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.

2014 In the Rearview Mirror

I can’t believe we are closing the chapter on another year. I remember “older” people telling me how fast the years had flown past and at the time I am not sure I believed them. Boy do I believe them now that I am one of those “older” people. I find it scary just how fast time seems to pass these days, 2014 seems like a blur.
All in all, I suppose 2014 was not that bad of a year. Sure it had its trials and tribulations most assuredly things did not go as I had planned them. We started out with a cold, snowy winter, lambing was one of the toughest we have ever had; I sure hope we don’t have a repeat of that for a long time. Calving season, on the other hand, had its moments. There were those times when I was standing in a howling wind, knee deep in snow, wondering what I was doing. However, for the most part calving season went fairly well and we got along pretty good, minus a few ears.
Planting and getting cattle out to grass flew past us in a flash. I am sure there was anxiety and stress, but it did seem to go along without any real big hitches. Haying plodded along but it was certainly much easier than the year before. What we lacked in quantity was made up in quality and the lighter hay also made for less stress on man and machine alike. I do know that the cows seem to like the 2014 vintage hay much better than the 2013.
The crops grew and looked very promising, that is for the first half of the summer. It seemed as though the rain was coming at the right time and in the right amounts. The corn looked much the same as it did in 2013 and then it happened. We were one rain short of having another great corn crop, but the soybeans were a different story. Just at the most critical time, our rain shut down and the heat started up. Then as all hope for the crop was almost lost, the rain started again. We may not have had record soybean yields but we did have a crop and for that I am grateful.
Fall came and with it harvest. I know each harvest is different and each has its own challenges, but this harvest was truly one of a kind. First we waited for crops to dry down, it seemed as though we spent a month or better test cutting, checking and re-checking the moisture. I know the running joke at the elevator was that I was going to bring our corn crop to town one coffee can at a time. Then, when you did find dry grain, it was often short lived. The next field or the next variety might still be too wet.
Rain came and we hit the pause button on harvest, which was probably a good thing. When it resumed, the corn was dry. Then there were the soybeans. I have never, ever seen a crop dry down so unevenly. Pods would be dry but the leaves and stems would be green. I walked along behind the combine, watching the green fodder come out. There was often a good bit of anxiety that came along with each truck load that went to town, but the moisture was always well within  the tolerable range even if the price was not.
Harvest stretched out long enough that panic about getting cows home from summer grass, weaning calves and getting their mommas out on stock started to set in. While there was much grumping and growling, the calves got weaned and their mommas got to eat leftover corn. All was well, especially after they went through the sale ring. The calf check kind of made you forget about the cold weather and snow. I suppose that is how it is supposed to be.
Well, that is my 2014 in review. I know some of you had better crops, some had less rain and poorer crops. For those with better, I am happy for you, for those with poorer, next year has to be better. Some of my fellow sheep herders probably had very successful lambing seasons and some of my fellow cowboys had a tougher time calving. Farming and ranching is certainly a variable enterprise and nothing is certain. Well, almost nothing. The only thing I know for certain is that none of us would trade what we do for any other occupation. Well, that and the undying optimism that 2015 will be even bette

Friday, December 26, 2014

Horse, you were a good tractor

Last Monday was a dark day for our farm. We are in a time of mourning and wearing black. OK before I go too far overboard, I am not mourning a person, or even a living thing. No, at about 12:30 on Monday afternoon, my tractor died. It was a quick and merciful death, a quick autopsy revealed a fist sized hole in the side of the engine. It was a shock none-the-less.
My tractor was a 1978 IHC 886. It was one of the first major purchases Jennifer and I made for our farm. Dad bought it on an auction for me. It served us well over the last 15 years. The old machine had mowed almost all of our hay, drilled nearly all of our wheat and faithfully started, even on the coldest of mornings during the winter to feed cows. When we bought it Jennifer had wanted another horse and she had forever been christened it with the name Horse. Horse was a good tractor.
I know, it was just a tractor and a worn out, old one to boot. So why am I so upset by its loss. Well, for one it was a financial loss. However, thirty-six year old tractors do not represent a great financial loss. It’s not like it can’t be replaced. Implement dealer lots are filled with ragged, rusted, over-the-hill tractors and the salesmen are eager to pawn them off on the next sucker, I mean customer.
No, Horse represented much more than a worn out piece of equipment. I have always been fond of 886 International tractors, I know they have their design flaws and they are far from classic tractors but I guess I am not much of a classic and my design has flaws too. It is much more than an appreciation for engineering and toughness. I learned to drive a tractor with an 886 and some of my earliest best memories were 886 inspired.
When I was 7 or 8 Mom and Dad bought a new 886 tractor. It was one of the few pieces of equipment they ever bought new and it made a huge impression on me. The day Dad went to the dealership to buy his tractor I went along and bought my own new, International tractor (of course it was a much smaller scale with plastic wheels). I remember the day the tractor arrived and just how shiny and big it was. I thought it was just about the neatest thing ever.
As I got older, the tractor seemed to get smaller. It went from being our biggest workhorse tractor to the tractor we mowed hay with and did other smaller odd jobs. It also became the tractor Dad put me on to learn how to drive. I knew it was not a big tractor but it sure felt that way to a kid who was eager to drive. Then one day, I really can’t recall what year, Dad’s 886 met with a traumatic part failure and it too passed on to the great barnyard in the sky.
I maintained my appreciation for 886 International tractors. Jennifer and I moved back, bought our place and started farming and soon I was looking for a tractor. Thanksgiving weekend 1999 we found a farm sale with an 886 International tractor, low hours and in great shape. It was our year to go to the in-laws for Thanksgiving so Dad went to the auction for me and came home with Horse.
Like I mentioned earlier, Jennifer took awhile to warm up to Horse but when she did she really warmed up to Horse. OK, the truth is she almost burned Horse up that first winter. I guess it wasn’t her fault, a bare wire shorted out and filled the cab with smoke, nearly ending Horse’s life early. I think over the years she also gained an appreciation for the red and white fixture in our shed, though I doubt she would admit it.
I spent many hours in the well worn seat and I appreciated most of them. Sure there was a certain level of frustration once in a while. Monday was no different, I had just had some minor repairs done and was roading Horse from Dad’s house to mine for the winter feeding season when the tragic failure happened. Maybe we will fix it, but I doubt it is worth it. Eventually I will end my period of mourning and pick myself up and go tractor shopping but for now there is an empty place in my shed and in my heart, R.I.P Horse, you were a good one.

My Christmas Wish

I did it again. Each year I say that I am going to clear my calendar out between Thanksgiving and Christmas and just enjoy the season. I make plans to savor every moment and live life a little slower. Then reality hits and this time for reflection, worship and family becomes one of the most hectic times of the year with a packed calendar. I get caught up in all that is going on and soon I blink and look at the calendar and it is the week of Christmas.
I think Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year. It is the day we remember Jesus’ birth and that alone should make it one of our favorite days. Too often I think we lose sight of that and it is minimized in this time of political correctness. If you view Christmas as just another holiday and a reason to buy presents then that is your right and your perspective. However, to me, the day has a much deeper religious meaning and that is my right to celebrate Christmas.
I enjoy many other things about the Christmas Season. I must admit I really enjoy Christmas music. Yes, this is the only time of the year when you might catch my radio not being tuned to talk radio. I have heard many people Bah Humbug the all Christmas music stations. Not me, as soon as Thanksgiving is over (but not before) my radio dial is tuned to one of those stations and I will be singing along as I feed the cows (that might be why they go off of feed this time of the year).
I also enjoy all of the Christmas decorations and lights. Although I must admit that I do not like putting them up or taking them down. If it were not for my wife, I would be one of those people who would leave the lights up year round. I enjoy driving around and looking at the lights others have put up and one of our family traditions is to drive through the Christmas lights in Lemon Park in Pratt. If you have never been there, it is worth the drive.
Another one of my favorite things this time of the year is to either get up early or stay up after everyone else has gone to bed and admire the Christmas tree. I like to turn the lights on, get a hot cup of coffee and just sit and bask in the glow of the lights. There is something soothing about it. I do miss the smell of a live cedar tree and that would add to the experience, but allergies and the fear of a dried out tree necessitate a fake tree.
Of course there is always the food. You probably never would have guessed by looking at me that I enjoy food (a little more white in my beard and I could be Santa Claus). From the candies and cookies to the great meals hosted by friends and family, I just can’t help myself and often I add pounds to the memories from Christmas past.
However, the one thing that makes Christmas the best is being around friends and family. Each year right before or right after Christmas, I sit in my chair, with the Christmas tree lights on and read all of our Christmas cards at once. I really enjoy hearing from friends and reading about their lives. I know many make fun of Christmas letter, but I truly enjoy them.
Christmas cards and letters are great but they are not as good as seeing friends and family in person. When we gather during the holidays and visit, I often wonder why we do not get together more often. I know it is because we all lead such hectic lives with full calendars and I suppose it is a little sad that we need special occasions to find time to be with friends and family. That being said don’t sweat it and enjoy each moment during this Christmas season spent with those closest to you.
I know the clock is rapidly winding down on this Christmas season and I am sitting next to the tree, cup of coffee in hand as I write this column. My Christmas wish for you is that you take a moment to relax, reflect and remember what is most important to you during this busy time. Remember it isn’t about presents, shopping or anything commercial. Christmas is a time of worship, family and memories. Merry Christmas to you and your family.