzman and me on the night I brought him home.

5. Bedtime is more fun and seems to go smoother when both Mommy and Daddy can attend. In fact, TK hasbeen wanting his dad to carry him to bed lately…and I’m totally okay with that. After lots of nights pulling solo duty as a “crop widow” I welcome the help for sure. Besides, hearing my husband read “Goodnight Moon” makes my heart happy.

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We’re Saying No and Yes to Raw Milk

This is a follow up to the post, To Raw Milk or Not to Raw Milk.

It was a pretty clear decision for us about whether or not we would sell raw milk: No. However, we say yes to if you want to consume raw milk in general. That may seem like we are talking out of both sides of our mouths, but after my first post, I’ve learned that it’s a topic that many others feel conflicted about as well.

Thanks to the folks who joined in the conversation on my Facebook page. Lots of great information was shared while others raised questions about raw milk and wondered what it was all about. I thought I would explain the issue to the best of my knowledge here, share why we have chosen to stay out of the raw milk market and also share some great comments friends made about my previous post.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Milking Liesel at the fair.

Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized or treated with UHT (Ultra High Temperatures) to eradicate potential harmful bacteria while preserving most of the goodness of milk. Raw milk advocates will tell you that this process also kills off beneficial bacteria, enzymes and other pathogens that help boost immune systems, ward off allergies and even cure asthma. The trouble is the harmful bacteria pasteurization kills off can be REALLY harmful and even in the cleanest of set-ups all it takes is one outbreak to cause serious damage.

Lots of people who grew up living on farms drank raw milk and still do today. I myself got to drink some from time to time even though we didn’t live on a farm… and no, I didn’t get sick. Most swear by it – they grew up on it and were healthier for it. These folks however, tend to understand the risks associated with Raw Milk itself but also with selling the stuff. A dairy farmer friend summed it up well on my last post, “All it takes is one person to say the milk made them sick and you lose everything you’ve worked so hard for.”

Put another way, a friend from business school commented, “The EV (expected value) of selling raw milk is highly negative due to the potential liability…even if they signed a waiver.”

Another friend who is a dairy farmer-turned vet student shared, “I grew up on raw milk but it came from my farm. My body was able to produce antibodies to the bacteria that was found in it because it was introduced to it from a very early age and they were endogenous to my farm and my environment. I may have gotten very sick had I gone to another farm and drank their raw milk. But I may have been fine. Food borne illnesses are very hit or miss. My biggest fear is that the consumers do not have enough education on how to properly handle raw milk and will make themselves sick by improper handling and it will come back to hurt the farmer and the dairy industry as a whole. It is a personal choice and one that if we can build in safeguards to the farmer that would require proof that they were negligent before lawsuits could be filed than I have no problem. But I have to tell you as a veterinary student and studying many bacterial and viral diseases that can pass thru to humans thru raw milk–I would not drink even my own anymore.”

And he’s right – those harmful bacteria and viral diseases are nasty stuff. To share an example, recently in the news – The Family Cow in Pennsylvania, a raw milk seller, recently had its third outbreak since January 2012. This time it was Campylobacter. Campylobacter is a found in cow manure and infection symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, fever and abdominal pains that can last anywhere from two to ten days after consumption. Listeria, e-coli and salmonella are a few of the other more “popular” foodborne bacteria related to raw milk among others.

Not only would we risk a potential lawsuit, something we don’t have enough resources to suffer particularly as we are really still starting out, but there isn’t enough insurance out there to indemnify the guilt I would feel were someone to get sick from raw milk we sold them.

Please don’t get me wrong, millions of people drink and sell raw milk every day and nothing bad happens. And quite frankly, as another commenter implied, I’m happy they are drinking milk in some way! I certainly do not want to play into any Fear Industry marketing (I feel there’s enough of it out there). So, to be sure, there are not many outbreaks reported. In 2013 through May, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been four outbreaks of campylobacter and salmonella related to raw milk and cheese consumption including 69 illnesses and 15 hospitalizations in the U.S., (this does not include the recent Family Cow outbreak).

On the other hand, there have been zero outbreaks in pasteurized milk. If you’re interested in learning more specifics about the risks of drinking raw milk, I found a great resource for raw milk risk facts on this website: realrawmilkfacts.com. To be fair, here’s a pro-raw milk website: realmilk.com, however, I don’t agree with its characterization as an “extremely” low-risk food. It classifies this statement using the term “when handled properly” which I think is an understatement. A recent recall for potential botulism-causing bacteria contamination in milk powder sold to Chinese companies by Fonterra, the world’s largest milk processor based in New Zealand, shows that mistakes or just plain bad luck can happen to anyone. (By the way, this recall occurred before any illnesses have been reported as of this time.)

On a personal note, I’ll continue to feed my kids pasteurized milk. It truly is a nutrition powerhouse with lots of good calories, essential nutrients, protein and other nutritional benefits that are still being realized. And as far as exposure to pathogens and other bacteria goes, I think they’ll eat enough farm dirt in their childhood to build up an arsenal of immunity if they haven’t already.

Any other thoughts or questions about this subject?

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Stuck on March

Funny title, I know. It’s May. But this post has been rumbling around my brain for at least the past six weeks. March was a monumental month for us. We welcomed our second baby, a son, Baby E on March 22nd. Fittingly, he is two months old today as I finally sit down to write this post.

Baby E with his "4-H Mom" blanket

Baby E with his “4-H Mom” blanket

Baby E’s entrance into our world didn’t quite go as we imagined. In the end, all is well and we thank God and modern medicine for that. The abrupt change in course left me reeling somewhat and then adjusting to life with a 19-month old, a newborn and several first-calf heifers (new cow moms) and older cows having their own babies (taking up much of my DF’s time!). It was all a bit unsettling and I realized at the end of the first week in April that our calendar was stuck on March; hence the name of this post. I’m one of those superstitious people who changes the calendars on exactly the first day of each month so to see the March page on April 6th was a shock yet not surprising.

Leading up to Baby E’s birth, we heard these (now dreaded) words of wisdom: “The second ones always come easier.” That sounded great to me as I had to push for four hours with TK after a day of pitocin-inducing labor a week and a day after his due date. And it seemed that Baby E agreed – all signs were present that perhaps he may come sooner even than his due date; he certainly was big enough. Besides, everyone else in the world seemed to be having their babies early around then, why not us?

It was not to be. I’m glad for the experience with TK in that it prepared me for what was to come with Baby E. As an expectant first-time mother I found there was so much information out there, checklists, advice, etc. They said you had to have a birth plan which for me was easy enough coming from a family of planners. Luckily before the big day with TK someone told me to remember to keep an open mind. Stay flexible because you can’t foresee exactly what is going to happen. Boy was I glad to have that in my brain prior to our hospital stay – both times.

Back to Baby E’s day. Again we found ourselves at the hospital a week after the due date. Again I was hooked up to a pitocin drip and the contractions started. Again we made our laps around the “Maternity Loop” to encourage labor along. After many hours of the same routine we found that despite our best efforts, being fully effaced and good progress dilating, Baby E’s head just was not dropping as it should have – for you in the medical field he was still negative four station. We needed to make a big decision – continue as we were for a few more hours or face the potential that a stubborn fibroid was in the way and Baby E would not make his way around it as TK had. So, we headed to the operating room for a cesarean section birth.

For as open-minded as I was about what may happen during birth with TK and having accepted the possibility of a c-section with him even though I hoped for a vaginal birth, I did not think much about it with Baby E. I went to the hospital, actually the week before, truly believing things would happen more easily than they did with TK. The fact that they were harder was difficult to accept but sometime during the second week home I did and moved on. I sort of had to – I had two little boys that needed my attention. Two little amazing and beautiful creatures who, for as much as I wished it to be easier in those first few weeks and them a little bit older, will be growing up fast.

I am forever grateful for the love, help and support from our families when we needed it most. Whether it was milking cows, feeding calves, taking care of TK, taking of the dogs, whatever – I think we needed more help than we ever thought we would. Luckily, we know just how fortunate we are and when it’s our turn to step up and help we’ll be ready.

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So God’s Still Making Farmers

I’m not late to the party. We are just still talking about the “So God Made a Farmer” commercial from the Super Bowl. My DF really enjoys watching it. And he found the Farmer’s Tribute put out by Farms.com, which is basically the same thing but a minute longer and with different pictures but the same striking voice of Paul Harvey narrating a beautifully written oration.

I walked into the barn about two nights ago during chore time with TK and found my DF’s two uncles in the milk room with my DF. They had stepped in to help with a heifer who was sick and needed treatment (she didn’t agree and made her feelings known!). When they finished, my DF took them to my old laptop we have in the barn to show them the “So God Made a Farmer” videos. By the grins and lighthearted talk that was going on I could tell they appreciated the clips and were glad that my DF showed them.

A few minutes later and on to the next task, my DF was sending feed into the barn. The TMR (total mixed ration that includes both forages and grain) is run in on a conveyor belt from the big mixer wagon to a motorized feed cart waiting on the other end in the barn. TK and I watched the first two runs, then he got to go outside with his dad and watch from the tractor. When they came back in, my DF held TK while he maneuvered the feed cart around the cramped aisles to he feed out a load. The look on TK’s face was priceless. He was in awe.

Then they head out again to the tractor/mixer wagon to send in another load. As I watched from inside the barn, I saw as my husband placed TK on the tractor seat to watch the conveyor belt and huddled around him to keep him from falling, our son lean around to try to put his face in his dad’s and give him a kiss, well a “TK” kiss. Now it was my turn to be in awe. I was witnessing one of those scenes in life that you never want to forget.

I thought it was so fitting, TK showing his love for his dad the dairy farmer, after the dairy farmer had shown appreciation in his way to his uncles (the dairy farmers) by sharing the tribute. A typical Tuesday night turned out to be a pretty special night.

And oh, by the way, TK said his first word the week before and this is no joke, I have witnesses – it was “tractor” or actually more like “trac-tah.” Spoken like a true farmer.

From Farms.com:

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