Saturday, September 27, 2014

Gerald Schmidt, Great Cattleman, Even Better Man

Gerald Schmidt was a good man. Really nothing else needs to be said. Gerald was also a man of few words and he would probably agree. Even though in his usual awe shucks, humbleness he might be a little embarrassed at the attention. But as I go on for a much longer and wordier tribute, he would also probably smile and say that was par for the course with me.
Last week Jennifer and I attended the memorial service for Gerald Schmidt at the Freeport Presbyterian Church. As I soaked in the wonderful service, I had many memories and thoughts of Gerald go through my head. Most of all I marveled at how someone who I had the privilege of being around for such a relatively short time could have had such a big impact on my life.
In November of 1995 Jennifer and I got married and we moved to Harper County where I was the Extension Ag Agent. Jennifer worked as a horse trainer before we got married and her old boss told her to look Gerald up when we got settled in. At first she did some day work for him but soon Gerald asked her to be his herdsman. Little did I know that her job would change me so profoundly.
Gerald Schmidt was like few men I had ever met. Without a doubt he was one of the most humble, hardest working, most unassuming people you could ever meet. He treated human and animal alike, with kind actions and deep respect. He had a calm, quiet demeanor that drew you in and made you feel good. Gerald made sure that the new, green County Agent attended all the right events and I looked forward to going to them with him.
The first thing most people noticed about Gerald was his honesty and integrity. Gerald had some of the best Angus cattle I have ever been around, but his sale catalogs were legendary and the descriptions of his cattle were one of a kind. I remember one bull in particular. Gerald described his best attributes very well, but at the end of the description he mentioned that if your fences were not very good you probably did not want this bull. I have never seen statements like that in any other sale catalog anywhere else, but Gerald did not want anyone thinking he was anything but straight forward and honest. We sure could use more people like that in this world.
I live each day trying to emulate that same honesty and integrity. However, the one lesson from Gerald that had the biggest impact on my life was the way he treated his livestock. Gerald treated his animals with a quiet respect and was always calm when handling them. I must admit that I am a bit of a hot head and very impatient when it comes to animals, so I marveled at how Gerald worked cattle. I was also impressed with how gentle his stock was and then the light went off in my head.
Livestock are a reflection of how they are treated. Treat them with gentleness and they will seldom get worked up. Then came my biggest revelation, be patient, quiet and move calmly and you will get done so much faster than “ramming and jamming”. The only stories I ever heard of Gerald showing any displeasure was when it came to someone mishandling his cattle. Hitting one of Gerald’s cows was not something you wanted to do.
He used the same approach when it came to dealing with people too. He drew others in because they knew they would be treated with kindness and respect. Gerald Schmidt was a man others wanted to be around because he made them feel good. You couldn’t spend a day around him without feeling better about yourself. That is a very rare quality.
There are very few days I do not think of Gerald, particularly when I am working with my cattle. I am absolutely convinced that the world would be a much better place if we had more people like Gerald in it. I just hope that I live my life each day with at least a small portion of the integrity, honesty, humbleness, humility and respect that Gerald showed each person and animal he came into contact with each day. In the end I must say I am a much better person for knowing Gerald and for that I am very grateful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Testing a Farmer's Patience

Is there anything better than a cool fall morning? Well, OK, maybe the first real warm morning in the spring. I have to say that I really enjoy fall, it is one of my four favorite seasons of the year. Did I hear a groan? Yes, I admit it, I like all four seasons equally, and I guess that is why I live in Kansas where we have four definite seasons (and sometimes all in the same day).
While I like all four seasons equally, I also must come clean that I especially enjoy the transition from summer to fall. Some of us were just not made for hot weather and the cool temperatures of the fall are a welcome relief. You can always put more clothes on but there are only so many layers of clothing you can take off. I am living proof of that.
In any case, it must be fall. Jennifer, the kids and I have spent our weekend at the Kansas State Fair, football and volleyball season are in full swing and the harvest anticipation has started to build. There is nothing like the build up to fall harvest to test the patience of a farmer. I truly think waiting on Christmas morning as a kid was training for waiting on the crops to dry down.
This year is no different; harvest can’t get here fast enough. Last month it looked like corn harvest was going to be early, we were going to be picking corn in early September for sure. It was hot, dry and the corn was maturing at a rapid pace. Then it started raining. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the rain and I am not complaining, maybe whining a little, but not complaining. The moisture certainly slowed the drying down of our corn.
This past week I did notice some fields being picked and while I still saw some green in our corn, I couldn’t help myself and I picked some ears and hand shelled a sample.  I knew it was an exercise in futility but I persevered anyway. The ears were still standing upright and it took a good yank to separate them from the stalk. Dad quickly told me that the corn was way too wet as we hand shelled it off of the cob. However, I continued on because an inquiring mind has to know.
Off to town I drove with a coffee can sized sample of corn next to me on the front seat. The anticipation of harvest steadily building as I got nearer to the elevator, it was Christmas morning all over again. I walked through the door with my sample and presented it proudly to Joanne, the branch manager. She quickly looked at my sample and pronounced it too wet. By now I was relatively sure that 1) my corn was not ready and 2) I was not the first one to bring in a sample.
Sure enough the sample tested 19.3%; harvest was just going to have to wait. I was having flashbacks to being a kid and waking up at midnight Christmas Eve. I was going to have to wait but it wasn’t going to be easy. Joanne handed my sample back to me and told me to come back in a couple more weeks. We both chuckled when she said it; knowing full well that I would probably be back in with another sample in a few more days.
While those of us involved in farming are among some of the most patient people, waiting for harvest is not easy. I also know when the grain is finally dry enough and harvest hits full bore, we will wonder why we were so anxious for it to start. That is of little consolation right now and each time I drive by one of our fields I look a little harder to see some hint that harvest is getting closer. More ears hanging down, more brown leaves, anything that heralds the onset of harvest.
Well, I guess that means corn harvest will have to wait. Maybe I should take a look at the soybeans. Even better maybe I should take a sample of the soybeans in. I better get started because it sure is hard to shell out those green pods. After all, harvest season has started and I am hauling the crop to town one coffee can at a time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fifth Generation Sustainable Beef

Recently McDonalds came out with a plan to start buying verified sustainable beef in 2016. Yes, this would be the same McDonalds that employs Ronald McDonald as a spokesperson and peddles Happy Meals to little kids. The McDonalds of plastic playgrounds, cookie cutter restaurants and cheap predictable food and they want to tell me about being sustainable.
I am the fifth generation on our farm and I would think that makes us pretty sustainable. It is my understanding that being sustainable means that you can continue on into the future. I don’t know of any farmer or rancher who operates their farm or ranch in a manner where they are only worried about getting through this year and don’t care about the future. We all want to leave our farms and ranches in better shape for the generations to follow. The term of sustainable agriculture is one that has gotten under my skin for a long time. Many times I think the term has gotten hijacked by environmentalists and others on the fringe of agriculture.
I can only really speak for myself, but I hope that I am caring for my land and my animals in a manner that will perpetuate our farm for the years to come. We all hope that five generations from now, they will look back as proudly as we do today. The greatest compliment I can think of is for whoever is farming my land years after I am gone to acknowledge that I left behind a legacy of sustainability.
So back to the matter at hand, McDonalds, is going to tell me what sustainable is. On their website they refer to concerns about the environmental impact of overgrazing grasslands. They also talk about animal welfare and the quality of life for those working in the beef supply chain. However, what got my attention the fastest was when they started talking about their greenhouse emissions. It is their contention that 70% of their greenhouse gasses came from their supply chain and 40% of those came from beef.
Let me get this right. McDonalds wants to verify that I, the beef producer, am not overgrazing my land, protecting the environment, treating my animals right and caring for others who make a living somewhere in the beef supply chain. Oh and all the while lowering my greenhouse gas emissions. OK, I work hard to preserve and improve the land I have, I care for the well-being and comfort of the animals in my care and it is my hope that all of us in the supply chain are well compensated and safe. As for the greenhouse gases, that is another topic for another day. On the surface, it looks like we want the same things.
I am always a little concerned when someone from outside of agriculture wants to get involved with how we produce food. It is a point where some of the special interest groups who are not so ag friendly could slip in and have a detrimental effect on those of us who farm and ranch. I also recognize that we are in business and the opinions of customers are important and we must do a better job of communicating with them. This may be a golden chance to show the rest of the world just how sustainable we really are.
I hope that McDonalds will take the time to find good, hard working farmers and ranchers to serve as consultants to this process. I also hope that they will take the time to look at good, credible sources to determine what sustainable really is and they are not swayed by outside interests who have hidden agendas. In other words, I hope that commons sense will prevail in this quest to certify beef as sustainable.
Maybe this exercise will verify something those of us involved in agriculture have known for a long time. The farmers and ranchers of the United States have always been on the cutting edge of technology and advanced food production methods. This has allowed us to protect the environment, our animals and everyone else associated with agriculture while feeding a growing world population and ultimately allow us to pass our farms and ranches to the next generations. Now that is sustainable in my books and something I hope to share with my great-grandchildren over a Happy Meal.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Not the Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Done (Yet)

Yesterday I saw dark clouds building off in the western sky. Something about the threat of rain when we have been so dry puts a bounce in your step. I rushed out to do chores before the rain reached our house.  In retrospect, that may not have been the smartest thing I have ever done, in fact many meteorologists would tell you rushing to do anything outside ahead of a thunderstorm is not very smart. Then again no one ever accused me of being very smart.
So I rushed out the door, encouraged by the thought of being able to enjoy my second cup of coffee while listening to the rain pitter patter on the roof of my house. It was going to be the relaxing morning. Sure I needed to get other things done and maybe relaxing with a cup of coffee was not the smartest thing I could do but it certainly wasn’t the dumbest. As it turned out it wasn’t even the dumbest thing I would do within the next hour.
I hurriedly fed each pen of sheep, grained the horses and fed the dogs. All of this went very smoothly and soon I was done, well, almost. As I grained and fed I noticed that nearly every water tank needed filled. Part of my normal morning routine is to top off each tank, however, usually everything is OK if I can’t. This morning was different, the extreme heat had made all the critters drink a lot of water and every tank needed to be filled. I trudged back to the hydrant and that is when I started hearing the thunder.
I filled up the first couple of tanks and the thunder sounded like it was getting closer. Sure enough, it was and soon I started to watch the lightening streak across the not-nearly-far-enough sky. So there, there I was holding a water hose, leaning on a metal fence, filling a metal water tank with lightening way too close. It still was not the dumbest thing I would do that day or even that hour.
I was on the last tank, thinking about my soon to be relaxing morning when I spotted some movement on the road, west of my house. Cows, and not just any cows but my cows, the very cows that were supposed to be a mile down the road. I shut the water off, jumped in the truck and started to herd them back down the road in the direction they had just come from. All the while, the thunderstorm was bearing down on me. It started to sprinkle and the lightening got ever so much closer. However, it still was not the dumbest thing I was going to do that morning.
Soon I got the cows turned around and they slowly, begrudgingly meandered back to their assigned pasture. Mostly I could follow in the pickup but every once in a while, usually on top of a hill, one old cow would need some extra attention and I would have to get out and personally nudge her along. Finally we got back to the pasture and I let them back in. I was now soaked from standing in the rain and walking through the tall grass along the edge of the road. Did mention it was still lightening?
A quick check of the fence along the road and I knew how they had escaped. Someone had driven through the electric fence and taken a tour of my pasture. I do not know why they did or what their intentions were but I am fairly certain what I would have done if I had found them and it would have been intentional. In any case, the fence needed to be fixed or I would be herding cows later that day also.
There I was soaked to the bone, fixing an electric fence, in a thunderstorm, on top of a hill with lightening flashing all around and that, friends, was the dumbest thing I did that day and had done for a long time. Funny, how you recognize the danger after it passes. But I did recognize it and that is why this morning as I walked out the door and I heard the thunder crack, I turned back around and poured that second cup of coffee. This morning if the cows come down the road, I guess I will just have to put more coffee on and invite them in but they are going to have to wait until the storm is over.