Strip Grazing the Winter

Right now the girls (and boy) are on the alfalfa field. We graze the field in strips 20′ deep and maybe 40′ wide…but really that depends on how much forage is out there. Each day they get another 20′ added on until we run out of field. Then we start at the pond again and munch it all down. Here are the strips in the alfalfa field. The foreground shows the difference between where they have grazed and where they haven’t. I’m letting the cows crop it pretty close.

StripsThe cows were lounging and chewing cud when I arrived today but got up immediately when I moved the fence.

StripGrazing2The grazing is not their only source of nutrition. I split one square bale into two piles early each morning. Initially I was doing this because the alfalfa was still fresh in the field. I wanted the cows to have a bulk of dry matter before they could eat fresh alfalfa to prevent bloat. Now I do it just to stretch my field and put more manure down. I could put them in a feed lot and just feed them hay but I think they are better off with a bit of fresh greens daily. Besides, this way I don’t have to haul manure.


Speaking of manure, this is looking a little on the dry side:

LittleStiffBut this one is looking a little better. Note the one above looks a little crumbly and there is a depression in the one below.

JustAboutRightI don’t want it to pile. I want it to dip…but not drip. Their manure tells me if they are getting enough protein in their diet and tells me a fair amount about their overall condition. For the most part things are looking good. Anywho. That’s probably enough talk about cow manure.

Half of my farm is still standing stockpiled and waiting for the cows. Good thing too. Hopefully we’ll wrap up the alfalfa field by mid-December and begin on the real stockpile on the hill they haven’t grazed since July. That will clear disemmemberment hill for sledding later in the winter.

Heavy Metal Clutter Cutter

Oh, the iron on the farm. Tons of it. Literally. There’s a pile of metal here, a pile of metal there. A ditch full of metal in this place, little piles of scrap behind sheds, enough to fill a shed over there. Why do we have all of this? How many freezers and refrigerators and washing machines have been owned by my family since the ’50’s?

IronPileThis is really a question of resource allocation. I have a fair amount of wealth in the form of steel but this thinking could also apply to wealth in the form of oil. It is already wealth. Just sitting there. The scrap has value and is valued. But is it what I need? Do I need savings in the form of rust in the pasture? Would I make a better return if I converted that metal to cash then deployed that cash to buy productive assets  like additional cattle? Or sheep? Or fencing? Or a new pond dam?

The wealth contained in the various iron piles doesn’t have to be spent off-farm. We can just turn it into a more valuable resource here at home. And that is important. We can’t simply mine the wealth out of the farm so we can buy a newer, larger TV or a luxury car. That money needs to go into productive assets…that wealth needs to exist tomorrow….needs to be multiplied tomorrow. Trees that make more trees. Cows that make more cows. Clover seed that makes more fat cows.

And I think this can be applied closer to home. In the home. Heck with the farm. How much sCrap do I have laying around the house I can just get rid of? How many bad farming books I won’t read a second time? How much rotten science fiction? Lame leadership books? Completed Bible study workbooks? Do I need seven different Latin textbooks? What about our collections of …well…collectibles? What if we realized the value of those objects (great or small) or the value of the space they consume and, instead, deployed those resources on more productive assets? What if I got rid of enough junk that we could live in a smaller house?

Returning to the farm (or the garage) we can go further! Do I really need that tractor? What would I do without it? In your suburban yard, do you really need that riding lawn mower AND that treadmill? What if you sold both and got a push mower? Just sayin’.

Mom and dad just went through an exercise of throwing away 10 things each. Well, they started doing it. It would be much easier to just go to your neighbor’s house and throw away 10 things. No emotional attachment. Not a good idea but it would work really well. It’s always easy to spot junk when it belongs to other people.

Here’s to streamlining our needs and cleaning up 8 generations worth of trash accumulated in the ditches. Wish me luck.

Easy Autumn Farming, Chores in the Dark

There is a long stretch of the year when we can hardly catch our breath. The schedule is booked solid. Chicks arrive in mid-February. The garden starts to go in early in March. Before you know it we are planting a fall crop in the garden, cutting the last of the hay and watching the birds fly South. Every day is long and it seems like we are always behind. Then it is November and you realize you didn’t make an appointment for the hogs. Shoot.

In November the sun rises after I leave for work and goes down before I get home. That’s ok. The cows don’t ask for much from us. There are no chicks. The hay is in the barn. Pigs need very little. We still have a number of projects around the farm but it is time to catch our breath.

It’s hard to take a picture of the cows in the dark but tonight the sky cooperated very nicely. The moon had just risen.

NighttimeRight now the moon is rising when I’m doing chores at night and still up when I drive to work. It’s kind of nice.

In the distance I hear the constant sound of fans drying grain in bins. It’s like the sound of a car coming down the pavement at speed but constantly in the background. Once in a while I hear a chicken negotiating for more space on the roost. In the center of the picture are headlights from my neighbor’s tractor. He’s doing his fall plowing, even at night as we are expecting some weather in the next two days. The sound of the tractor is hardly noticeable. You have to stop and listen to the world around you.

The cows are at the South edge of the property and can drink from the pond. They congregate under a grove of maple trees near the edge of the pond at night. The grove seems to hold warmth and the pond moderates the temperature change. I would prefer that they sleep and manure uphill but…you know. Cows today. Can’t tell them anything.

So my evening consists of walking in the cold moonlight to check the cows for any signs of bloat and just to say “hello”. Then I check the pigs for food and water, put on my pajamas and park my tookus by the fire. Similarly, my morning is just a walk to the cows and a peek at the pigs. Julie checks water and collects eggs later in the day.

This farming thing is so much easier in the fall!

The Taming of the Crew

We got most of the shorthorns heifers in April. They wanted nothing to do with us.

Shorthorns2It was like they said, “Look, dude, we’re cows. Not pets. Just leave us alone.”

Then, in November…

ScratchingThePollSo what happened?

I’ll tell you specifically. I was scratching one of our dairy cows on the poll and 41 decided she wanted to see what that was all about. 41 has been curious all summer. Some of the cows keep a safe distance from me. Sometimes I can touch them on the rump. Once in a great while I can put a hand on their rumen. Here I am reaching out to 111 while she grazed in the barn lot a few days ago:


But 41 was different. 41 let me touch her nose. Twice. Yeah.

So today, with bellies full of pasture and the sun setting I guess things just lined up the right way. 41 decided she wanted a little of the attention Flora was getting. I picked some burrs out of her poll. She was a little wary but wanted more scratching at the same time.

I won’t win every cow. My chances are better if I can make a positive impression on a young calf but even then it’s not 100%. The key is to let the cow pick you…and to let the cow pick the time. One of our milking cows is only my friend at milking time. I need to stay 3 feet away at all other times. Both cows see Julie as another calf but I am just someone to be tolerated.

I have experienced similar things with dogs. Some dogs really like me. Some, when they first meet me, cower. I met one dog, I later found out completely dominated her owners, who found me to be a threat. There is some weird herd dynamic thing that I don’t fully understand and it certainly applies to cows. Horses too. There is some almost subliminal issue of dominance I am completely oblivious to. That is certainly felt in the cow herd.

I will never get around being a predator. I will always be a threat. My eyes face forward therefore I am a predator. The cows know this. I could raise a bottle calf in a stall away from the herd and develop a closer relationship with her but cows in the pasture will only let me in so close. Sometimes I can pick off the burrs.

Things change over time. I need to be consistent. Patient.

Why is this important? Because those cows are going to calve and when they do they need to see me as a friend, not a threat.

All About the Execution

In the comments section of our recent post on 5,000 cows a reader (Eumaeus) drew a response out of me that really should have been part of that post. 5,000 cows sounds like a huge number of animals but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the annual beef consumption of our local metropolitan area. You can do the math to estimate how many drops are needed to fill the bucket but I don’t feel like doing story problems today.

But that makes me want to explore an idea. An idea about ideas. Here’s the idea: you don’t need a great idea. You need a great amount of work.

The goal is to produce something. An idea is not a something. It’s an idea. Let’s face it, most ideas are no good. (I particularly like the patent for a device to help deliver babies by centrifugal force. Notice the baby-catching basked between the expectant mother’s legs. Where is the barf bag?)

I hate to quote myself quoting someone else but I’m feeling lazy today. So here I am talking about what someone else was talking about. (This very action kind of proves the point of this post anyway).

Bonner talks about the need to follow a well-worn path in business…doing something that others have already succeeded at.  We read and follow the examples of leaders in alternative ag.  He talks about how important it is that I not try to go it alone, that I work hard and take one bite at a time until I “find something that works before you run out of time, money and confidence” (p. 126).

There are many other works available on this same topic (Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration) and yet, here I am adding to the pile. In fact, I doubt if I have written anything on my blog that hasn’t been written elsewhere and said better. But here I am. Writing similar thoughts about old ideas with my own personal style and here you are reading it. Not that I’m terribly clever or novel. Just that I’m willing and able.

So if success is found in work, not in ideas, does it matter what you work on? Only a little. That’s good news! That means you can do what others have already done successfully. Are there already cleaning services in the world? Yes. Is that an old idea? Yes. Is there still demand for cleaning services? Yes? Good. Go find some houses to clean.

It’s the intersection of quality and price that matters in that market, not the web site you build. Not the clever name you come up with. It matters that you are able to meet a need. Results matter…especially when you are trailing far behind the pioneers (many of whom had great ideas and never found success).

Look, I know all about the path less traveled. It sounds nice. But it can be a lonely, dangerous place. Farmers are not gamblers…at least, not successful, multi-generational farmers. I’m looking to provide something of value to positively impact the world with minimal risk. Others have raised and retailed cattle before me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I don’t have a precise formula for success but enough ground has been mapped that I’m not lost in the wilderness. Before Frost could take the path less traveled he had to learn to walk. And don’t overlook the fact that Frost is walking on a path, not cutting a new path!

So now, rather than hope some crazy idea will work I can just grab on to something that we know has worked and work for effective execution. Instead of wondering if a project will work I can focus on making it work. It’s the difference between trying to make a bicycle out of rubber, steel and aluminum and deciding to make a bicycle out of bicycle parts. You dig? I’m much more likely to succeed if I take advantage of work already done by others.

There are still new frontiers to explore in alternative agriculture. No doubt. But there are already well-worn (even if lightly grassy) paths that will help you meet  immediate needs. People like maple syrup. People like to cook with farm-fresh eggs. Land still benefits from the application or composted manures. Nothing earth shattering in that. Then, once you establish a beachhead, you can begin to dabble with the unknown. Or encourage the next generation (those bullet-proof, immortal youngsters) to take a calculated risk. But somebody has to pay the dues. And that falls to you. That falls to me.

Like any other business, successful farming has little to do with dreaming up some unique new idea you can call your own. It has everything to do with putting in the work every stinking day even when you don’t feel like it. Not paying yourself for years as you build the business. Going to bed late, getting up early. Showing up late for dinner so you can get that one project behind you. Keeping your day job while your business gets established. Using vacation time to work for yourself! It’s easy to find things to do with your time. It’s the execution that will kill you.

Don’t worry about the idea. Worry about the work.

Why Did You Get Out of Bed This Morning?

“Why did you get out of bed this morning?”

I love that question. I love to ask that question to children. We had dinner with some friends a few years ago. One of their daughters was seated to my right. I started right in.

Now, most of you don’t really know me. You have never met me. Allow me to describe myself in two words.

1. Obnoxious.
2. Loud.

Oh! the stupid things I say to people. Why can’t I just shut up?

So I asked this child, “Why did you get out of bed today?”

“Um…because…my…parents…told me to?”

“Ooh! That’s the wrong answer. Try again.”

(several lame attempts later…)

“Well, Mr. Jordan…what is it you want me to say?”

I’m glad you asked.

Julie and I went through a rough spot (understatement) 9 years ago. Obviously we worked it out but along the way we saw a marriage counselor. She complained to the nice man one session, “It’s like there’s a spring in my husband that winds up while he sleeps. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning it’s like ‘BOING’ and he pops out of bed at a run. That’s not normal!”

Oh, yes it is. I only sleep because I have to. Sleep is necessary but interrupts me from fulfilling my purpose. And I know what my purpose is…and I’m excited about it. This morning I built a fire in the wood stove, put away laundry, walked to the cows in the dark (1/4 mile across the pasture), built fence, carried and fed hay, walked home, split and loaded wood to take to a friend, got dressed, packed up today’s deliveries and was out the door by 6:45. No dishes to wash this morning!

Then when I got home I raced to the cows again to fill water, open new pasture and prepare fencing for tomorrow. Home again, home again I fed the pigs. I scramble to fit the farm into my day because I see the farm as a part of our future….a part that increases as the future arrives. In order to prepare for the future’s arrival I have to work now. So most mornings (not every morning) I jump up and get started.

I know what I need to do. I’m happy to do it.

How did I find my purpose? There was a lot of wasted time but it helped when I started paying attention in church.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Jeremiah 29:11

That’s not the only reference but it is the one I carry with me. I was made by God. I was made by God to do something. I have something to do that is worth doing…so much so that God made me so it would get done. And He’s going to help me get it done. There’s no way I can stay in bed in the morning!

Maybe some people are born knowing their purpose. I wasn’t. There were some years attempting to find and discover my purpose. Time spent reading broadly, thinking, talking with Julie. Initially racing from one subject to the next finding things that stuck. Slowly discovering things I could do and could do well. Things that just felt natural…felt right. Look, I know emotions are poor counselors but work with me here. Julie and I looked at and pursued a whole lot of different things. A whole lot. Investing, remodeling houses, opening a Crossfit gym, woodworking, auto mechanics, learning ancient Greek, cooking…but somehow, everything we did came back to the land. We discovered our purpose right in our own back yard.

And don’t misunderstand me. I am still being made. My purpose does not come naturally to me. It is not easy. I spend the majority of my otherwise free time reading, thinking and studying how to do it better…and have for more than 10 years now. Huge amounts of time are wasted wondering if I screwed something up…if my cows are skinny, if my chickens are healthy. I found my purpose…but the making of me will continue for another 60 years or so.

And as the making continues, the purpose may change.

Once we found our purpose we could work to bring the future into focus. Once we could see it, we could start heading that direction. Now, Columbus didn’t get where he wanted to go on the first trip. We may not either. But most of his trip was just the getting there, not the arrival.

I jump out of bed in the morning because I know where I am going and I know what needs to be done to get there. Will I ever “arrive”?

Do you know where you are going? Do you know what it will take to get there?

Why did you get out of bed this morning?

If you are happy with that answer you will still feel warm when you are out building fence on a cold, windy night. And there are a lot of cold, windy nights in farming.

Envisioning 5,000 Cows

My recent post about our vision has sparked some interesting discussions with friends and family. Among them is just the pure logistics involved in managing a herd of that size. It has been a fun discussion but we have come up with few answers. Just guesses. Estimations. You should play the exciting copy of our home game! All the fun of farming in the comfort of your dining room…no manure required!

Let’s say we have 5,000 cows. Wouldn’t that be nice? We would need between 250 and 400 bulls to keep things moving but we would only need those bulls for 2 months. I guess the rest of the year they are being pastured off-site. Or maybe we keep the bulls in with the cows over the winter and separate them at spring greenup, selling pregnant cows that don’t calve by a certain date. Maybe we AI a selected group of cows and heifers but the bulls are still out there for cleanup.


5,000 cows would require 5,000-ish acres where we live. Nearly 1,700 acres would be stockpiled in rotation each year. Each day I would open up a 20-50 acre pasture for grazing, even if a little at a time to increase herd pressure and movement. There would be no housing. No shelter. If the soil gets wet we’ll just have to move them faster and deal with the pugging.

Each summer we would cull 10% of our cows because they were open or bred late in the season. That would leave us with 4,500 calves. Now we have 2,250 steers to fatten over two years and 2,250 heifers to raise for two years. Let’s go back to the steers. We would have 2,250 bull calves to castrate. That sounds like a long day of working cattle. And it’s a mere 24 semi-loads of calves if we sell the calves or raise them on another farm.

And we might want to raise the heifers on another farm. Or raise them on another farm with the steers. Good heavens! Another farm! Maybe we should back off on our cow numbers and raise everything together in one mob. But for sake of discussion, stick with me on the idea of 5,000 cows.

All of that indicates I need to reserve a portion of my 5,000 acre cow/calf land for handling facilities.

Back to the heifers. I need to reserve 500 heifers as replacements each year as well as…what? 50? bull calves? So that lowers my sale numbers…except those are replacements. I’ll have 50 bulls to sell, most of which would still be viable bulls, just not as good as the replacements I raised. Oh, sure, some will be lame, injured or sterile but over time I should be selecting increasingly hardy animals. So. 5,000 cows. 5,000 calves. 500 heifers. 50 bull calves. That’s a lot of beef.

I know a lot of operations work at this scale but the numbers involved are far beyond my own comprehension. When we talk I can see the wheels turning in dad’s mind. 5,000 cows. What would it look like? It’s fun to talk about but I want to see it. I mean, if this is a mere 1,000 cows…

Now, let’s really have some fun with this. Jim Elizondo says you should have equal weights of sheep and cows…meaning 4-6 sheep per cow. So that would back us off to 2,500 cows and include 10,000+ hair sheep (cause we ain’t shearing!). Good golly the fencing we would need for that! And the dogs!

Then we want to clean up after the cows with a flock of birds. A flock of birds that can cover 20-50 acres. What is that? 10,000 chickens? 20,000 chickens? How much feed would I go through each day? How would I deliver it? How would I sell that many eggs? Could I even get a license to keep that many birds? Who is going to collect all those eggs?!?!?

gathering eggs

I have no idea.

I also can’t tell you what I would do with 20,000 -40,000 lambs each year. And I can’t tell you how I would sell that many cows.

Those are problems we would have to grow into. Thank goodness I can’t just go out and buy the land and livestock tomorrow. It is too big of a problem for me to solve at once. This is a problem for generations of us to solve together over the span of several decades.

Cattle Mineralization, Nutrition and Human Weight Loss

Yes. Human weight loss. I’m going to write a post about feeding cattle and how I feel that is analogous to human weight loss. How’s that for ambition? I think there is enough here to chew on for a bit without going too deep on the topic.

Here goes.

We recently bought the Hayless Wintering in Florida DVD set by Jim Elizondo. You may think $119 is a bit high for a movie but if you feed 25 fewer small square bales of grass hay the first year you have broken even. You may also think that since he’s in Florida and you’re not he has nothing to offer you. You would be wrong. Anyway, in that DVD Jim says cattle can overeat by 40% trying to get enough of a specific mineral they are lacking. I want to spend some time on that idea.

Cattle know what they need. It is not uncommon for cattle to select a specific mineral they want from an array and just pick the ones they need and in the quantity required. That’s the whole concept behind the Free Choice Minerals programs and you can see it at work in one of our favorite youtube videos about milking cows (skip to 7:45):

But let’s say minerals are in short supply. What’s a cow to do? Well, this grass over here has a small amount of X in it so I’ll just eat more of it. As much as 40% more than the cow needs to maintain condition. Jim says he has seen cattle with scars on their sides from overfilling the rumen and tearing the skin. Those cows were seeking better mineralization.

If the cow had sufficient nutrition it wouldn’t be eating that extra feed. Another cow would. You with me on this? If this is true, you could have 40% more animals on the same forage and land if the cattle were getting proper minerals. In fact, FCE says the cow can overeat by 50%!

Read that again! That’s money in your pocket!

Jim goes into detail on working with the existing pasture to improve nutrition and mineralization over time. He says he offers a source of protein supplement when feeding lignified pasture (dead, brown, old grass) to cattle…usually flax seed meal as bean meal is almost all GMO. That may go against the grazing ideal we all have in our minds but when seeking to improve pasture health (the real goal) you have to enable the cattle to thrive. The added protein helps the rumen to digest low-protein, dried grasses. Play with the cards you are dealt. Supplement carefully where needed to maintain nutrition levels over time, making the best use of what is available. This applies to our meal planning at home…working with what we have in terms of ingredients and in terms of budget.

So what does this have to do with human weight loss? Well, maybe nothing. But maybe everything.

Click image for source.

If cattle can overeat to make up for a lack of nutrients can we do the same? Do we do the same…even without realizing it? Would you suggest the average American is thin and eats food that in nutritionally dense in small quantities or would you say we, as Americans are overweight, eating nutritionally poor food in large quantities? Is it possible that we are consuming some portion of those calories, not simply because we crave fat, salt and sweet, but because our body is telling us we need something that we aren’t getting elsewhere. So we eat more. And the extras that come packaged with that whatever we are looking for don’t simply pass through as unnecessary excesses. Some of them deposit themselves in, around and under us.

This came to mind in a conversation with my lovely bride who, without any real effort, is losing weight. Now, maybe our data is off and she has a tapeworm or a tumor causing weight loss but assume with me that she is as healthy or more than the average 30-something woman with four children. What has changed?

For the last year Julie has been taking a very high-quality vitamin supplement (the FDA says I can’t tell you the name cause speech isn’t free). I noticed her jeans were getting baggy and we started paying more attention to what was going on. She says she needs to eat less at a meal to feel satisfied. Otherwise, she is limiting (not eliminating) wheat. We cook with bacon grease. There are still cookies or brownies in the house from time to time. We still drink wine and hard cider and the occasional soda. But mostly she eats high-quality foods we grow or purchase, drinks water or coffee and takes her vitamins. For exercise she walks to the cows and chickens and picks up at least one feed bag every day of the week. All of that has been essentially the same for the last 4 years. The switch from a multi-vitamin to (no free speech) was the only real change.

Maybe I’m mistaken but it appears to me that paying attention to nutrition and mineralization can not only increase our livestock health and carrying capacity, it also puts my already thin wife into even smaller jeans and makes better use of our food budget.

For the sake of disclosure, I am switching to FCE’s mineral program right now but I stand to make nothing by mentioning their product nor by linking to a scale manufacturer. My wife does sell the vitamins she takes and would be happy to sell them to you. But I wrote this post out of a sense of amazement, not seeking sales.

The Hardest Part is Thinking

Riding a bicycle is easy once you overcome the learning stage. Same with writing a blog. There is nothing to it. It’s not even hard to find something to write about. After a little practice you can put pen to paper with the best of them. Now, I do make a distinction between writing documentation and exposing vulnerability and creativity but, for the purposes of this discussion, the simple act of putting words on a page is a matter of determination and practice. To make it better, do a little reading and increase your vocabulary. Then, not only can you write, you can write big, impressive words. Put enough big, impressive words together in a string and you might be invited to teach at a university or write a speech for a politician!

That stuff is easy. The hard part is thinking. It appears to me that political speech writers don’t do much thinking. Heck, anybody can write without thinking. Just look at my blog! But it is the thinking that gets us where we want to go.

Click image for source

Today I’m working to wrap up my little series on our home school philosophy. As with everything on the blog, this is more “how-we” than “how-to”. I could be totally wrong about what I’m doing….and so what if I am? My children will be negatively impacted…as will my own future as my children are my future. If you read this baloney and take it as gospel, well…you’re on your own. I offer no warranty. Does anything work? Does anything have meaning? Is there a RIGHT way to do anything? Yes. Certainly. But where the rubber meets the road the only thing I have is Faith. And faith, according to the Bible, is itself evidence of the existence of God. Outside of that? We build on success and learn from the mistakes of the past. That requires thinking. Really, you’re on your own here.

With that in mind, the ultimate lesson for my home schooled children is this: nobody has all the answers. In fact, it is quite possible that nobody knows anything, least of all me. If you want to really know something you have to do more than read about it, write about it and listen to stories about it. As focused as we are on experiencing things, experience isn’t enough. You have to think. You can’t outsource thinking. It is something you have to do on your own. You can leverage your reading and experience to help you think more fully on a subject but you are unlikely to find any real answers from books. Just more possibilities……more opinions…more problems. There is no 10-step program for all the answers the the problems the world can present you with. You just have to think (and pray) your way through each obstacle.

This is certainly true on the farm. How much fence should I build today? I dunno. Build enough fence that the cows get plenty to eat and they put enough pressure to push nutrients and seeds into the soil….but not too much…and not too little. And it changes by season. And by year. And by weather pattern. And by solar aspect. And by slope. And by forage species. And by fertility. The saying goes, “They eye of the master fattens the calf” but, obviously, it’s the master’s ability to think more than his ability to see that makes the difference. How many chickens will we sell this coming year? How many layers? How many hogs? What breed of hogs? On and on…questions with no right answers. We just think our way through and do the best we can.

To help along the way, we study from others who have asked these questions before us. “The Classics” are classics because they are still relevant. We read them, in part, because people still read them. The unending flood of published books shows that writing is easier than thinking but books that endure through time are those that encourage the reader to think…to consider…to change…to grow. Why does Homer beg the muse to sing of the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles? Because he brought COUNTLESS ills upon the Achaeans! And for what? Because he couldn’t keep a girl he stole while fighting a war he didn’t want to fight. There are still elements of that story we can relate to and learn from…things we can think about today…things that may impact us tomorrow. That said, if history tells us anything it is that nobody learns from history…because we just read for entertainment. We don’t think. Go ahead. Ask the muse to sing of the desire of Victoria’s grandson Freddy to support his empire by building a navy and brought countless ills upon the Europeans. I know that’s not quite right…but it’s as close to a real reason for WWI as I have ever seen.

Click image for source

As with other subjects, I spend a lot of time reading the classics of agriculture (from John Taylor of Caroline and Miss Coulton to Allan Savory and Joel Salatin) and study what others have done. I try ideas out. I think on the results. I make a revised plan and try it again. Each year I work to improve, never finding THE ANSWER. There is no one answer to farming but I know your answers will be better than mine. Your kids will build on the knowledge you share and will do better still. We build on the work of the past…never really arriving, always moving along. There is no farming destination…just a forked path. The journey is the destination…and a thoughtless journey is a miserable place to be.

Keep this in mind as you raise your own children. Give them time to think…to question…to wonder. So many kids are so busy with school and homework that they aren’t allowed to think. Go back and read that again. Then they spend the evening with scouts or karate or just in front of the TV. Just let your kids get bored. Boredom is a problem kids can solve on their own…sometimes with disastrous consequences. But, like I said earlier, I offer no guarantees. Maybe the best thing for kids is just to keep them busy and out of trouble. But I fear for a society that discovers the convenience of this as they will soon apply the same philosophy to the adult population.

Whatever path you choose, I can’t tell you which way to go. I strongly suggest you read, study and discuss things with others. Rely on young minds for crazy new ideas. Rely on experienced minds for stability. But at the end of the day, the most important work you can do is to think. And it is hard work. That is why so few attempt it.

Getting Out Of The Way

I wrote about our home schooling philosophy a bit last week here, here and here. I want to wrap it up today. Well, mostly. I have a few other thoughts for extra-credit that I may publish soon.

The most important thing is the most important thing. Right? So what is it? What is the most important thing we can do in preparing the next generation?

Get out of the way.

driving the tractor

Look how easy it is.

But it’s not that easy. Getting out of the way means releasing control. Shutting your mouth. Allowing mistakes to happen. Being supportive but not controlling. Drying a lot of tears when mistakes happen. And mistakes will happen along the way to success.

Let’s look at two possible futures together. The base assumptions are that I have a herd of cattle generating a positive cash flow for the farm and a child who is interested in taking over.

kids planting

Child (boy or girl): “Dad, I’m anxious to find my place on the farm. The part that interests me most are the cattle. In fact, I have a few ideas in mind that could really push the ecology, the genetics and the profit margins forward. Is there room for me to explore these ideas?”

There are two paths before me. I could get out of the way or I could be an obstruction to my child’s progress. Let’s be an obstruction:

Me: “You know, I’m glad you want to find a place on the farm. Your mother and I have prayed for a long time that we would be able to make room for you here BUT…I have spent X years building that herd! We are finally to a point where I can say our shorthorns are relatively uniform and well-adapted to our environment. My gosh! those cows cost us a fortune! And you want to just step in after all the work I’ve done and expect me to start some new business to support myself? Further, you are going to change what I have worked all these years for in favor of your crazy new ideas?”

chickens are cool

Obviously we want our kids to make their home near to us…here on the farm if possible. That’s going to require some planning between all of us and a measure of sacrifice. I’m going to have to release control, reserve judgement and allow things to go new directions. If I won’t do that…well, why would my kids stick around? And why would they want to buy me out and argue with me about control of the farm when it would be simpler and less emotional to just go buy a farm of their own?

So I have to get out of the way. I have to plan for this and plant the seeds now. At some point, sooner than I would like, my children and I will have this conversation. They will be ready to manage the farm, turning to me for advice but making decisions on their own. I’ll be the janitor.

To wrap up the home school theme of this series, the same thing has to happen with our children’s education. At some point, sooner than I would like, the kids will direct their own learning. We work through several phases of learning with our children. At first we work to show them love and give them a frame of reference for the world they are discovering. Simple concepts, lots of time: You are loved. There is right and wrong. There is truth. You were created and were created for a purpose. Work is valued as is your contribution. The world is an interesting place. While teaching these things we spend large quantities of time playing games, reading aloud and exploring the world together. This progresses through learning a broad array of information and skills largely at the student’s pace…everything from algebra to housework to positive interactions with others until they are fully-trained young adults. Around ages 13-15 we let go of the reins and allow each student to sort of major in a topic. Note the part about letting go of the reins. Our 13 or 14 year old child has a strong foundation of education and necessary life skills and is able to pursue their educational passions. We let go early so college, if attended, won’t be an overwhelming experience…away from home, away from loving guidance. They learn to do it on their own…to discover their own passions. Then, if they choose to go to college, they will have both direction and independence…purpose.

picking berries

Like the cow thing, the time is coming when I will have to stand aside on education. I’m still around, I’m still able to advise but the direction is chosen by the student. I just have to get out of the way…standing back to watch them stretch their wings…however hard it is for me to do that.