Archives for posts with tag: raising livestock

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around something.  Yesterday, Larry (my husband’s cousin who works full-time with us) was checking fence before moving the cows and calves to a new lot.  He came upon a large black plastic bag a few feet in from the fence on the side of the pasture nearest the road.  He opened the bag and found a new Havahart trap with a very dead and decomposing opossum inside.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since Larry told me about his discovery.  I understand that these creatures can be destructive.   I don’t understand why anyone would purchase a live trap to catch an opossum, and then allow the animal to starve to death.  Logic says that the purpose of buying a humane live trap is to relocate what is caught, as opposed to killing it, right?  If the intention is to kill the unwanted animal, then wouldn’t there be quicker and more humane ways to go about that?  I can certainly think of a few.  And those traps aren’t cheap, costing around $100.

Let’s not get into the aspect of respect for private property, especially when it is used by a family to make their living.

So many people complain about farmers raising livestock, and perceived “inhumane” practices.  As I’ve said many times before, the farmers I know are dedicated to providing excellent care to their animals.  There is respect shown to livestock, from birth to the time of death, by those of us who make our living raising them.  When I hear comments to the contrary by the uninformed, it makes me sad and sometimes angry.  I don’t know any farmer that would treat an animal under his or her care in the manner shown this opossum.  It sickens me.  One thing I know is that whoever tossed this trap into our pasture was not a farmer. Guaranteed.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a picnic at the home of good friends who are also farmers. The guests of honor were 3 generations of an Amish family from Wisconsin, with whom my neighbors had become friendly. It was an interesting experience for me to be around these folks from a different culture. I have Mennonite ancestors on my mother’s side of the family and have always been curious about this way of life. Since the Amish folks are farmers, we had plenty of common ground and it was easy to keep the conversation going.

While chatting, it dawned on me that the people I interact with at the local farmers market a couple of times each week probably look at me similar to how I was viewing the Amish. My customers at the market have very little, if any, experience with agriculture. Fewer than 2% of Americans are involved in farming, and as our county specifically is rapidly becoming urbanized (although agriculture is still the number one industry here), the vast majority of residents have no knowledge or understanding of modern-day farming. Most are two or three generations removed from agriculture, just as I am that many generations removed from my Mennonite roots.

In fact, there have been times when, after seeing a sign at my booth promoting the Facebook page for my farm, I’ve been asked in an incredulous tone if we really have internet service on the farm. Some people are frankly amazed that a farmer is actually using a computer. I’ve received similar comments at the market when people notice that I’m using a smart phone. They’re surprised that a farmer is using modern technology. I have to explain that those of us farming are leading lives that aren’t too terribly different from theirs. We’re not Amish; we’re just part of that small number of people who make our living growing food, fuel sources, and fiber. We shop at the same stores, our kids attend the same schools, and we go to the same churches. I let them know that many in farming are very involved in their communities. We’re on school boards, church councils, coach sports teams, volunteer with service organizations, and are active in local politics, etc. Our jobs in agriculture frequently require long hours, so we may have less time to spend on recreational activities, but many of us still have hobbies we enjoy, just like the non-farm folks. Some of our pastimes are traditional, such as baking, canning, quilting, wood working and gardening. Although other farmers I know enjoy spending time flying airplanes, riding motorcycles, fishing, taking spin and yoga classes, and have hobbies like genealogy and photography. It should be easy to find the common ground.

Non-farmers may be surprised at how much technology is actually used these days on the farm. Not only do we have smart phones but we constantly use apps to keep an eye on the weather and to track the market prices of the commodities that we produce. There are also apps that can monitor irrigation systems or grain bins and dryers remotely. During harvest season while the farmer may be running the combine in a field many miles away from home, he or she can be keeping track of the temperature and moisture in specific grain bins via the phone.

Those of us who raise livestock have also benefitted from new technology. For example, there are now monitors that can recognize each individual dairy cow, record her body temperature, and track her activity and milk production. The farmer is notified by text of any indicators out of the ordinary, leading to greater efficiency and improved animal care. Air flow monitors in barns are now also common, again enriching animal comfort and care. Many farmers also use video surveillance to help watch livestock, as well as machinery and fuel tanks. A motion sensor triggers a text or phone call.

It’s now common to see GPS receivers on farm equipment. GPS allows, for example, a combine to collect location data. The yield monitor in the cab then records moisture and yield data that are used to prepare specific reports and maps. This information makes it possible for farmers to use less fertilizer and chemicals, as they are now only applied where and when needed. We are able to create “management zones” and take soil and tissue samples according to a GPS grid. The samples are tested in a lab and the results are used in conjunction with soil type and yields maps to give us great insight into the fertility of our fields. Precision fertilizer application was especially important this year, following the drought of 2012. There were areas where fertilizer in the ground was not utilized last year, for example on the tops of hills. This year we only applied fertilizer to the specific areas that had higher yielding corn last year, thanks to the information provided by the maps. Sprayers now use “swath control” which can turn off the boom to avoid over-spraying.

On planters, GPS allows “auto-steer” to collect data along a path and keeps the planter straight. Information regarding seed population, how well the planter is singulating the seed, and down pressure are all immediately available to the farmer in the cab while planting. He or she can make adjustments for different soil types to plant seed more efficiently. Another new technology “row clutch”, helps avoid over-seeding by turning off individual planter boxes in odd shaped or triangular fields. The seed is only planted where needed.

There is exciting new technology being introduced in agriculture all the time. And it’s not just for the larger farmers. Our farm is considered just average size and it’s readily available to us. If you’re curious about farmers, our lives and what’s happening on our farms, it’s easy to get more information. Many of us are active on Facebook and Twitter, and there are lots of blogs to follow. You’ll find a list of farmer bloggers at You don’t have to wait to be invited to a picnic!

Got milk?

Got milk?

Working at the farmers market twice a week selling beef raised on our farm, I sometimes hear negative comments pertaining to the care of livestock or the operation of larger farms. More than once someone has tossed out a casual question regarding the care of animals on our farm, or said to me, or “it’s great that you’re doing this on a small scale, you know those large farmers are abusing their animals”. I have to wonder what they think happens when a farm reaches a certain size. Do otherwise sensitive, caring individuals suddenly turn into cruel abusers when the number of animal units reaches 200, 500, 1000? Is everything automatically acceptable if it’s done small scale? I don’t believe that there is a “magic number”. I believe that those of us raising livestock for our livelihood have the best interest of the animals in our care in mind at all times. Sure, there have been a couple of well-publicized cases of abuse, we’ve all seen the videos. Of course there are a few idiots in any profession – there are bad people who are doctors, accountants, clergymen, teachers – you name it. However, you cannot paint everyone with the same brush. You wouldn’t say that all teachers are awful because of a few bad apples, and the same should not be done to farmers.  It was always my goal to have 365 cows in my herd. I’m not even 20% of the way there, and most likely won’t ever get there. My operation is the size that it is due to the limited amount of pasture and facilities on our farm. If I ever do reach my goal, would I automatically begin being abusive to my cattle?

Since I’ve been raising beef for a couple of decades, I happen to know many others doing the same thing, locally and in different parts of the country. Some of them just have a couple of cows or may raise a steer or two just for their own families. Others have large, modern operations or have many hundreds of cows in their herds, supporting multiple generations of farm families. The men and women farming or ranching on a larger scale are just like me, only working in a different setting.  Since I’ve been to these places and know these people, I can honestly say that there is no

"Beauty" - negligent mother or practical realist?

“Beauty” – negligent mother or practical realist?

difference in the level of dedication or quality of care provided at either end of the spectrum. Regardless of size, it’s a 24/7 job requiring attention to detail, knowledge, and devotion. I might go as far as to say that the level of professionalism is even greater when the number is animals is increased. Those farmers face greater risks and have more on the line. Often there are people on the larger farms whose sole responsibility is the health and comfort of the animals. Wouldn’t it would make sense that the animals on the larger farms are just as well cared for as those on small operations, if not more?
Here’s an example of why it bothers me when people ask me if I abuse my animals: About 2 ½ weeks ago, one of my favorite cows (#89, known as “Beauty”) gave birth to twins, one male and the other female. She cleaned both of them up nicely but soon thereafter she decided to abandon the female calf. On occasion, cows that have twins will abandon the weaker or less robust of the two. The mother cow may feel that she can’t adequately protect both from predators, that she doesn’t have enough milk to raise two, or something may be physically wrong with the one she leaves behind. I’m not exactly sure what prompted her decision, but it is noticeable that the female calf has an irregular vulva. It’s nothing that will affect the calf’s quality of life, but it is still an abnormality. Within the species, many female

Sleeping in her calf hutch

Sleeping in her calf hutch

twins born with a male twin will have reproductive issues and are often sterile.

The female twin immediately became my responsibility when the cow walked away with her bull calf. I gave her some colostrum (a commercial version of the cow’s first milk containing the antibodies that the calf needs to survive) from a bottle, then ran out to the feed store to buy a bag of milk replacer (powdered milk that we reconstitute with warm water) for the calf. After that first feeding, for the next week and a half, the little heifer refused to drink from a bottle or pail, so we had to feed her two or three times a day using a feeding tube. This is a fairly difficult and time consuming process, having to thread the proper length of small flexible plastic tubing past the sharp teeth, down her throat and into her stomach all while she’s moving around. The esophagus is very close to the trachea leading to the lungs, so it’s imperative that the plastic tube goes down the right way. If we make a mistake and put liquid into the lungs, the calf will die immediately. After a couple of days of constant attention, the heifer was still weak, not thriving, and not responding to any of our attempts to get her going (such as adding electrolytes or probiotics to her milk), so we called in our veterinarian. Dr. Morrissey examined her, administered medication, and left some for us to give her three times a day. We spent several more days hovering and following the doctor’s orders. Finally, last Sunday she regained her ability to

Mid-day meal

Mid-day meal

suck and began to drink from a bottle. For a week now she’s been doing much better, drinking milk three times a day, drinking some water from a bucket, and nibbling on a tiny bit of grain. She’s filling out and her coat is shiny. She has her own space, a “calf hutch” outside near the barn where she can go to be safe and dry, but she can also go into the barnyard and out to the pasture to be with the other calves and cows whenever she wants to. It’s great to see her doing well, she recognizes me now as her food source and comes running when she sees me with the bottle.

I tell this story to bring up an example of care and concern that farmers show their animals every day.  When something goes wrong (and there are very few days without some kind of surprise) we know that there will be extra time involved, constant worry and concern, and often added expenses. Some may say that it’s only done in the interest of making a profit. It’s definitely not – in the case I just described the cost of the vet visit alone has removed any chance of profit from this animal. Why we do it is because we care.  If we didn’t like working with animals, we certainly wouldn’t be in this line of work.  In this case, I don’t know any farmer who would have done it differently – large scale or small.