Wednesday, August 29, 2012

America's Heartland

This past week my family and I (and anyone who crossed our paths) had a unique experience. We were chosen for the TV show, America’s Heartland. We are going to be in one of their “Dawn to Dusk” episodes. It seems they pick out an unsuspecting farm or ranch family and follow them from dawn to dusk (actually like our usual day it started a little before dawn and ended a little after dusk).
It was a great experience and taught us many lessons. The best lesson being that we should always live our lives like we are wearing a microphone and everyone will hear what we say. I guarantee it will change what you say in your daily conversations. I found myself closely weighing everything I said. I did not want to say anything that would be negative or might hurt anyone in any way. If I acted like I had a microphone to the world on all the time, I would never have to pull my foot out of my mouth or ever feel bad about something I said.
The second revelation I had during this all day filming was how often I scratch my nose. This occurred to me as I drove my pick-up down the road. The film crew had installed a camera on the grill guard to film me driving. Half way through scratching my nose I realized what that might look like from the wrong angle. The rest of the day, no matter how bad my nose itched I was not going to give in to temptation.
Finally, if someone tells you to act like “I am not here” it makes it twice as hard to act like they are not there. Especially when that person is carrying a camera or a boom microphone. No matter how hard you try not to look at them, it is impossible. On a related note, you can also tell animals that, but they are even harder to convince of the fact that the afore mentioned person is not really there. Animals tend to stop and stare.
OK, all kidding aside, I have been asked, why would you allow a camera crew full access to your farm to film you all day? Was I worried about what they might find? In short, yes, it made me a little nervous but not because of what I thought they would film. I was nervous that I would look and sound funny on TV (or look like I was picking my nose) but I never for a moment worried about how our farm would come across.
Jennifer and I welcomed the chance to share what we do on a daily basis to produce the food everyone consumes. We know that we do things the right way and welcome the chance to show that to our customers. I don’t mean to sound too sure of myself, but I would guess that most of you feel the same way. The vast majority of the farmers and ranchers I know do things the right way, for the right reason and would be great ambassadors for agriculture. We just happened to be chosen, but I know many, many other producers who would have just as good or better.
Was it uncomfortable? Well, maybe a little, but in the end it will be well worth the trouble. Most consumers are so far removed from the food they eat; they need to see what we do. The public needs to see that we have the same hectic schedule they do and we manage a time consuming business with crops and livestock that need constant attention. We have ball games, meetings and church activities on our calendar; we just have to tend to our chores either before or after the activities.
This was made clear to Jennifer and I when we had the opportunity to read Ag books to grade school children in Nashville, Tennessee several years ago. They asked us if we had television, if our kids got to play sports and if we wore overalls all the time. The disconnection with urban consumers is what allows groups like PETA and HSUS to spread misinformation and that is why it is important for all of us in agriculture to open our farms.
It is an experience like no other to be followed by a camera crew. It was reassuring to know that people are interested in what we do. However, it was also a little nerve wracking and I think I need a break from the cameras (maybe a year or two), but given the same opportunity we will open our farm up to the public again. After all we are proud producers of the food we all need and we want to show the whole world.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Greener Grass and Wars Lost

It is official; the grass across the fence is definitely greener. Well, OK with the current drought conditions it is not greener, but there must be something better about it. My cows sure seem to think it is better than the grass in the pasture and they keep helping themselves to it.
Each morning and evening I drive over to the pasture and what I find decides how my morning or evening will go. I hold my breath as I top the final hill, little black dots ahead leads me down the road to a bad day (literally). However, an empty road leads to a great big sigh of relief, at least until the next check.
If the cows can’t find a hole in the fence, they make one. Once they are loose, mayhem ensues. Let me give you an example of the mayhem my bovine cause. It’s the morning after the county fair; we are all gathered around the breakfast table, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I am sipping my second cup of coffee. Life is good, and then it happens.
I hear a faint mooing. At first I thought it was on the TV. It really didn’t make sense but I had convinced myself that the TV was the source. However, Jack heard the same mooing and he decided to answer with some stern barking of his own. That is when I saw the black cow pass by the front door. So much for the leisurely breakfast.
A lazy morning that was to be spent reflecting on the success of the fair was suddenly turned upside down. The troops were pressed into action and soon the cows and calves were turned around and headed back down the mile of road to the pasture. A broken gate post was the culprit and easily fixed, but the cows were not happy.
They made sure to voice their displeasure the whole time I fixed the fence. It was kind of like a chorus of air horns pointed in my direction. On top of being loud, they seemed to take turns, lobbing volley after volley of angry bovine protests. I wondered if their bawling alone might not knock the fence down.
Since that early morning sneak attack the cows have launched other assaults on my peace of mind and sanity. I may be winning the battles but I suspect they are eventually going to win the war. Eventually they will wear me down to the point that I move them to the next pasture.
One might think the cows are out of grass or maybe water is short. I am here to tell you that there is a plethora of grass and plenty of water in the pond. This leads to my conclusion that the grass is greener or at least more palatable across the fence (or in the ditch). Each day they spend their free time scouring the fence for weak spots to exploit. But I do look for silver linings and I have found a couple.
First, I have perfected the drive by cow check. If I take the time to slow down as I drive by the pasture the cows will immediately run to the fence to voice their protests. I now take the Mazda pickup instead of the Dodge diesel, stealth is the key to a successful drive by. I can now count my cows at 40 mph. actually; I have made it even simpler than that. I know if I can see the red cow and the bull, all the cows must be present.
Second, the fence along the road has never been in better shape. I can say, with a degree of certainty that I have been over every foot of the fence. I have patched holes and gaps that I never knew existed. Rotten wire has been replaced, gates have been strengthened and posts have been added.
Finally, I figure I have the cows primed and ready to move to the next pasture. I would guess that all I will have to do is open the gate and get out of the way. I can visualize the cows charging down the road and blasting into the next pasture. They might even close the gate behind themselves.
The reality probably is that they will not be happy in the next pasture either. The drought has turned the pastures into dry patches of bristly grasses that the finicky cows will only turn their noses up at. In any case, the sound of cows bawling in the distance has given me a nervous twitch and I see cows running down the road in my dreams. I may win one or two more battles but I suspect the war will be lost in the next week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

So Long Big Red

The Pottawatomie County Fair came to a successful conclusion. Four days of fun and celebration had come down to the final few moments. Tack was packed up, signs were taken down and the market livestock were loaded on the trucks for their final destination. I like to think I am a big, tough guy, I know where my food comes from but this is the one part that gets to me.
Big Red was a good steer. My daughter had the first pick out of our herd this year and she picked the big red steer instantly. We brought him home and immediately he proved himself to be a very gentle, slow moving calf. He broke to lead as fast as any calf we have ever tried to lead.  Always eager to be caught and ever ready for feedings he soon became a favorite around the barnyard.
Oh sure he had his moments. One blistering hot summer night he kicked me for no apparent reason. Well, other than he was just as hot and cranky as the rest of us. Big Red was also known to plant himself and not want to move when the mood hit him also. However, all things considered, he was a pretty good steer and I knew the final day of the fair would be hard.
“Dad would you lead Big Red to the truck for me” came the request on Saturday night. “Sure, no problem”, I said trying to be tough, knowing all the time that it wouldn’t be easy. When the announcement came, I clinched my teeth and untied Big Red one last time. I took him to the holding pen walking past red eyed youth and the other Dad’s with clinched teeth. No one dared talk; no one looked at each other. It was a tough, hard task, but one that we all had signed up for and one that we all knew was necessary. That didn’t make it any easier.
There are some who think the market animal project is cruel, at best, and borders on abuse. They wonder how any parent can allow their child to care for an animal for months and then send it off for slaughter. I have heard these people speculate that we are hardening our kids and making them uncaring. Nothing could be farther from the truth, in fact, the opposite is very much true.
This summer was a tough one to own livestock. The kids went out early in the morning to feed and exercise the steers. Then they tied them up under a fan, in the shade, going out to water them every two hours. Finally, as the sun went down and the temperature went from blazing to uncomfortable, they would feed them again and make sure they had fresh, cold water for the night. Then they would wake up at 5:30 the next morning and do it all over again, every day, seven days a week. They learned that the comfort of their animals came before their own comfort.
My kids knew the day would come when the steers would be shipped and they knew that a steer only has one purpose, but that didn’t mean that they did not put all of their energy and efforts into caring for them. Most livestock producers that I know have the same, total respect for the animals they raise; the care of those animals is always the number one priority. While the animals are in our care, we do our best to provide for their health and comfort. Those principles are what my kids are learning with the market animal projects.
As for the argument that it makes the youth heartless and uncaring, all you have to do is look at the parents to disprove that theory. I saw some of the toughest men and women I know walking back from the holding pens, empty halter in one hand, arm around their kid, staring at the ground behind dark glasses. My guess is that they had the same lump in their throat that I had in mine. There are some things that just aren’t easy, no matter how many times you have done it.
The memories of Big Red will always be good ones, we all have favorite animals we have owned and I am sure he will be one of my daughter’s. Time heals all wounds and soon talk will turn to picking out next year’s project. Every livestock producer realizes that if you didn’t care, if you didn’t go that extra mile, you wouldn’t be very good at your job. That is why, I am proud of my kids and all the other youth for a job well done.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An Optimistic Drought

Each morning for the past couple of weeks I have walked across the crunchy grass in my yard, taken a deep breath of the dusty air and looked at the brown pastures surrounding the house, one thought always crosses my mind. Boy, do I have a lousy sense of timing. I left a good job to farm full-time during one of the hottest, driest summers in recent history. However, that thought is very fleeting and is always replaced by the knowledge that I am doing what I have always wanted to do.
Sure the pastures are shorter than I would like and the grass is browner. Each time I go check cows I have a sense of dread when I look at my ponds. The cows register their complaints with me each time they see me. I am not sure where they want to go, but they want to get there as quickly as possible. The grass across the fence really is greener (at least in their little cow minds, it is).
And the crops, well, I have decided to start wearing a blind fold to check crops. I think the corn might be better than I think it is, but I am not looking at it. I want one pleasant surprise this fall. The beans have been clinging to green for weeks but spots of brown have began to creep into the fields. We just finished baling hay and I feel very fortunate that we did not start a fire.
It is awfully easy to let yourself get down and focus on the gloom and doom of the current weather situation. Each night I am glued to the weather, watching, hoping and hanging on each chance of rain. Then each time the rain misses us, it would only be human nature to be disappointed and angry (I have climbed to the top of the barn just to make sure we don’t have a dome covering the farm).
Those of us in agriculture are at the mercy of the weather. Dad has reminded me more than once that the weather is the one thing we cannot control. Although some in our midst think that we can contribute to the warming of our climate, I disagree. I do not have any evidence; I just think it is amusing that we think we can influence the ebb and flow of the temperatures and rainfall. Soon we will be in a cool wet weather pattern.
But I digress; my feelings on climate change are not the focus of this column. While it would be easy to get caught up in a feeling of hopelessness, I have not. Why? I am not sure. Call it a sense of optimism present in all farmers and ranchers or maybe it is because I am loopy from the heat, but I am already looking toward next year and the promise it brings.
That focus on the future may be the secret to our longevity in agriculture. We are in it for the long haul; we are in a family business that has been with us for generations. We have the comfort of knowing that our great grandparents, grandparents and parents have been through the same cycles of drought and heat and the farm is still standing.
We have a track record that tells us that as bad as the situation might be right now, it will get better. Soon the temperatures will cool off and the rain will start to fall. My guess is that soon we will be worried about the cool temperatures and surplus of moisture (I am really  ready to be cold and wet). The one bright spot to this drought is that it seems the rest of the country has recognized just how important agriculture is.
Most of the networks have run stories on the drought. Their coverage has included the fear of food prices rising, but the stories I have seen also have included a concern for the farmers and ranchers. The farmers and ranchers interviewed for those stories have also conveyed one common theme, optimism.
The sense of optimism is why I am a proud producer of the food we all need. Today is hot, dry and tough, but tomorrow will dawn with the knowledge that the conditions will improve, we will raise a crop and my farm will continue. Just today, I noticed three chances of rain and temperatures in the 80’s for next week. Things are looking up already.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Nightmare for Farmers

Today we baled a few square bales and put them up into the loft for this winter. Now I know many of you have thrown many more bales in a day, but it was terribly hot and I am old and fat. In any case, I ended up on the couch after lunch and drifted off into a fitful nap. I had a terrible nightmare that left me in a cold sweat and I thought I would share it with you.
It seems that my dream was set in the future ten years from now. Environmental groups and animal rights activists had prevailed and my nightmare was a vision of what agriculture and the world had become. I saw crop fields full of weeds, erosion was taking its toll and the yields tumbled as a result. GMO crops had been banned and with that there was no way to take advantage of no-till practices.
Because of this, lakes and streams were full of sediment, drinking water supplies were threatened. Soil, normally held in place by modern farming practices was being moved. Yields had fallen dramatically due to the lack of insect resistance and the absence of other traits like drought tolerance. The lack of production had led to shortages of the grains the world had come to rely on. Shortages and higher prices for staple items like bread, rice and other grains had sky rocketed, thus increasing the amount we all pay for food. Many could not afford to adequately feed their families.
Ethanol had become a thing of the past. Credits associated with ethanol production had been viewed as a handout to both farmers and those producing ethanol. Production had ceased and we became more and more reliant on foreign oil (don’t even think we were allowed to tap into our own oil reserves). It really didn’t matter anyway. What little corn we could produce was used as food, but even that was not nearly enough.
What about the farmers and ranchers producing meat? Stringent animal welfare laws made most modern animal husbandry practices illegal. Most farmers and ranchers could not stand to watch their animals needlessly suffer. Modern swine and poultry farms were forced to try to raise their animals in the elements. Burning heat and bone chilling cold took their toll on both the animals and the men and women raising them. Rather than be forced to watch their animals suffer, most decided to end farms that took many generations to build.
Many of the antibiotics utilized by farmers and ranchers to produce healthier, less stressed animals were stripped from their medicine shelves. Animals suffered needlessly from diseases that could have been easily cured. Simple veterinary procedures such as dehorning and castration were required to be done with by a veterinarian. All of this drove up the cost of production; needlessly increased animal suffering and drove many family farms out of business.
What about the Flint Hills? The Flint Hills are no longer the last foothold of the tall grass prairie. They are now covered with trees and shrubs because of the ban on annual spring burns and herbicides. The hills are an unproductive mixture of trees, shrubs and invasive species like sericia lespedeza. Dramatically limiting how many cattle producers can raise. The native tall grasses and forbs are now history.
Just as with grain prices, the price of meat becomes prohibitive to most consumers (which is exactly what the animal welfare groups want to happen). Most consumers cannot afford to put meat in their grocery carts and many go without necessary protein. Of course, it really doesn’t matter since the grocery store shelves are almost bare due to a lack of food to fill them.
Just as I was beginning to be overcome with despair in my tree covered, eroded, hungry new world, the phone rang and awoke me from my nightmare. It took me a moment or two to clear my head, could this really happen? I hope not, but we need to take a good long look at the people who are being allowed to regulate agriculture and tell us how we must go about our business. A business we deeply care for and now how to do better than anyone else.
We are blessed to have the farmers and ranchers that we have in this great nation. Our innovation and adaptation of new technologies allow us to provide a growing population with an increasing supply of healthy, nutritious foods while protecting the environment we hold precious. The agriculture infrastructure of the United States is asked to produce more, with less and we have done just that.
Now I don’t mean to pain a bleak picture or to be an alarmist, I just want everyone to understand what the world would look like if the environmental and animal welfare groups slipped the agendas they are currently pushing past a sleeping or apathetic public. The result would be food shortages and environmental disasters. The good news is that I truly believe that if we do a better job of telling our story and educating the public the vast majority will be on our side and agree with us. Then we will be allowed to produce the food and fiber we all need now and ten years into the future.