There was Supposed to Be a Waterfall

Let me start at the end. We found a waterfall.


Now that you know how the story ends let me tell you how the story begins.

The innkeeper told us it was the first July he could remember that the waterfalls were running and we should make it a point to see them…assuming we were outdoors-types. He found my blog somehow and knew we were.

We decided to start at the waterfall marked on our map furthest from our hotel. Clever, eh? We drove to Burden Falls. There is a small parking lot at the trail head. Ours was the only car. The trail looked nice enough. We were at the top of a hill. Julie and I started on our way. Much of the trail was under dense canopy of a forest that appears to have been planted 30 years (or so) ago.Trail1

The path was nearly covered in places by thick growths of poison ivy and, clever young man that I am, I was wearing shorts.


But we soldiered on through. How far could it be? We followed the trail through the tall trees.


The trail went down and down the hill. Poison ivy everywhere. The path blocked by innumerable spider webs. Julie cut a hickory branch and I used it to knock down webs in our path but eventually the branch became a waving mass of webs and unhappy spiders. The trail worsened. The spiders worsened. And horseflies. Did I mention the horseflies? Oh, there were horseflies. You can be sure of that.


Our only comfort was the few smashed plants in the path, evidence that someone had traveled this path before us, even if days ago. So we continued.


The path just kept on going. No sounds of water falling. No sounds of anything, really. Just more steps to take.


15 minutes. 30 minutes. Should we turn back? Surely we are almost there. Look! A grove of tulip trees!


The path worsened. Still, someone had been here. We continued.


The path worsened again.


The path continued to worsen.


At this point the trail was mixed with a trickle of water rolling down the hill. Not a waterfall. And then the trail became little more than a deer path.


I suggested that it was a joke. They must tell us carpetbaggers to follow the trail to the waterfall. Or maybe it’s a contest. “How dumb are you?” Hidden cameras along the trail as unwitting contestants show how willing they are to overcome poison ivy, fallen trees and dense spider webs to follow a trail to nowhere. Or to big rocks by a stream at the bottom of the hill.


And that’s where the trail ended. Or maybe we missed a turnoff uphill. I don’t know.


There was nothing else to do. An hour into the depths of Southern Hillinois we were unable to continue.


No waterfall.

We spent another hour trudging back up the hill, Julie’s feet wet and blistered. She even found a deer tick on her jeans. The trip uphill took seemingly forever. Was this the way we came? Had we found another path? The way down we chatted. We enjoyed ourselves. We fought off the spiders bravely. On the way back we were quiet.

A minivan full of carpetbaggers pulled up just as we emerged from the trail. They were pleased to see us but looked disappointed when we told them about the poison ivy, spiders, rough trail and complete and total lack of waterfalls.

They were looking at their maps as we left. We drove back the way we came. A mile back down the road we had crossed water in the road. There was a parking lot, a car and the sound of falling water. Not 10 feet from the road was the waterfall pictured at the top of the post and nothing to mark its presence.

Our adventures did not end there. We continued to explore Shawnee National Forest. There will be other stories for another day. I’ll end this by admitting that we noticed, as we were driving away, we could smell ourselves. Ugh.

The Getaway

Cows are in the barn these days. The pasture is a little behind and I want to give it a moment to rest. The summer sun is unbearably hot so we are grazing the cows on open, flat ground during the night then returning them to the barn in the morning. That way they are still getting fresh greens but they are also protected and have easy access to fresh water. Finally, it makes pinkeye treatment a snap. Salt and kelp are in the feed trough and we can easily spray the infected eyes without fear of a multi-acre rodeo. It is costing us a little hay right now but I think it is worth it.

All that to say, chores are pretty easy these days. So Julie and I kissed the kids goodbye for a short anniversary getaway.

Did you know we live next to my parents and near to hers? Yup.

Julie and I are currently (as I write on July 4) in Anna, IL at the Davie School Inn. We have a big classroom all to ourselves. King-sized bed, couch, giant bubbly bathtub and even a kitchenette with real dishes!

I brought a stack of books. Julie brought her notebook and a book she has been reading about writing: Jump Start: How to Write From Everyday Life.

One of the exercises is to write about what is around you in detail. We had dinner tonight at the Rustle Hill Winery. Julie had a glass of sweet chambourcin as we sat overlooking the water.


Julie wrote the following while we enjoyed our dinner:

The sky is overcast but I can still feel the sun coming through the clouds. The chairs are of black iron – yours was broken in the seat. You exchanged it for one at the next table, fearing it would snag your jeans.

There is a small group of people on the balcony chatting and laughing. I can hear frogs creaking – sounds like rocks being struck together, crickets, a few birds chirping, light jazz music in the background and far away a soft thunder boom – must be fireworks.

There is a brick patio under my feet, a small decorative pond next to us, a larger pond down the hill. The hill is neatly mowed with a few trees sloping down to the pond below. I can see the rows of grape vines on the top of the next hill.


The restaurant is empty except for the group upstairs. I wonder if it is the family who runs the vineyard or the employees.

They had events here Saturday and Sunday – the restaurant has a laid-back feel. I wonder if they are all exhaling after a very busy weekend.


Even the menus looked tired with a “N/A” sticker covering many of the selections. I don’t mean tired in a run-down kind of description, but more of an exhaling, like a well-deserved rest.

That is somewhat edited from what she wrote in her journal but that’s it. She misspelled some words, crossed through others but that doesn’t matter. What do you think? Can you see it? Were you there with us? Did she succeed in taking you to Rustle Hill Winery on July 4th at 5pm? Can you taste the sweet glass of chambourcin? Could you hear acris crepitans chirping next to us?


Maybe. Maybe not. But Julie is trying. And if you want to learn to write you have to write…and you have to write every day.

One of my initial goals with the blog was to write daily and I succeeded for a long, long time. I began by imitating the style of writers I enjoyed. Now I seem to have found my own rhythm.

But I think it is time for me to grow again. It is time for me to be challenged further. It is time to improve as a writer. (and the people said, “Amen”.)

It is a little bit like work.But the act of writing is itself an escape…one that does not require willing grandparents or long trips in the car.

What did you write today? What is holding you back?

19 Years of Freedom

Jean Valjean paid 19 years of his life for stealing a loaf of bread. 19 years in the prison and in the galley. A slave. He emerged a bitter, angry man in an unsympathetic, unforgiving world. It wasn’t until he stole from a priest that Jean Valjean experienced love. His life was forever changed.

Julie married me but did not enslave me. Quite the opposite. Julie gave me love and acceptance and forgiveness. Julie filled an emptiness…satisfied a need. I married Julie and my life was forever changed.

It is counter to our culture for me to equate my marriage with freedom. We typically refer to our mates in disparaging terms and to continue with the prison example we may refer to a spouse as “the old ball and chain.” In our media husbands are presented as dopey, wives as narcissistic. Why did that self-obsessed woman marry that idiot?

I joke sometimes that Julie married me because I am intelligent enough to get a good job and dumb enough to go to it every day.

But that is not fair to either of us.


I was twenty when we were married. Looking back 19 years I can’t define what, specifically, I was looking for in a spouse. We dated for years. It was pretty casual. She was intelligent, pretty and shared similar values and family culture. But that describes other girls too.

Could I have married any of those other theoretical women? Maybe. But Julie and I selected each other. I can’t tell you why. But I would suggest to you that I would not be “me” if I had married anyone else.

I can also tell you it has been wonderful.

My reference to Les Miserables is finished. There really is no further comparison. No person from my past hunting me down to reveal my true identity. Julie knows everything about me.

There is no effort to fulfill a vow, protect the innocent and sacrifice myself for the sake of others. Oh. Well. There is that, isn’t there.


I vowed to love, honor and cherish her. Richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Forsaking all others.

Honor is an interesting word…as in, “Honor your father and mother that you may live a long, full life…”

Respect is earned. I respect my chainsaw. It can kill me. Julie can kill me too but that’s no basis for a relationship.

I honor my wife. Not because of what she did but because of who she is. She is my wife.

But what does “Honor” mean?

It means I hold her up. It means she is special to me. It means I take time in my day to tell her how important she is to me and how lost I would be without her. Her. Specifically her. It means I am patient. It means I listen. It means I consider her needs, her wants, her dreams. It means I take time to find out all I can about her…who she is…today.

The woman I am married to today is not the girl I married 19 years ago.

But I am not the same either. And we have suffered through things I never imagined we would go through.


I am more free now than I was when we were kids. I am loved now in a way I was not loved then. I am able to love in a way I was unable to love then.

Julie has been married to me for fully half of her life. That’s kind of a big deal.

And it’s the kind of a big deal I don’t take for granted.

I love you Julie.

The #1 Reason We Farm


I can respond to the title in one sentence but that’s not what we do here. I have to use 1,000 words. Bear with me, please. You know I like to talk.

Last year I kept a reading journal on the blog. My reading journal continues, I just don’t share it with you. I wrote out a list of books I wanted to read/re-read on January 1. Here is the list:

Do you know what I did with that list? I read some, I put others aside for another time. I appended to the list. Good Profit and Superforecasting seemed, at the time, to be impactful but I would have a hard time telling you what they were about without flipping through the pages again. Landscapes & Cycles was preaching to the saved and I set it aside. Lean Farm and I couldn’t seem to meet up. High Output Management continues to challenge me. Louder and Funner was quietly hilarious and somewhat accusational. I have read enough of Wodehouse that when I re-read Malabar farm I heard the narrative in the voice of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, bragging that he was asked to speak at the meeting but had declined because he was too busy with the farm, old horse.

So what happened to MacBeth or Republic? Were those failures?

Maybe. Kinda. But mostly I think I got the idea of the first 100 pages of Republic then decided that now was not the right time. And that is true of a good number of books I run into. Today’s Chris Jordan doesn’t need that book. Tomorrow’s might though. I have never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Look, I know. I get it. But they don’t seem to scratch an itch.

Is this failure? Maybe. But not the kind of failure we are looking for.

BTW, my current active stack (piled to my right) includes:

The book Turn the Page discusses the importance of reading several books at once and finding connections between them, discovering ways reading one book impacts your thoughts of another. How will Algorithms to Live By impact Tale of Two Cities? I dunno. It may not.

But Turn the Page also talks about the importance of sampling many books and setting the majority of them aside. Also, the author of Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

Chris Jordan thinks the author of the book Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

If you read the book you’ll understand that joke. There are some good things in the book but you have to get past the writing style.

So what is this all about, Chris? Why are you sharing this with the world? Why are you, who just finished bragging about how humble you are and what a complete flop you are as a farmer, now list out the books you haven’t read? What is the point?


If I were to ask you, “What do we grow on our farm?” you might answer, “Well, Chris, you seem to have cattle and chickens. Sometimes pigs. There are bees out there somewhere but you don’t talk about that much. I guess you grow hay. Your dad has horses. So…is that what you want? Or are you looking for a more clever answer like, “money”. That’s the answer Henry Galt gave the judge when asked what he farms.”

You are not technically wrong. We grow grass. There are cows. Those things are here. And, yes, we pay a little tax on a very little income each year. But that’s not what we do here.

We grow people.

Our farm is a ministry more than anything. It’s about people.

And not just the six of us.

Jesus boiled life down to two simple tasks:

  1. Love God
  2. Serve People

Cows are a fun extra.

I can’t make you grow. I can’t make you read my blog. But the hope is that you, reader, will happen across my blog and I will grab your attention long enough to plant a seed. I tell you about the things I wrestle with. I tell you what I am reading and thinking and enjoying and experiencing. I ask you to celebrate when our marriage survives another year. I ask you to cry with me about our daughter’s illness. I ask you to share my burden when I lose a calf through ignorance or inaction. I embrace you as a part of my extended family. I want to hear about your struggles. I want to read what you are reading.


So I lead by example. I write about the things that make the farmer. ..the things that make the marriage. …the things that make the family. …the things that add meaning to our lives.

We home school our children but we don’t do school at home. There are no classrooms, no desks, no ringing bells. No schedule. We read. They read. We discuss. They participate. We sell farm products. They stand beside us at every step.

watering the cattle

I write about my reading list in the same way. I think this is how I can serve you. I scatter seeds. Life is not easy, on the farm or in town. My days are long. I get tired. Julie gets tired. We work through difficulties together. We read books together. We walk through life together. My post about humility and failure was not seeking sympathy from my small group of readers/friends. I was sharing. This stuff is hard. Someone recently told me that I make everything look easy. I am, indeed, very blessed. But it is not easy. I meant that post to be an encouragement to the reader. This stuff is not easy. But I continue to plug away, trying, failing, trying again. Failure, we learned in church this weekend, builds faith.

I am a man of faith. And I do this to serve you.

I write to bless you. I hope you write back.

Chris Jordan hopes you will write back.


Modest Enough Not to Know

If you were uncertain what the message of the blog is I want to be clear:

I. Don’t. Know.

I have no idea.

I am totally, entirely, utterly clueless.

I read books. I make notes. I actually do stuff in vivo. I make more notes. I talk to other farmers. I make more notes.

But it’s hard to make a plan from those notes. I can’t copy from Steve or Matron or Salatin. They are not me.

The formula seems so simple:

  1. Do stuff
  2. Stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.

But what does that really mean?

I’ll tell you what it means. I really do know the answer to this one.

It means humility.

It means you are going to stand on top of a mountain (or a blog) and shout to the world that farming is awesome! That you, along with your trusted companion, are going to solve problems both economical and ecological by harnessing sunlight and rain to make fat cows. And, shortly afterward, find out that it takes maybe a little longer than you had initially imagined. …that things don’t play out like they do in your head. …that well pumps break. …that one of those heifers you bought is a freemartin and two just won’t breed, that pinkeye runs through the herd like wildfire, that a heifer dies quickly and unexpectedly, that you cut hay then the forecast changed to 5 days of heavy rain. It means watching the escaped cows run down the road in the rain storm and feeling tired. Old. Foolish.


It means learning how much can go wrong, how quickly it can happen and how miserable it feels.

Remember that house we used to own? The one with three bathrooms? What I wouldn’t give for an extra bathroom. I didn’t know we would need an extra bathroom with three teenagers in our house.

Remember when it rained in the kitchen? I didn’t know raccoons would try to dig through the roof to get into the house. Heck, I didn’t know we had a legion of raccoons living in the shed.

Remember that morning we found 30 dead birds in the chicken house? I didn’t know we had minks here.

Remember that time the water source leaked and 300 chicks caught pneumonia, dressed out without any fat on their bones and the meat was so tough we lost a bunch of customers? I remember that too. Totally clueless.

Remember trying to pluck ducks? Great idea. Poor execution.

You would think I would have learned a little about humility by now. And maybe I have. It is clear that I don’t have any answers at this point. But my inquisitiveness still hasn’t been beaten out of me.

I had a boss once on a roofing job. He told me not to ask him “Why” questions.

But I really want to know WHY!

For example, Why can’t I make money with hogs? Is it me? Is it feed costs? Is it worth keeping pigs anyway? What is the value of the manure? What is the value of customer exposure? What is the value of the experience for me? …for the kids?

I have a few ideas about how to answer those questions and some of my answers depend on my mood. But if you pin me down and demand an answer I have to cry out:

I don’t know!

But I want to know. And I am looking for answers.

In spite of the lack of posts recently, I continue working to clearly define my ignorance…but maybe more quietly. Reading the book Algorithms to Live By over lunch recently I found something that explains why I have the cows that I have. The authors are discussing a mathematical solution to a theoretical problem: how to hire the best secretary you can when you have a number of them to interview and you only get one shot at each.

The math shows that when there are a lot of applicants left in the pool, you should pass up even a very good applicant in the hopes of finding someone still better than that – but as your options dwindle, you should be prepared to hire anyone who’s simply better than average. It’s a familiar, if not exactly inspiring, message: in the face of slim pickings, lower your standards.

Well? Mission accomplished. The difference here is I expect my cows to breed so I can hire their daughters (cows, not secretaries) and each subsequent generation that I don’t eat will grow slowly closer to my ideal. Slowly. Slowly. How slowly? I don’t know. I think it’s going to take a while. Maybe never. Maybe I hired the wrong group entirely. That takes us into limitations of time, the whole point of the book. But this isn’t a book review post and I don’t know when I’ll have time to write one. The point is, wrong cows. Wrong, wrong cows. Or wrong farmer. Whatever.

Having written 900 words describing my ignorance I don’t want to leave you without hope that I, Chris Jordan, might someday overcome my limitation. I’ll leave you with what I do know. I know that I do not know. 39 years of ignorance has come at a high cost but I can’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. So I keep plugging away. Scratching my way forward by reading, listening, studying and reflecting but also by getting out there every day to keep learning what doesn’t work. Thanking God that I have a job in town.

The month of June thoroughly kicked my behind. Today is July 1. I don’t have the courage to be optimistic about July but I am overflowing with humility this morning.


Keep Bees and Carry On

This is a busy time of year to be a beekeeper. Hives are swarming because they are full. We are busy collecting wild swarms and busy collecting the surplus honey from our hives. “A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon” and for that same reason we collect our honey now. The hive still has time to build up its savings account against a hard winter. Also, spring honey is sweeter, in my opinion, than fall honey.

Bees swarm to reproduce. The hive begins to fill up with honey so the workers put mom on a diet, begin making a new queen and a portion of the workers push mom out the front door and fly away. A friend of my father saw 3 swarms one afternoon while riding his horse. We got 5 swarm calls in three days that same weekend.

The job of a beekeeper is to decide if the hive should divide or if it should focus on storing more nectar. I am a fan of honey. I have worked all year to protect and house these bees. I have been stung. I have gotten poison ivy near their hives. I take a portion of their honey as a way of collecting rent.

Our boys have decided they want to be involved this year. In previous years the family has been content to hide in the van while I open the hives. There was one particular spring when I was a little early about opening a hive and the bees were not appreciative.  I had a cloud of angry, stinging bees penetrating my bonnet as I ran through the branches in the woods. Julie laughed until she had tears in her eyes.

This year the boys helped. They cleaned mouse nests out of unused bee boxes and the oldest caught two swarms by himself. Pretty cool.

If a swarm lands on the lower branch of a tree, catching the swarm is usually just a matter of shaking the branch into a suitable box.

But sometimes swarms land on the ground or, in this case, on a hosta. That can be more interesting.


Either way, you have to introduce the bees to the box. Our oldest son is 15. He was hiving a swarm at home while I was hiving another elsewhere. He was stung on the arm as he was working. Some of these feral bees have a hot sting but he said something like this to himself, “I just have to do this now. I can hurt later. Get through it.”

I haven’t found that beekeeping has to hurt. But sometimes it does. What a cool thing for my son to learn.

Later we opened another hive that is well established to rob a little honey. As usual, I faced the hive alone, the other five people who claim to love me were gathered nearby with cameras at the ready.

I haven’t written much about beekeeping on the blog. It’s just something we dabble with. The best time to open a hive is when the workers are out in the field in the middle of a clear, calm day. That means I can open my hives on weekends, if the weather cooperates. Hopefully our kids will gain interest and confidence and will fire me. That would be awesome.

Between now and then it’s just something fun we do. And it is fun. Beekeeping, if you don’t know, is necessarily very relaxing. You have to be chill. The bees know if you are excited or in a hurry. Also, I find it is best to work without gloves as I squish fewer bees but you have to know the hive. Temperamental bees can’t be kept and temperamental beekeepers can’t keep bees. That, I hope, is the lesson I teach my children.

Do you keep bees? If so, you are halfway to the land of milk and honey.

Re-Taming the Garden

It rained last summer. What I mean to say is, it rained all of last summer. All of it. Julie and I would sit like the kids in The Cat in the Hat, looking out of our dining room window at the rain falling on our garden, feeling slightly depressed as the weeds grew and grew, neither of us willing to go out in the rain to work in the garden.

Then it got hot. Moisture + heat = Weeds.

We felt discouraged. The garden went into winter a mess of tangled weeds.

Remember, we also spent 8 months in and out of the hospital with our daughter. We lost our garden. No fun.

For the last month we have been working to reclaim our growing space.


Our gardening ambitions are few, however. The main garden has been planted to a few fruit trees and berry plants. We have a row of potatoes for fertility. We have a row of jalapenos for poppers. Our younger son is planting row after row of corn. Otherwise, this is a maintenance year. A year of weed control and added fertility. We are making next year’s garden now.

Every day we try to do something small.

  • Hoe the corn.
  • Hill the potatoes.
  • Pick the strawberries.
  • Cut an edge to the grass surrounding the beds.
  • Haul in more manure.
  • Have fun.


Have fun.

Are you having fun in your garden?

Working With the Kids

The question usually comes in as some form of this: “So, Chris, how do you get your kids to work and how can I get my kids to work like yours do?”

What a hilarious question. Don’t get me wrong, my kids work. But if you think it is easy you have been fooled.

Let’s take this off the farm for a little bit. Everybody makes dirty dishes. Everybody makes dirty laundry. Everybody can share in the work load. This is just part of living with others cooperatively. So we divide up the work. These are not paid jobs, these are just things we do. I’ll summarize the children’s chore list without going into detail.

  • Week 1: Wash dishes
  • Week 2: Walk the dog, clean bathroom sink
  • Week 3: Fold towels, set the table
  • Week 4: Put away dishes, take out trash

There is more on each list but that is the core of the rotation. Week by week, each kid specializes in a different set of simple tasks in rotation. We do not rotate in order of age, we split things up so we alternate between older and younger kids. We do this because the younger two are not reliable about washing the dishes and I don’t want to face two straight weeks at the sink.

The younger two are not reliable. They are currently 10 and 11. They may wash plates or cups. They may wash bowls and spoons. But they won’t wash pots and pans. The older two can be relied on to wash until the counter is clean. But not the younger two. And that is OK because they are children.


Look, I’m not making excuses, I’m setting realistic expectations. Washing dishes is not fun. The other 12 waking hours of the day the pair of them are parked at a table playing with Legos together or reading the same books (currently Warriors series). They don’t want to wash dishes. And I don’t want to force the issue.

To borrow a page from the book The Thomas Jefferson Education, I want to inspire, not require, my children to participate in our home. Be sure to click that link for clarification.

Now look, there are things you just hafta do. We seek to inspire but we still set expectations. You shower every week even if you don’t need to. You change your underwear at least once a month. You brush your teeth between meals. These are personal hygiene issues. But making your bed? Why? You are just going to unmake it again in 14 hours. What is the point?

The point is you live here too. Act like it. Make yourself at home. Use the vacuum cleaner. We want a nice, comfortable place of our own. Us. Ours. Nice. Put Goethe to the test. If everybody sweeps their own room and the whole house will be clean. But I have only met disaster when I take a hard line on this with the kids because they are kids and have an incomplete concept of “fair”.

So we seek to inspire them. I will admit, however, that I could be a better example. I have a pile of paperwork I need to file, or maybe just habits I need to change. Maybe I don’t need to file away that physical copy of the electricity bill for the next 7 years. Maybe it is trash. But I should do something with it and right now it is piled on the desk along with the lovely artwork our kids have created that I don’t know how to store.

I guess I could be more inspiring.

Everything so far applies to life in town. Let’s take it to the farm.

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Walking the pasture.

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My 10 year old will not gather eggs by herself. My 11 year old will not gather eggs by himself. My 13 year old will not gather eggs by herself. All three are intimidated by the roosters. My 15 year old can run the entire farm by himself with one exception: he is intimidated by the cattle. But the cattle, the roosters and the children all know I am not intimidated by them. At all. I am careful. I am watchful. But I am not afraid of them.

But let’s set fear or other excuses aside for the moment. I need help gathering eggs and watering animals. When we first started out, all six of us would go together to do chores. The kids would play and sword fight with weed stems and look for frogs in the creek but they learned the routine. They learned about watering and feeding and offering oyster shell. This period of training is very important to everything we do.They understand that chickens cannot get their own water when I am at work or we are at the hospital. So all these years later I ask the kids, “Can two of you go get eggs, check feed and fill water at the red layers? I’ll take care of the dishes while you are out.” Off they go.

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Breakfast time. #farmphotography #farmchores

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Dishes done, the kids come back with a basket full of eggs.

Me: “Hey, did you remember to check the water?”

Kids: “Oh. Ummmm….did you ask us to water the chickens?”

Me: “Sigh. You know, chickens can’t get their own water.”

They know. They really do know. They have heard us say that literally thousands of times. Chickens can’t get their own water! It’s not that they don’t know. And it’s not fair to say they don’t care. It’s simply that they don’t share our vision.

Our kids don’t own the farm. They don’t own the chickens. They didn’t work and sweat and burn away years of their lives, believing the dream that someday, if they got good grades and worked hard, they, too, could be successful (whatever “success” means). They haven’t been sitting in a cubicle, looking outside at the lawn care guy and thinking, “What a life he’s got!” and wondering about the meaning of it all. Does it mean anything? “I have debt so I can have a car so I can drive to work so I can service my debt.” There is a difference between working toward a dream and having a dream imposed on you by your parents.

See the difference? What are you working for? I am working to fulfill a vision. A common vision Julie and I share. A dream. A goal. Not division. Vision. But the kids? They may be acting out of obligation out of respect for us. And that respect is how I convinced my 15 year old to spend 6 hours Memorial Day morning shoveling manure with me.

But let’s go back to that issue of intimidation. My eldest son is larger and taller than I am. Soon he will be stronger too. But he is intimidated by the cattle. The other three children are intimidated by the roosters. But the roosters and the cattle and the children all know that I am in control. I am not to be feared but I am to be obeyed. And now. (I have to tell you, Julie finds her comparative lack of control over the children frustrating.)

I am in control but I am not controlling.

I’ll come back around to kids in a minute but I have to talk about Julie here. I do not want to control my wife. I don’t want to bend her to my will. I don’t want to change her. I want Julie to be Julie and being “Julie” is a moving target. Julie is different than Chris…and in very good ways. And I love her. I love her much more than I love my job or my farm or even my children. My kids will move out in the next 10 or 15 years but Julie and I will remain. But the Julie that will be 10 years from now will be different than the Julie that is today. And if I don’t roll with those changes now I’ll be in for a shock. Empty nest syndrome.

No thanks.

I have to take time now to stay close to Julie each day. I need to know what motivates her. What excites her? What is she into right now? I have to know for this marriage to continue.

And, even though they will probably move out in 10 years, it’s the same with the kids. Talk about moving targets! I have to know what motivates the kids today! All four of them are different from each other and are different from me in ways that are difficult to quantify. I have to know all about each child and show them that I am interested in them as people, not just as extra hands, and I have to keep up with the radical daily changes in their personalities, interests, preferences and alliances! Not easy.

Butchering day is a good example of this. The only requirement was that the kids either worked with us, worked inside with grandma or, at a minimum, played near us as we worked. For years my oldest daughter would not participate with the chickens. She stayed inside with grandma baking pies. You know what? That’s totally cool. My daughter didn’t want to do hot, smelly, gross work. I get it. But she missed out on a lot of fun too. We listen to music while we work. We talk. We help each other. When we finish the last bird we all sing and do the chicken dance. And when the birds are all bagged and in the freezer the kids who helped get paid. One day our daughter asked if she could cut the feet off of the birds. I didn’t threaten. I didn’t scream. I didn’t berate her into helping. She wanted to have fun and make money too. So now she cuts the feet off of the chickens and does the chicken dance and listens to music with us and we eat fewer pies.


You know what she wants? What she really, really wants? She wants to bake pies and have fun. And on butcher day she chooses fun over pies in spite of gross dead chickens because she wants to be with us. And we want to be with her.

But she also likes to hold babies at church. And she loves to read P.G. Wodehouse. She loves Doctor Who and she hopes to become Groucho Marx when she grows up. And she bakes really, really good scones. And last night she was reading part 2 of a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I know because I talk to her like she is a person. I don’t speak to her like she is a child. She is not a nuisance. She is not an annoyance. She is not to be sent away in the evenings for karate, dance, soccer and gymnastics. I want to hang out with my daughter. She is a bright spot in my day.

She is also a reliable dish washer. But that’s the least important thing.

Farm or no, there is work to do. I confess, I am annoyed when they take a laundry basket to their room but fail to put away the laundry. I admit my patience is tested when I come home and the sink is full of dirty dishes. But if I lose my cool they will either fear or resent me. I do not want my children to be afraid of me. I want them to be confident that I love them in spite of their occasional failings.

How do I get my kids to work on the farm? I love them. They are learning to reciprocate.

I had written that last sentence to close the post but then I found this picture:


We have some close friends with seven children of their own. They raise their own pigs and we like to help on butcher day. Last fall two of their seven children were on the scene to help. This one helped skin the pig. The other kids were busy elsewhere. They were still helping, just not with skinning a pig. And that was OK. Everybody was busy. Everybody was involved and still, somehow, having fun. But skinning the pig isn’t for everybody.

Field Experiment

Once upon a time, when I was about 16, I walked beside a wagon South of the white barn picking up straw bales for my cousin. Then I went into the barn to stack them. Then I thought I was going to die from allergies. I think some of those bales are still in the SW corner of the barn. This very field, 25 years ago:

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Our barn from the south.

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More recently that field has been planted to corn, sudangrass and, lastly alfalfa. A more distant cousin planted the alfalfa a year or so before we bought the farm.

I didn’t particularly want alfalfa but there it was. I find it is hard to dry for hay and tricky to graze. We ran chicken tractors over other fields but the field South of the barn remained untouched…other than being mowed for hay 5 years straight.


One day, a few years ago, it rained 6 inches while the chicken tractors were full in the very spot pictured above. The rain and chicken manure and pressure from chicken feet killed the alfalfa under the chicken tractors.

Then, last summer, the rain didn’t stop. Rain fell all spring. It rained an inch every day in June…or nearly so. It kept raining in July. Then it resumed again in August. We got a cutting or two of pretty bad hay and maybe one small cutting of fairly decent hay but the rain drowned the alfalfa on the flat land. It also drowned the clovers. I guess I thought I had mismanaged something in the wet that the clover all died but Steve had the same problem on his farm. The neighbor’s alfalfa field to the SE was planted the same day mine was and his alfalfa all died too.

Now, instead of an alfalfa field, I had a field of cheat and wild oats.

You know what cows don’t want to eat? Cheat and wild oats. They walk on it. They look at it. But they don’t eat it. This should be the best field on the farm. But it is not. It is cheat and wild oats. But for year after year, crop after crop, cutting after cutting, 4 cuttings of hay per year, we have taken from these fields. We have super-oxygenated the soil with tillage. We have burned through the soil bank account and have made no deposits.

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Moving the herd. #farmphotography #farmchores

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I baled a bunch of the cheap grasses up last summer for spare bedding in the barn. Seeds and all. We could not buy straw because the summer was so wet. Then I let it grow back to full maturity and grazed it through January, offering the cattle additional hay on pasture to encourage them to tromp that carbon down.

That brings us to April of 2016.

Let’s put together what we think we have observed about these fields.

  1. Rainwater does not soak in. It either sits on the surface or runs off. The whole field was a wet mess last year. This seems to indicate that soil organic matter is low and there is a hardpan not far down.
  2. Overall fertility is low, based on the absence of plant diversity. There aren’t even broad leaf weeds in the field. Just cheat and oats, clovers on the edges near the limestone roads. Clover at the edges where there is lime. Hmmmm.

So I guess I should check soil pH and soil organic matter. Let’s just assume the worst.

So now what?

If I can be disciplined enough to leave it alone and not mow it we will see what happens. I have a similar field to the East and a slightly better field to the West. Our pastures seem to follow a certain progression. There are a couple of years of heavy thistle infestation followed by a couple of years of heavy giant ragweed. Then the grass strengthens and white clover covers the compacted areas and dung beetles show up out of nowhere. That’s where most of our pastures stand today. We still have patches of thistle here and there but most of the thistle has been crowded out by grass and the cows eat the ragweed where it grows.

I’ll just follow the pattern. There is no real shade out there so the cows stay away for the summer. Maybe I could graze the field at night, taking them back to the barn and offer hay during the day. Maybe. Otherwise we will graze fall, winter and spring.

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The white barn.

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We will continue to frost seed red clover. We will spread manure and lime everywhere. The only difference is this: I am not going to mow this field. 3 acres of ground going fallow for the summer. Probably next summer too. At some point I should treat this like a real experiment. I should measure pH and soil organic matter and compare the before and after. I should measure the brix of the forages in each field. And that would satisfy the part of me that has a degree in biology. But mostly I want to grow lots of grass then invite the cows to press it into the soil. Rinse and repeat.

And since I tend to believe that grass is better off with cattle than without it, and since I tend to believe that tall grass is healthier than mowed grass, and since I tend to believe more wildlife can hide in tall grass than in short grass…well, I feel somewhat OK about leaving 3 acres grazed but un-mowed and messy for a couple of years…just to see what happens. The grass will grow, the cows will tromp and manure. Earthworms will incorporate new materials. Chickens will eat earthworms. Mice will make colonies, coyotes will dig them up. The hair I don’t lose will turn gray. Should be good times.

Timing the Spring Graze

The secret to comedy is timing.

Timing. Get it?

That’s the secret to grazing too. Today I am going to reference a couple of articles I found by Ian Mitchell-Innes that I think are instructive and challenging. First, from the poorly-titled Energy is Money, Money is Energy, Time is Money, Water is Money:

It is to make sure you do not loose animal performance, while you the manager and animals, are going through a learning curve.

Let’s talk about animal performance. As I shared yesterday, I took six heifers off of a feedlot where they were fattening on hot feed and put them on grass. Of that first six, two were not physically capable of breeding. The remaining four all gave me calves but only one has shown that she can give me a calf each year and even she has problems. Zero out of six heifers work on grass. Their offspring, however, look promising. If that second generation come up open it is because I mismanaged my resources.

Because of timing.

41 and 111 did not breed back this year because I didn’t manage energy correctly. Either I had too many cattle on too few acres or I had cattle on the right amount of ground but my grazing intervals were too short. As a third option, our grass is poor and I should have fed hay to build fertility. Whatever. My fault.

But there is more. Time on our farm has been mismanaged for generations, as Ian says in the post:

There is increasing evidence, that we humans, particularly since the advent of barbed wire, have managed in such a way that we have reduced the effectiveness of our soils. The result being the plants growing on those soils, do not capture the amount of Energy from the Sun, which used to be captured.


Our pasture soils are poor but improving. We have pastures that were overgrazed and compacted and growing only sparse, short grasses that are now dense with a large variety of tall plants…many of which are “weeds”. When we first moved there were many places you could lay down a hula hoop and encircle no more than 10 plants. Most of the pastures had deep ruts and cow paths carved into them from the cows walking to and from the barn to eat corn every day for decades. We are transitioning from sparse grasses, dense ragweed and thorny trees everywhere to a large variety of dense grasses and forbs and more desirable species of trees. But we are only beginning. Our pasture has not recovered even a portion of it’s potential capacity. But between then and now I have to make money. To do that I have to find energy to feed my cattle.

If you do not get animal performance you will go broke!

That simple statement is restated in another post on his site:

The first thing to consider is animal performance, as this is the financial aspect of all livestock based operations. The Land and what grows on it, is a solar panel.

‘The limiting factor to all animal performance is Energy’, be it re-conception or weight gain.

Ugh. Energy again. His original post he lists the following points:

Some of the things we have learnt are :-

  • The bigger the herd, the better the animals do and the quicker the soil is restored.
  • The more Carbon (plant material) is trodden onto and into the soil, the better the soil does.
  • We need to manage the livestock to make sure the soil is covered with growing plants or litter, to keep the soil at a more constant temperature and feed life in the soil.
  • We also know that selection of grazing makes animals perform (fat).

If I am not mistaken, Chad Peterson claims that the behavior of cattle changes when you get 300 or more in a group. Grazing is less selective and soil impact is greatly increased and manure distribution is more even. Julius Ruechel illustrates other behavioral changes in his book Grass Fed Cattle. The mob bunches tightly and weaker animals are pushed to the perimeter. It is easy to see the poor-doers even from a distance. Johan Zietesman wrote in his book Man, Cattle and Veld that we need to focus on growing our herd with the best genetics available but we need to keep some of the sub-par animals around while the herd is growing to keep the mob large and the pasture moving forward by stepping more litter into the soil and adding more manure.


That third point, about making sure the soil is covered, is difficult for me. Greg Judy wrote about a failure he perceives in our practice of putting up hay. By cutting, raking and baling the ground we remove the potential for soil litter. We are stripping away the soil’s protection. I find that to be very difficult. He suggests we aren’t going to convince all farmers not to put up hay, heck, some people enjoy it so we should buy their fertility and put it on our farm.

OK. So we want a big herd to build soil. But is that all there is to it? No. Things change by season. Heck, thing change by day. Another article by Ian:

In the spring put all your animals in one herd and start moving them… The weather must be monitored every day (temperature and rainfall), and if you have started out with relatively slow growth, the day you wake up and it has rained or it is warmer, start moving faster. Slow growth, slow moves; fast growth, fast moves.

Do not force the animals to graze or tread the undesirable plants; if you do, you will lose animal performance. These ungrazed plants will die over a couple of years as no sunlight will be getting to the growing points at soil surface level. The dead plants leave a massive amount of carbon in and on the soil, holding water and enabling a desirable plant to germinate and establish itself.

I am always in awe of farmers pushing to put a million pounds of beef on an acre. Ranchers like Neil Dennis or Gabe Brown who pack the animals into tight breaks with multiple moves each day…amazing. It makes for powerful slides in a presentation but it is not the only strategy they use throughout the year, changing as conditions change. When the grass is growing quickly you give the herd room to roam. When the grass is growing slowly and the cows are dry you slow the grazing down, forcing them to graze, trample, manure and “remodel” a smaller area.


This year I boosted my numbers by bringing in some steers. We are grazing 60 acres with 27 head (29 a few weeks ago). Since April we have covered the entire farm 3 times. My goal is usually to rotate 4 times by June 1 but we just didn’t get it done. The cattle are allowed to be selective as we sprint across the landscape. But soon we will stop getting an inch of rain every week and we will need to increase the recovery period. Instead of grazing the whole farm every 20 days we will cover it in 60 days. Or 90 days. And if it gets really dry we may offer hay on pasture in rotation just to keep distributing manure and urine and encourage some amount of forage growth. Winter is an entirely different strategy.

It is all about timing. And the timing changes with the time of the year. And the conditions relative to that time. Right now we are getting a lot of rain. Right now we are moving the herd across 2 acres/day. When they enter the grass has recovered to at least 3′ tall and the clover is all in bloom again. We time our moves with plant recovery. When we achieve recovery before the cows cover the whole 60 we drop out portions of our farm. I skipped 7 acres on the last rotation.

But no matter what I do, 27 head is not the same as 300 head. It just isn’t. If Chad Peterson is right, I’ll need 300 head to see a behavioral change. Maybe by the time I get there I’ll know what I am doing. Because it takes time to learn. It takes time to grow grass. It takes time to put a herd together. And we are taking our time. Right now we just do the best we can with what we have: too few cows and an inexperienced but well-read farmer.

Tomorrow I will tell you about the worst field on the farm and how it became so awful. Here is a picture of it. Don’t be fooled by the green stuff growing there. It is of zero value to cattle.