Category Archives: Farm life

Starting 2017 on a Rise

I’m not going to lie to you. The year 2016 was one I’d rather forget. In my mind, I’ll remember lots of stress, running around, frustration, and the time when I was convinced that I had legitimate memory loss issues (still think I’m not 100%). (My mom tells me it will come back when the boys are a little older.) (I don’t get that!)

Here’s the thing, as I was pondering a post and thinking about what I might write reflecting about the year and how horrible it was, I saw the title of the post from last year come across my Facebook memories: “Buh-Bye 2015.” Stop it. Did I write about 2015 in a good-riddance way too?

What is wrong with me?

Hold on. I think its human nature to dwell on the negative, right? But wait, that’s not me. I can always find the silver lining in something. And there were some redeeming things about 2016, so here goes.

I discovered the book-turned-tv-series Outlander, written by Diana Gabaldon (@WriterDG on Twitter), which immediately became my guilty pleasure. I read all eight books plus the graphic novel. That’s like 15,746 pages (not really, but they are huge books). I had not read for pleasure in such a long time – six years at least, that I forgot what it was to get wrapped up in a great story. (In full disclosure, the idea for the title of this post came from @WriterDG when she casually said she was ending 2016 on a rise.) (She’s so cool!)

I grew both professionally and personally, continuing to exercise the “choose wisely” mantra my husband said to me once. Sure, I learned a lesson or two, or seven, but all in a good way.

And of course, the boys are wonderful. They are both in school now. TK can read in Kindergarten! How crazy is that? They go from being these tiny beings incapable of the slightest care for themselves to reading in five short years! Big E keeps us on our toes. He is very quick-witted. When he starts in with the “MAWEmmeee I want some chocolate milk” for the eighth time in a two minute span, I reply “Well I want a million dollars.” To which he replies “But mommy, I don’t have a million dollars and we do have chocolate milk.” He’s 3 folks. How many more years of this?

So that leaves, the farm. As I’ve reflected on why I feel like I won’t miss 2016, it’s mostly about the farm. Don’t get me wrong, we are still very happy with our choice to farm and be here, but between the low milk prices and waiting all year for something to happen (hopefully soon) (we’re still waiting), the slightest thing tend to get you down and maintaining perspective is hard.

But even at that, by late fall, things had started looking up. The milk price started to come up. The forecast for the year is to be much better than 2016. And we had a beautiful Thanksgiving and Christmas with lots of visiting family and friends we are blessed to have in our lives.

And the first calf born for 2017 was a Jersey heifer…okay, she was second to a Holstein bull but it was the same freaking day. After my bad luck with not getting many heifers, I am rejoicing in small victories.

Which leaves me with one goal for 2017: To be able to look back on the year in the last week of December and feel a little less good riddance and a bit more nostalgia for auld lang syne.

 

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Meet Circle S Lemonhead Trisha, aka Miss Trisha Yearwood!

 

 

 

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Filed under Dairy Care, Farm life, Jersey Cows, Life Balance

Choices and Farming

Life’s about choices. As we have advanced as a culture, we have created more choices in nearly every aspect of life. When I was planning my wedding, I remember being in awe about all of these choices being thrown at me. Sometimes it felt like I was on the bottom of a big pile just trying to get out from under it one decision at a time. Some people thrive in that situation. For me, I just wanted to marry my husband and not worry about whether we’d have wine on each table or serve it from the bar.

That’s not to say that choices are not important. Certainly there are those that are indeed more important than others – like my decision to say “yes” to my husband when he asked me. Or even perhaps my choice to ask him, had I thought of that.

To me, this ongoing debate about how farmers should farm is much like this type of scenario. There are many choices we have to make – like what color or brand of equipment we choose, which isn’t as important as whether we will be buying a no-till corn planter or something else that makes sense for our farm.

As I’ve been vocal in the debate about labeling or as I see it, stigmatizing, food produced with GMO crops, people have asked why speak up? Reporters seem to always want a simple answer – which happened in this Christian Science Monitor article, which I was happy to be a part of but left me a bit disappointed in its finished form. The journalist reasoned that my main concern about stigmatizing GMOs was because I was afraid it would raise the feed expense for the cows and thus, my boys wouldn’t have the chance to carry on our farming tradition. While this is a small part of my concern, there’s way more to it.

Let’s face it. Right around one percent of Americans are primary farm operators, or about one farmer for every 99 people. One expert and 99 back seat drivers give or take. That’s a pretty big bus that farmer’s driving. To some extent, the farmer can listen to passengers and go slower or faster, turn the A/C or heat on or off, provide more cushion on the seats or not; but at some point, the bus has to safely arrive at it’s destination – avoiding pot holes, ice, ditches, oncoming traffic, etc. More importantly, the driver (the farmer) has to make the best decision possible for protecting those passengers, getting them safely from here to there while keeping the bus in good condition for future trips. Sure, there may be other buses passengers can choose – but there won’t be as many without preserving options – either through legislation or the market.

Back to choices as a farmer and figuring out the best way to make the best use of our resources while preserving the farm for the next farmer to come along: Choices ensure sustainability.

Choices ensure sustainability.

We face a constantly changing landscape as farmers, with new challenges and opportunities appearing nearly every day. No doubt my sons, or the next farmers here, will face the same. In order to keep up, adjust or take advantage, the ability to make choices that the market will accept and that regulation will not deny will be key to ensuring sustainability.

So yes, preserving the next generation’s chance to farm is about concern for the cost of feed for the cows – both economically and environmentally, but it’s also about so much more than that.

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Economic Profitability Key to Sustainable Dairy Farming

My personal vision of dairy farming has changed over the years. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a farmer, a vet, an ice cream maker; among other things. I will never forget in discussing my plans with my Great Uncle Frank – everyone has an Uncle Frank right? – who was a dairy farmer himself back in the ‘40’s and 50’s in Westborough, Massachusetts. When I told him I was going to be a dairy farmer, he replied, “Oh, you’re going to marry a dairy farmer!” Being the determined person that I am, I said, “No , Uncle Frank, I’m going to be the dairy farmer.” To which he then said, “Oh, you’re going to marry a man, he’s going to do the work, but you’re going to be the farmer!” And I just shook my head and walked on, but little did Uncle Frank know that my love for dairy would lead me to life not only in the industry but also on the farm.

My vision for dairy farming continues to evolve as I meet more and more people in this great industry. My vision includes a great diversity of business models and smallowners/managers – commodity and value added, large and small, conventional and organic, purchased feed and homegrown, cattle and sheep or goats. There are certain characteristics that are common to all models – hard work and a love for the animals and land in our care.

For my own family, we are proud to be continuing a family tradition, and raising our children in a farming life. Our two young farm boys already have such a grasp of how things like tractors, mowers and choppers work as well as the importance of caring for another life. While it’s hard to predict the future, it’s exciting to think about the time when either one or both of them take over the reins of the farm.

Whatever the business model, the old adage will remain true – “If your outgo is more than your inflow, you’re upkeep with be your downfall.”

Having a good handle on your finances and making sound decisions based on what they tell you will be central to economic sustainability – an absolutely key component to farm sustainability. What’s more, planning ahead using economic information will allow you to get ahead. Tools like benchmarking, forecasting and budgeting will serve to improve the performance of our dairy businesses. The importance of financial skills cannot be understated as we move forward into the future – so that we can carry on with our passion, our farms, our livelihood.

 

The above was from a short speech given at The Vermont Dairy Summit, November 2015.

 

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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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“I Wasn’t Born on a Farm, but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

Just saw that phrase online somewhere, and could not resist. People sometimes ask how I got interested in agriculture. What follows is the very beginning of my farm story.

Some days I’m still amazed that I live on a farm. Being a farmer was a dream as a little girl, along with being a vet, college professor and a UN ambassador, but somehow the farmer one stuck. I started my path in agriculture with my family and my own 4-H dairy project, though we never lived on a farm.

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The cows enjoying a late summer day with Wheeler Mountain in the background.

Retired now, my dad is a United Methodist minister and my mom is a nurse. We moved around a little while my dad served his calling, but always found a place to keep our cattle where we could help with farm chores – mostly daily, although at couple of times the cows were a distance away from us.

It all started when my dad was serving a church in Spencer, Mass. At the time Spencer was still a fairly prominent farming community with several dairy farms in operation. One of the local farming families were members of the church and the farmer’s wife was an Extension Agent. She kept an acre of land and invited people who didn’t have a spot of their own to come to the farm and grow things in her garden. My mom, who was a city girl, reluctantly decided to give it a try, and brought my older siblings along with her.

The farm is a quintessential New England farm. Set in a rolling pastoral scene, the place dates back to a time where Indians were a big concern – there is even a small hiding spot next to the main fireplace in the farmhouse for hiding if a raiding party was known to be in the area. They milked Jersey cows, which is where my love for Jerseys comes from. I can even remember two old girls, one whose name was Venus, they retired but kept and lived to the ripe old ages of 19 and 21.

My mom kept her spot in the garden for several years and learned a lot not only about growing things, but about the rest of the farm too. My parents even helped when they could – whether it was doing hay, other chores or helping with the cows and calves. At some point, the farming couple’s grandchildren who were close in age to my older brother and sister started getting their 4-H calves ready for the local fairs. My sister and brother wanted to be a part of the fun too.

Despite my parent’s explanation about not living on a farm and not having our own place to keep cattle my siblings wouldn’t give up hope for their own 4-H calves. Mom recalls with specific detail the look of disappointment on my older brother’s face when they revealed a Silver Fox bicycle instead of a little brown calf on his birthday one year.

I’m not sure if either of my folks can pinpoint the exact day or instance when they thought maybe they could figure out how to keep a couple of calves. My mom will tell you she learned that you shouldn’t get in the way of God’s plan. Regardless, soon after my brother and sister started 4-H with their calves, Katrina and Rainbow, and the rest is history.

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One of my big days in a kiddie class.

Being the tag along little sister, I COULD NOT WAIT to get my own calf. I tried to brush their calves, lead them in the kiddie classes at local county fairs or go with them to the farm while they took care of their animals. I’m sure I was a pain and got in the way a lot, but I don’t remember caring. Finally, when I was nine as of January 1, we went to pick out my first calf.

Of course I fell in love with the first one I laid my eyes on. Her name was Annabelle, and she was the sweetest, prettiest calf I ever saw. Unfortunately, as far as calves go, Annabelle was really a bit on the ugly side and she contracted coccidiosis sometime along the way, which stunted her growth. I was only able to keep her two years but then got my second calf – Ivory.

Suffice to say I didn’t have great luck with my first two calves. It wasn’t until I bought a calf from my older brother that my luck started to turn around. Her name was Koral, who was a descendent of his first cow Katrina and we still have family members in our herd today.

So that’s how I got started in farming. Some days I still can’t believe I’m living out my childhood dream of being a farmer, married to a farmer, raising my kids on a farm and holding on to these Jerseys that came into my life so very many years ago.

Of course, there’s lots that has happened between then and now. But I’ll save some of that for another post.

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Losing the Calves

I love posting pictures on social media sites of all the fun stuff around here: the fresh cut hay, cows grazing on rolling green pastures and cute baby calves. Farming is not all fun stuff though; it’s tough, sometimes so tough that you find yourself asking why you continue to do it. Sometimes those baby calves don’t make it for whatever reason, but reason beyond your control.

This spring, we have had a string of bad luck with our calving. We lost three heifer calves – all to freak things. I wrote the following post on my phone while the second one we lost was struggling to make it. When I wrote, we had done what we could for her and we were in wait & see mode:

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Towanda and me on a random Tuesday night.

There’s a heifer calf in the barn struggling to live. While her future is bleak, there still is hope. I found myself in the same position a few years ago with a cow who is now seven years old. In a similar way it was a very cold day in March and she came unexpectedly. We brought both into heated parts of the barn. We dried each calf, rubbing them down with at least a half dozen towels. We “tubed” each calf, inserting a small tube down to their stomachs to get them colostrum with vital nutrients and immunities they need to fight off whatever they may have to fight off in these first few hours of life. We put blankets on them, said a little prayer and tried to make them as warm and comfortable as possible while we left to go do the next thing.

And now we wait. Last time, I went back to check on the baby calf at noon and found a spritely little thing be-bopping around the room. She was very cute- already a very small calf having come early and out of a first-calver and we only had a large Holstein calf blanket available.  I think it made her even cuter – she was swimming in that thing! Because of her spunk, I named her “Towanda” from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. I hope for a similar outcome today, but am not optimistic. Maybe I’ve become a little jaded as I’ve gotten older. Maybe I’m more realistic – this isn’t exactly the same situation, and it seems the calf this time is struggling a bit more as we think she may have aspirated during calving. Maybe I’m just feeling depressed because it just keeps snowing. Or maybe I’ll be wrong and she’ll make it.

Later that night:

Turns out I was right. Unfortunately the calf didn’t make it. When I went back down to check on her, she had gone further downhill, not even able to pick up her head. It is an indescribable feeling, holding a dying calf in your lap. You feel sad, hopeless, and maybe a little angry that there wasn’t anything else you could do to save her. It certainly makes you want to work harder and smarter for the sake of all the rest of the animals who did make it and are in your care. It reminds me of a line from that Paul Harvey speech made famous by a 2013 Super Bowl commercial:

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.'”

And while this doesn’t happen often, it happens on farms regardless of the label put on the package its product sells in. Again it leaves you wondering if it is all worth it. Then you look around at all the faces watching you as you walk back through the barn to get ready to feed or clean or milk or for one last check before you leave for the night and you realize it is.

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#FarmLove is All About the Love for the Farm

You may have seen several posts recently on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets using the hashtag #farmlove. I thought I’d take a few minutes to share what it’s all about and why we chose to pursue it.

First, #farmlove is all about farmers and those who love farming to share why they love farming. Let’s face it, farming is a tough business and not for the faint of heart. There have been a few days where even I have asked why it is that we are in it. Not only do farmers have the daily operations of keeping everything fed, healthy, running and humming but we also have a constant worry about making enough money to pay the bills and put food on our own table, let alone future stuff like who will take over the farm when we are gone.

And now we have more concerns arising from a shadow that has been cast by mainstream media. Every time an undercover video of animal abuse is released, animal ag takes a hit, even though that type of behavior is not tolerated on the vast majority farms. Certain terms like factory farm, industrial farm, GMOs and hormones are thrown around without any regard to context that they have taken on new meaning and their own negative light. Today’s farms are being scrutinized in everything they do from the types pens they raise their calves in to the type of corn seed they purchase or even if they grow corn by an uninformed, or worse, a partially informed, non-farming public.

So in a way, #farmlove is about connecting all farms together too. There are no labels when we’re using the #farmlove hashtag. Big farms, small farms, conventional farms, grass-based farms, hobby farms, organic farms can all use it. Because we are all in this together. We are all farmers. We all care for our animals and our land and just may have different ways of doing it.

Anyway, #farmlove is about just that. Sharing the love that we have for our farms, for our farm life. If you have any pictures or videos to share, feel free to start. February is a month for love, let’s make it for #farmlove.

FarmLove

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