Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Neighbora, Snow and the Superbowl

I really like watching the Superbowl; it is almost a holiday to me. I know it is not anywhere near as important as Christmas or Easter. The big game doesn’t even have the meaning that the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving have to our nation. However, after those official holidays, it is one of the days of the year that I most look forward too.
I admit that I am a football junky. I really like to watch football, even when I don’t really have a rooting interest in either team. To be honest, most often it is even more fun if you don’t really care who wins. Combine that with my affinity for food and eating and sprinkle in some good commercials, it all makes for a good evening. We carefully plan our menu and rearrange the chore schedule so we can be settled down with a plate of food at kickoff.
This year was even better (at least for my family) because Jennifer’s parents had come to visit and had gotten snowed in (as I say good for my family, I am not sure they would agree). The minor snowstorm had turned into a major storm and we spent most of the afternoon moving animals around, scooping snow and feeding critters. It was a whirlwind but we managed to make it in before the start of the game, get the food prepared, add wood to the fire and life was good.
The food was good, the game was a little boring and the commercials weren’t as funny as we had expected. At least that was the consensus after the first half. Maybe the game would pick up after halftime and maybe our expectations for the commercials were a little too high. In any case, the second half kicked off with optimism. Sure enough the both teams started moving the ball; it was going to be a game.  Then it happened.
The phone rang. On the other end was a neighbor (keep in mind I count anyone in a three or four mile radius as a neighbor), he had gotten stuck trying to help someone out of a snowdrift. Let’s set the scene, the wind was howling, it was cold and the roads were drifted. Did I want to go out? Not really, but I did not hesitate. I left after putting on the layers required for being out in the conditions that night. The tractor was plugged in and fired right up. Soon I was headed off into the snowy night.
I listened to the game as I drove along and over the noise of the tractor it seemed to be getting more and more exciting. One hill away from the house I found my neighbor, pulled up behind his pickup and jumped off into a thigh high snow drift. We hooked up his chain and made the 200 yard pull without too much trouble. At the top of the hill, clear of the drifts, we stopped.
We talked for just a few minutes. The bitter cold wind had a numbing effect even on someone as chatty as I am. He thanked me and I reminded him that next time it would probably be my turn to ask him for a favor. I have lost count over the years of all the times one of our neighbors have come to my rescue. Often these crises occur at rather inopportune times and usually in inclement weather.
I guess that is what I most like about where I live. You know you can call on your neighbor, no matter what time, in any situation and they will always come lend you a hand. That is what we do. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, if they didn’t need your help they would not have asked for it. You can also be sure that when you need a hand they will drop everything to help.
I pulled into the shed that night plugged the tractor in and went to the lambing barn to check the ewes. We had a ewe lamb earlier in the night with what we thought was a single lamb. However, when I opened the barn door that night she stood there proudly with two lambs. It was a good night.
I got back into the house just in time to see the last play and to get a recap from my family on how exciting the game was. Would I have liked to have seen the game? You bet. But I also know that given the same opportunity I would do the same thing every time. I can always watch the Superbowl again next year, who knows maybe the Chiefs, will be in it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Maybe I Need More Practice

Lambing season is at full steam! We seem to have more of the little buggers than we know what to do with and that is a good problem to have. Each trip to the barn reveals new lambs. The most amazing thing is that, as I write this column, the weather is spectacularly good. It kind of makes me wonder if the ewes didn’t make a mistake this year. I know, don’t talk too loudly because weather always seems to have a way of evening things out.
At the beginning of each lambing season we sort the ewes into three groups. We make a pen of ewes that look like lambing is eminent in the next week. The next group is ewes who are showing signs of being close to lambing but are a few weeks off (or so we think). Both of these groups get a place in the barn. The final group is reserved for the ewes that are not showing any signs that they may lamb in the next month. This is a very inexact science.
This week we had an unbelievable flurry of ewes having lambs Sunday night and Monday morning. This was a good thing since Jennifer was going back to work, the kids back to school and I had two meetings during the day. That meant we needed to lean on Dad to check the maternity ward during the day. I am beginning to learn that you never know what your kids are going to get you into, which is what Dad says to me each time I ask him to check the ewes.
Monday morning I called Dad as I left to give him the update and let him know what I did, and more importantly, what I didn’t do. I told him about our flurry of activity and also shared with him my theory that he probably would have a slow day because of all the activity that night. He reminded me about how accurate I had been with my predictions on such matters in the past. I reassured him that with more experience in this sheep endeavor came more accuracy. I don’t think he entirely believed me.
So I left home with every jug in the lambing barn full of new lambs and their proud mothers. I was feeling pretty good about myself; I finally had this sheep thing figured out. My meeting went along quietly and smoothly that morning and at noon we went to lunch. Somewhere about the end of lunch my cell phone rang, it was Dad’s number.
He was calling to tell me that I had new lambs. OK so I missed that prediction. “Which pens are they in?” I asked. Dad told me that I had a ewe with a lamb in the North pen. That didn’t surprise me, the North pen was my pen of ewes I deemed to be the closest. The next ewe and lamb were in the South pen. Boy did I miss the whole no new lamb thing. That would be the next closest pen of ewes to lamb. A little surprising that one of those ewes had lambs but not too much of a shock. I probably should have seen that coming since there were fewer ewes in that pen than the close pen and they had started out with even numbers.
“And the last ewe with a new lamb is out in the big pen,” Dad said. The big pen is the pen where the ewes that were not at all close are housed. I guess I missed that one, just like the other three I missed in that pen. Dad also told me that I had a couple of other ewes in that pen that he thought would lamb in the near future (like that night). Sure enough, the next morning I found a ewe with twin lambs in the big pen.
I am happy and probably pretty lucky to report that all of those lambs are doing well. Dad and Jennifer moved lambs and ewes that night and by the time I got home from my second meeting everything was bedded down and good for the night. I am not sure I deserve all of the good help I have been blessed to have.
The next evening Isaac and I, acting on Dad’s tip, moved four ewes directly from the big pen to the North pen. This prompted Isaac to make the comment that we probably ought to either put marking harnesses on the rams next year or get Grandpa to help sort ewes from the beginning. It was kind of hard for the “veteran” sheep man to hear, but it was most likely true. So now that I have eaten my humble pie, I had probably better go check the ewes and that includes all three pens.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chipotle Doesn't Know Pigs (Like A Farmer)

This past week I was happy to be home on my own farm, feeding my animals and living the life of a farmer who is proud to be producing the food we all need. I am so proud to be part of the larger Ag community and proud of the way we go about producing food. Just as technology and science have advanced our quality of life, agriculture has seen the same advancements. That is why it is so disturbing to me to see others demanding that we push those advancements back.
Chipotle restaurants came out this past week and said that they would no longer have pork carnitas on the menu. Their reason? According to Chipotle, they could not find enough pork produced in the manner they require. Chipotle says they are focused on doing the right thing ethically and sustainably. In the case of their pork they want the pigs to have access to the outdoors and not be fed antibiotics.
Don’t get me wrong, Chipotle is a business and they are free to operate in any manner they see fit. If they want to source their pork in that manner with those requirements, fine, it is a free country. Obviously I do not agree with them or their ideas about how pigs should be raised, but if that is how they want to run their business then so be it. I have vowed not to patronize Chipotle because of how they characterize most of us in the ag community, but if you enjoy their food or agree with their stance on agriculture then that is OK too. We live in a free country and it is your prerogative.
However, I take great offense when anyone bashes my fellow farmers and criticizes how they run their business. I have many friends who earn their living raising pigs; most of them are involved in family operations that have been in place for generations. Again, you know my idea of sustainable and if your family has been raising pigs for generations, then you are sustainable.
What really gets my goat (or pig in this case) is the notion that modern pork producers do not have the best interest of their animals, or those who eat their pork, in mind. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I have been in modern swine facilities and I have found the pigs to be comfortable and very healthy. The comfort factor is magnified even more in times of extreme temperatures. Pigs raised inside spend their lives in a constant, regulated environment with plenty of fresh air and room to move.
I know Chipotle would have the public believe otherwise, but those of us who raise livestock for a living know better. We know that if you keep the environment around your animals constant they are more content. Need an example? When we achieve financial success as humans what is one thing most people do? They move to a place with a more temperate environment. Whether that is Arizona in the winter or Colorado in the summer, we escape the extremes. Well, that is what my fellow hog farmers are doing, they are creating a more temperate environment for their pigs. That, in turn, makes their pigs more comfortable.
Am I saying that animals raised outside are treated unethically? Absolutely not, animals have been raised outdoors since the start of time and can be made comfortable in that environment also. Farmers and ranchers utilize their experience and knowledge to treat their animals right, no matter what method they choose.
As for the point that Chipotle wants their pork raised without antibiotics. Let me just say that I would not hesitate to feed my family pork raised by one of my friends in a modern facility. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that all of the withdrawal times have been met and the meat is absolutely safe to eat. There is good science behind the feeding of antibiotics and even better behind the withdrawal dates that insure food safety.
The bottom line is that I understand that we are a consumer driven business and we must produce what our customers want. However, it pains me greatly when others capitalize on bad science and hysteria to line their own pockets. Whether food producer, food supplier or consumer; we are all in this together and it is our responsibility to make sure that we educate ourselves and those around us so that we can all make informed decisions based on the truth and not hype. Rest assured that there is plenty of ethically raised, sustainable pork, despite what Chipotle says.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Suiting Up for the Deep Freeze

It is cold out there; I mean bone chilling, icicles in your beard, frost on the inside of the window, hug the wood stove cold. I laugh each time I watch the news during these extreme cold snaps. Don’t go outside and if you do, don’t stay out for more than 30 minutes at a time. Words that come from people who have never lived on a farm or ranch. All the chores have to be done, so dress the part, warm up when you have too and power on through it.
There really is no way to prepare yourself for feeding in the cold. Sure we dress in layers and preparing to feed is something akin to getting suited up for a space walk. Maybe I am different than everyone else (I have been told that) but I do have a certain order that I follow when putting on my “arctic chill” chore clothes. Any deviation from the protocol has serious implications.
First is the foot wear. I prefer a really good, thick pair of wool socks, but in the case of an extend cold snap I do start layering regular socks. Then it is absolutely critical to put on your boots. I have enough trouble putting my boots on without added layers (or more correctly added additional layers on top of the layers I have added over the years). At this point I pause to catch my breath.
Next comes the hooded sweatshirt. This is a very important layer. The most important thing is to remember to take your cell phone out of your shirt pocket. Failure to do so will result in a missed phone call, a choking hazard and possible dislocated shoulders. Then on top of the hoodie comes my bibs. I have a pair that zips up the middle, a nice feature until the zipper stops working. Next the legs must be zipped. This is another part of the procedure that requires groaning, grunting and a pause to catch my breath again (I really ought to consider getting in better shape).
Next comes the critical placement of the earlier mentioned cell phone in the front pocket of my bibs. This allows for easier (note easier and not easy) access and results in half as many missed calls. This is also when I check my pockets and take inventory of the medicine, syringes, pliers, clips, fence insulators, money, gum, candy, receipts…… well you get the idea. All of the stuff that I accumulated in my pockets from the days, weeks and months prior to today, I then make a decision about what I need and cull the rest to the cabinet next to the door. The very same cabinet that is remarkably cluttered and gets me in trouble with Jennifer, but you never put anything away; you might need it later on that day.
Next I locate my winter hat. This year I graduated from a stocking cap to the wool hat with a bill but most importantly a hat with ear flaps. It is the kind of hat that I swore for years I would not wear and now wonder why I was so stupid. Before you put the hat on a decision must be made. Ear flaps up or down, it is a decision that is often made based on the wind and has other very real implications. Ear flaps down result in many more missed calls.
The final part of the “arctic chill” suiting up is gloves. Often that includes the hunt for gloves. Sure I have quite a few gloves on the afore mentioned cabinet, but finding the right pair requires a great deal of skill and even more luck. First, they must be dry, that usually knocks out about half of the herd. Then you must have one for each hand. There go a great number of left handed gloves. Finally, it must not have large holes. Often these three criteria will get me down to one set of two gloves. Notice I did not say a pair of gloves. Most likely I will not have a matched pair, but if I have one for each hand, free of holes and dry, it is going to be a good day.
Then and only then, I am ready to open the hatch, I mean door, and take one giant step for mankind. OK so I am being just a little over dramatic but it does seem like a rather large accomplishment. Braced against the cold I head out to perform my daily chores and care for the animals entrusted to my care. The very same animals that seem to be disappointingly unimpressed with my sacrifices. So goes the life of a rancher in January.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Parental Guidance

Once in a while your kids will do something to make you think you aren’t so bad at this parenting thing. Last week was that time with Isaac. Earlier in the week he was left in charge of chores for three days, it was one of those life altering days when Dad finally realized that Son was old enough, mature enough and big enough to leave in charge. That and because of doctor’s appointments, Farm Bureau meetings and his sister’s surgery, Dad didn’t have much choice.
Not only was he left in charge of the chores but it also rained leaving the barnyard and surrounding pastures and roads mucky and muddy, further complicating his assigned duties. Now don’t get me wrong, he has done the chores many times and has been in charge before, but never for three days straight. The night before I briefed him over and over until I finally got the “I know Dad, you have told me at least five times” response.
We may all cuss our constant connectivity but I really don’t know how my parents did it. Of course maybe it wasn’t so bad not being able to text or call anytime and from anywhere. I am fairly confident Ike did not respond to my texts for an extended period of time on purpose. Even though he swears he responded as soon as he got it.
I probably deserved it. One of his assigned duties was to feed cows. No problem, he has done it many times. The only complication was that we did not have a tractor at our house, the pasture feeding area was muddy and our feed pickup is, well, somewhat fragile. By fragile I mean, old, beat up, and held together by baling wire and duct tape and about to fall apart. It needed to be handled delicately to survive until the new, used, tractor was to be delivered.
Did I think Ike would deliberately tear up the pickup? No, of course not, he is a really good driver. The feed pickup has some quirks and it takes skill to know where it can be driven and how it should be driven. We all know skill is gained by experience and most of that bad experiences and I just did not have time for any bad experiences leading to a breakdown.
To make a long story short (which is really unusual for me) I made at least three nervous texts and one phone call to “see how things were going”. When he finally responded it was to tell me that everything had gone well and the cows were successfully fed, the pickup was still in working order and I had nothing to worry about. I should have never doubted him.
A couple of days later I again called on Ike to do chores. His sister needed to be into the school early, still could not drive and I had a couple of errands to run. Buoyed by the success of his earlier run, he and I both had confidence in his abilities. Around 9:00 that morning Dad called to ask if I could run by and help him get a bale into the heifer pen. No problem, it would be right on my way to pick up Tatum, everything would work out OK.
Right as I had reached the point of no return, Ike called. He had a ewe who had gotten down, prolapsed and was not looking good. I had to come home to help. I explained that I had to help Grandpa and pick up little sister; there was no way I could help, at least for the next 45 minutes. I told him he would have to figure it out on his own.
That was the longest 45 minutes I have spent in a long, long time. I called a couple of neighbors to see if they could check on him but I could not reach them. Dad and I got the heifers fed without any escapees and I picked up Tatum and we headed home, not knowing what to expect. Ike was nowhere to be found when we arrived.
Soon he came down the road, driving the feed pickup with two dogs on the back. He jumped out of the pickup with a smile and told me the crisis had been handled. He had found a prolapsed spoon and fixed the prolapsed by himself, given her a shot of anti-biotic and finished chores. I went to the barn to find the ewe relatively alert, prolapse free but most importantly alive. He had figured it out; maybe he had paid attention over the years. Most importantly it was an milestone for both parent and kid.