Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lessons from the Bulls for D.C.

Yesterday I hurried out into for chores. I was hoping for everything to be in order so I could finish as soon as possible and get on with the rest of my day. The morning went along really well, until I got to the pen with our two mature bulls. I turned the corner around the barn expecting to see their massive bull heads; instead I saw nothing but a big, gaping hole in the fence.

Instantly my day went from OK to bad, I had an appointment in town that morning and did not have time to mess with the bulls. Finding them was not hard; the cows let me know where they were. I hurriedly went to the calving pasture and found them in the brome grass pasture next to the calving pasture. The cows were plastered along the fence looking at the bulls grazing the green grass.

I knew I would have to do something pretty quick, soon the bulls would have eaten their fill and their attention would turn to the cows across the fence. I rushed back to the house and got a bale of the best alfalfa in my bale pile. Soon I had the bale in the feeder and called the cows up to the feeding site and away from the bulls and the rickety fence.

Part one of my hastily made plan worked and the cows quickly forgot about the handsome bulls grazing the tantalizing green grass across the every increasingly bad fence. Now on to phase two of my plan, getting the bulls back into their pen and that was going to be a challenge. I was going to have to drive them away from the green grass, across the creek and around the barn and other pens to their home. To make matters worse, my calling the cows to the alfalfa bale had drawn the bull’s attention. They were now standing at the fence looking longingly at either the cows, the alfalfa or, more likely, both.

I rushed down to start my version of a cattle drive. Did I call for help? No, Jennifer and the kids had gone to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a couple of days and I couldn’t call Dad. Why? Well, a couple of weeks earlier he had told me I needed to put an electric fence around the inside of the bull pen to deter leaning on the fence. Last week he had even sent the fencing supplies home with me. I was going to do it tomorrow (that of course was 7 tomorrows ago).

The two bulls are very different in terms of their temperament. 76 is more excitable and much quicker moving, while 77X is one of the slowest moving, slowest reacting bulls I have ever been around. I started driving them down the fence and things were going good. That was until we got to the creek crossing and the place where the trail branched. 76 was well ahead of 77 X and me and when he got to the fork in the trail, he took the left branch that led back to the brome field. 77X, on the other hand, stopped and wouldn’t budge. Both of them got words of encouragement and were renamed.

I left 77X and went after 76. After many branches in the face and after scrambling up the creek bank in the mud, I got him stopped and turned. We went back down the same trail and you guessed it, I got the same results. Meanwhile, 77X still had not moved and would not move no matter how much of a motivational speech I gave him. We made one more lap before my spirit was broken and I called Dad.

Did listened to my, now, breathless explanation of what had happened and asked me if I wanted his help. Of course the answer was yes. He then asked me if I had tried coaxing them in with a bucket of grain. In my state of panic, the idea of using bribery had not crossed my mind. With the Calvary on the way I hustled back to the barnyard for a bucket of grain.

Soon I was back to the bulls with my bucket of negotiation. I called to them and shook the bucket and rapidly their attention turned from the cows, alfalfa and green grass to the grain in my bucket. In a matter of minutes we made far more progress than I had in the previous hour. This all worked pretty good until we got almost back to the barnyard. Suddenly it occurred to 76 what I was doing (77X still was focused on the grain) and he balked. However, much to my relief, Dad arrived. With him behind and me in front we got the bulls penned. We then set upon getting the electric fence up and in a matter of 45 minutes the excitement was over. Soon I was off to town in time to make my appointment.

The 30 minute drive to town gave me some time to reflect on this little adventure and I think there are a couple of lessons for all of us in it. First, negotiation and finding a solution that will mutually benefit both parties generally works better than one party imparting their will on the other. Of course, I was a little arrogant to think I could impart my will on a couple of 2000 pound bulls with green grass, alfalfa and romance on their mind. Instead we found a mutually agreeable solution that included them in their pen with a couple pounds of corn apiece.

The second revelation I came to was much time could be saved if we would only ask for help. If I had not called Dad, I would still be out in the pasture doing laps with 76. I also would not have come up with the bucket solution in my addled, agitated state. I am also not sure if 76 would have given up and come in without Dad being there to convince him that following me and the grain would be a good idea.

It further occurred to me that my experience and the revelations it provided me might be of use and interest to those in Topeka and D.C. Especially the idea of not standing pat and trying to impose your will on another party who may not have any motivation to see things your way. Often I think the idea of compromising and finding a mutually agreeable solution is a lost idea. That would be were my second revelation of asking for help from a more intelligent source comes into play. So with that thought, if you are a legislator, my phone line is always open.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Difference Between Humans and Animals

I have always been a dog person; currently my family owns two dogs. Jack the Bird Dog is a lovable goofball; he trips over his own feet and likes having his ears scratched. Killer the Cow Dog is always ready to ride on the back of the pickup and wags his tail at the mere mention of his name. I am very fond of Killer the Cow Dog and Jack the Bird Dog, but I do not love either of them. They are important to us but they are not members of our family. Why, because they are animals. Let me give you an example that should make things very clear.

If one of my dogs was in danger and saving them meant risking my life, I would not. However, if another person, any person, was facing a life or death situation, I would, without a moment’s hesitation risk my life to save their life. If both a human life and the life of an animal are at risk at the same time, the decision to save the human life should be automatic. Yes, I hold the life of other human, even people I am not particularly fond of, in higher regard than the life of an animal, even an animal I am quite fond of. Sadly many of my fellow humans do not feel the same way.

We, as a society, have blurred the line between humans and animals. Why? Well many do not have the same contact with animals that those of us in agriculture do. Their only non-human contact is with the cat or dog they share their house with. They project human feelings and emotions on those animals, and I understand why.

It is easy for me to talk to Killer or Jack and believe that they understand. It is easy to believe that their loyalty is out of love for me. But here is the truth. Lassie never ran back from the well barking to save Timmy. Dogs are pack animals and their loyalty to you is because they believe you to be the alpha and therefore the leader of the pack. Cats, on the other hand, view you as an equal but tolerate you because you are the keeper of the feed bowl, period. That is why I am not a cat person.

In any case, they are animals and their actions are governed by instinct. As humans, our actions are powered by our intellect and fueled by reason. Those of us who work with animals on a daily basis understand that. We know what our animals are going to do because we understand the instincts that dictate every action or reaction. Everything an animal does is governed by the need to survive or reproduce.

Does the fact that I view myself superior to animals mean I treat them poorly? Not in the least. I understand it is my duty to treat them with respect and care for their every need. Whether it be a companion animal like my dogs or one of the steers or lambs I am raising for food, I take care of their needs and make sure they are well cared for. But I also understand they are on this earth for my use.

OK, I know I am preaching to the choir and many of you are wondering why where I am going with this. Activist groups like HSUS and PETA are playing upon the emotions and feelings the majority of people have for their animals. We have all seen the sad advertisements that play on TV and ask for your money to help protect abused animals. They are playing on the emotions of pet owners who see their companion animal as an equal.

From there it is a small leap to project the same emotions and feelings onto the animals we raise for food. If you view your dog or cat as an equal, then it is easy to view that cute pig in the same way. Sound crazy? Animal rights groups see no difference between the life of a human, dog or sheep and have stated such. Give them the same scenario I gave earlier and they say they would have a difficult decision of who to save.

So what should we do? That answer is simple. We need to help show the difference, and that means opening our farms and ranches up to others. We need to show that we genuinely care for the animals we own. We need to demonstrate that we give them the best care available and respect the lives we have been entrusted with but that we also understand that they are here for our use. Yes, that use might mean as a companion or it might mean as a protein source, but they are here for our use. Now please excuse me, Killer and I have cows to check.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Smart Phone?

A couple of months ago I purchased a “smart” phone, a good friend of mine told me only smart people had “smart” phones. I am not so sure. Like a kid in a candy store I downloaded all kinds of games and apps. I fooled myself into thinking it was strictly a business decision. Now I can get those critical e-mails, texts and phone calls anywhere (all five spots on our farm that get cellular reception).

I quickly loaded all kinds of great Ag related apps. I now get the commodity prices with one app, can find out what soil type a certain field is with another and calculate the expected calving date with yet another. Of course, Dad reminded me that WIBW has the commodity prices each half hour, but the most crushing blow came when I went to use the expected calving date app. He calculated (accurately) the calving date of a cow in his head faster than my so called “smart” phone.

I often made fun of my friends because they talked about how they couldn’t live without their devices. Sadly after one week, I was just as addicted as anyone else. A couple of mornings ago, I watched a piece on the morning news comparing addiction to “smart” phones with drug addiction. I have to agree.

Oh, they do have their benefits. Often it is easier to stay ahead of the mounting piles of e-mail because I do get them instantly. It has also taken my Ag advocacy to a new level and I am able to share my experiences on the ranch with my non-ag friends in real time. However, even these benefits come some unintended side-effects.

One morning, Dad and I were waiting on a heifer to calve. While we sat in the pick-up and watched, I posted to my Facebook page. Dad noticed my furious typing (with two fingers) and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was advocating for Ag and telling the world about what we do. I think I received the same look he gave me when I was in the fourth grade and told him I was going to play third base for the Royals. Really Dad, I am promoting agriculture.

Then a couple of days later we were making the evening rounds and I got several e-mails. Each time I get an e-mail, my phone chimes. After the fifth chime he asked me just how busy I was. Before I could answer, the phone chimed again. Question answered, much too busy, not necessarily productive, but much too busy.

This technology at our fingertips has eroded our attention span and drained our concentration. We need everything instantly and quickly. Our society has come to reflect this sensory overload. After all, we all have two dozen or more TV channels. If you don’t like a program, there are many more choices. Shows must be fast moving and exciting to hold our interest, no longer can they take time to develop a plot. If you find nothing on the TV there is always the internet.

Even our political races reflect this lack of attention span. Politicians must talk in sound bites no longer than one or two lines or we won’t listen. If they aren’t easy to listen to and capture our fancy, we move on to the next candidate. Abe Lincoln would have had a tough time making it in the 2012 Presidential race.

What’s the answer? I am not sure there is one; I have never seen technology decrease or the pace of life slow down. Over my adult life I have went from no cell phone, to a bag phone, to a hand held phone and finally (for now) to a “smart” phone. I have gone from no computer, to a desk top to a lap top. No internet at work to wireless access in my home. Technology and the speed it brings is here to stay and it will only increase.

However, I do have a couple of absolutes when it comes to technology. For one, I absolutely refuse to take my phone into church. Before Church each Sunday I take it out of my pocket and place it in the console of the pickup. I will live without it for those three hours each week. I also refuse to place it on the night stand next to my bed. Each night I want to recharge and my phone should too.

I don’t know much, but I do know this problem of too much information too quickly will only get worse in the years to come. My only hope is that at some point we will realize that we need to unplug, disconnect and push it all away. As a society we need to relearn the art of discussion, the joy of not being connected and the ability to concentrate. But then again, I am sure there is an app for that.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Our Kids, Our Way of Life

Saturday afternoon, my son and I checked the cows at our place. The Hereford cow had calved and we set forth to work her heifer calf. I caught the calf and held it while Isaac tagged it and gave the two shots we give newborn calves. All the while, the old Hereford cow nervously watched us, calling to her calf a couple of times to make sure things were OK.

We quickly finished with the calf and safely returned her to her mother. The pair ambled off into the sunset and Isaac and I watched. It was one of those great father/son moments, one of the best things about family farms and ranches. I love the fact that I get to work side-by-side with my family.

In addition to helping Jennifer at our place, the kids often spend weekend days with my father helping at his place. They are eager to spend the day with Grandpa and I am sure they will look upon the time spent with him as some of their fondest memories. I find they work harder for him and he has more patience for them. It’s a win/win situation for kids and parents alike.

However, the vaunted Department of Labor would take that away from us with proposed rule changes. These rule changes would not allow Isaac to help me tag calves. Why you ask? The Department of Labor deems working with mothers and newborns a task too dangerous for youth. They have also deemed any task involving tools powered by anything more than human power too dangerous also. Does that make any sense?

Farming and ranching has certain danger associated with many tasks, not the least of which is handling newborn babies and their mothers. We work hard to minimize risk, because we love our children, but we also realize that the danger is part of our business. If the cow in the earlier story had been one who had shown tendencies to be mean, I would have waited for Dad or Jennifer to help me. However, we cannot predict how animals will react and there is always danger associated with that.

Along with that danger, I also recognize the benefit of teaching my kids hard work and responsibility by having them work with us on the farm. I also recognize the benefits of my kids getting to work with their grandfather on a daily basis. The close relationship farm and ranch kids have with grandparents is something often lacking in our society and also something not easily understood by bureaucrats in Washington D.C.

I am sure their intentions are good. They have heard of the ”evils” of modern agriculture and corporate farms. I am also sure they are envisioning children forced to carry out terribly dangerous tasks, for long hours and in horrible conditions. They think they are crusading to save the children of corporate farms, either that or they are simply bureaucrats generating new rules because that is what they do.

However, those of us in agriculture know the truth. Farming and ranching is a highly rewarding way of life, where generations get to work side-by-side, Children learn the value of hard-work, honesty, dedication and responsibility by watching Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma, Aunts and Uncles model those traits every day.

It is no surprise that many kids who grow up on farms and ranches decide to return each year. They see the rewards growing up in agriculture provides and they want that for their families. It is also no surprise that the children who don’t return the farm are in high demand by other employers. They understand how to work and take pride in a job well done, all traits that are hard to find these days.

Now the Department of Labor would take all of that away from us with their proposed rule changes. They think they know what is best for our children. While I appreciate their attempt at protecting my kids, I think I know what is best for them. I would never put my kids in harm’s way or give them a task that was too dangerous or one that they could not handle. I love them too much to do that.

What we must do, as an agricultural community, is to let our legislators know how we feel. We must also tell the Department of Labor what a mistake they are making. Those of us who grew up in agriculture must let them know how we benefitted by working each day with our family.

I truly believe that this has come about because of a lack of understanding. Many do not have a comprehension of what it means to work in a family business and fewer have a true understanding of agriculture. Those of us who understand the benefits of family and have farming and ranching in our blood clearly understand what is at stake, and it is not something I am willing to give up.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Truth About Calving Season

Calving season is entering its second week at our place. It is one of my favorite times of the year, kind of like Christmas each morning. Life is good, for now. However, it is not without its pitfalls and shortcomings. The progression from giddy excitement and wonderment to pain and suffering is something that evolves over about six weeks.

Week one, the alarm goes off at 5:30, you bound out of bed with a song in your heart and springs on your feet. Your clothes are laid out by the foot of the bed in anticipation of a great day. The supplies needed for greeting newborns into the world are carefully laid out and double checked the night before. Your chore clothes are hung by the back door, clean and crisp, your boots standing at attention next to them.

The brisk winter air greets you, putting a glow on your cheeks, the grass sparkles with frost. You find the first calf of the season nestled in a warm place being licked clean by his adoring angelic mother. You pause for a second taking in the wonderment of new life. Then you gently tag the calf with a bright shiny tag that matches his mother’s. Life is good.

Somewhere about week three, the alarm goes off and you groan. It takes just a second to wake up, your chore clothes are laying in a pile at the foot of the bed. There is an ache in your back and pains in your knees but nothing a little pain reliever and a cup of coffee can’t fix. Bibs, coat and gloves are thrown over the peg by the back door. Various odors and stains from things that probably shouldn’t be mentioned are sprinkled over them. Your boots are caked with mud and laying on their side. The box with the calving supplies is muddy and in a state of confusion, you are down to one working syringe, the tagger handle is bent and tags are randomly strewn across the box. You can only hope there are enough buttons for the tags.

You wearily step out the door and are smacked in the face with the sting of the wind. The frost on the grass makes your feet cold; you can’t wait for warmer weather. This morning’s calf requires a half an hour’s search because the stupid cow hid it so good. But you are glad to have a healthy calf, even if mama is a little over protective. The calf is caught and tagged as fast as you can, with a 1300 pound observer blowing cow drool down your back. Life will get better.

Then there is week 6 and beyond. The alarm goes off at 5:30 and is thrown across the room. You will yourself out of bed. Your back is frozen in a permanent hunched position, your knees creak with each step and your ankles; let's just say you are considering amputation at this point. Finding no clothes at the foot of your bed you sniff clothes in the hamper and select the least offensive set.

The chore clothes are in a pile next to the door, the odor beckons buzzards and the crust must be broken before they can be put on. Your boots are thrown next to them, still wet from the holes that have developed during the past six long weeks.

The arctic wind punches you in the face and the heavy frost must be chipped off of the windshield before the long trek to the pasture can be made. The calving box disintegrated two weeks ago, tags are hidden throughout the cab, you are not sure where the tagger is and buttons, well, we will get to that later.

The cow with the calf can be seen running at full speed across the pasture. Finally she decides to make her last stand in a grove of locust trees. She waits for you shaking her head and pawing the ground. The thorns from the trees pierce various body parts as you spin in circles keeping the calf between you and the demon cow. As for tagging it, that is when you realize you are out of buttons. Finally, you give in and let the calf loose, only to find out you have locked yourself out of the pickup. Mentally you add up what you would get for all of the cows and a pickup with a broken window. You look forward to the sweet release of death.

Then suddenly, it’s all over, all the calves are on the ground. You sit and watch the calves bucking and playing. The grass is greening up and the leaves are coming out on the trees. As the birds sing and a warm spring wind brushes across your face, you realize life is once again good.

Don’t get me wrong, I love calving season and most of this was only tongue in cheek. It is the way of life I have chosen and I wouldn’t give it up for any amount of money. However, about this time of the year, I would consider selling various body parts for a morning without the 5:30 alarm.