I Know. It Happened to Me Too.

Julie and I have been watching some online training together for several months. Around Thanksgiving we bought and watched Art Jonak’s Mastermind event. There were a couple of speakers at that event that really made an impact with me.

The first was Tom “Big Al” Schreiter who said, “You ask people if they want more money and a longer life and they universally say ‘Yes’. Then you offer to let them join your direct marketing opportunity and they say they would rather die young and poor. You have done something wrong.” Big Al is worth more attention but not today.

A later presenter was Eric Gamio. His presentation was amazing but is no longer available so I’m going to share my notes and thoughts. But my focus is on farm…and funnily enough, I direct sell everything on the farm so this is applicable. I would encourage you to find more information from Eric Gamio but you will need to understand Spanish first. I don’t.

Eric started by talking how amazingly simple it was for him to start a business. Basically, within 6 months he had to hire an assistant to take the money to the bank for him. Everything he tried worked on the first try. Eric immediately confessed that he had been lying and he was thankful for the truth. The truth was he floundered for 18 months before slowly finding his way. He said that experience was important so he could have credibility when teaching others. He could say, “I know. It happened to me too. I’m still here.”

I have worked to share the ups and downs of the farm with my audience since the beginning. I wanted a page people could read and say to themselves, “Oh. Wow. I’m not the only one.”

This farming stuff is hard. If you take a night off, things can die. Even if you don’t take a night off, things can die. Believe me, I know. It happened to me too, and I’m still here.

We bought our first 150 broilers 7 years ago. They came from one of the major hatcheries and slept all day with their heads in the feed trough (we later switched to a different strain of birds from a different hatchery). They had all kinds of leg issues (later, we discovered this was a lack of riboflavin in their diet) but the brooder in the back room worked fairly well (we don’t brood in the back room anymore…most of the time). Then we moved the birds to a temporary greenhouse made of PVC pipe…that we had built in a wind tunnel on the plains of Illinois. Sigh. Finally, the birds went into a chicken tractor (one chicken tractor, 100+ remaining birds) in the front yard. The front yard has never been the same since. Just as they were reaching the right size to butcher the buffalo gnats hatched and started killing the remaining birds. One evening, dad and I were in the yard, wearing bee bonnets to keep the gnats from attacking our faces and butchering birds only slightly faster than they were suffocating from the buffalo gnats. We had never really butchered chickens before and were learning under fire. But finally, it was time to sell the birds…to customers we had completely forgotten about. We forgot to find customers. Now what do we do with these stupid birds?

Does that sound remotely familiar?

Having gone through that, I could either use my internet connection to tell you about those stupid birds and their stupid leg problems or that stupid Salatin who said “You Can Farm!”

But instead I offer that story so you will be reassured that I really do know. I’ve been there. It happened to me too, and I’m still here.

There is hope for us, reader.

Let’s share another one.

The first time we raised pigs I kept them behind poly net and it worked out well. The pigs cleaned up areas where I had decaying equipment, trees and brambles. The poly net kept them in check. I can’t interact with small groups of animals without referring to them as something so I named them Buddy, Girlie and Susan. Yes, Susan. That’s not directed at anyone out there, it just happened.

It came around to butcher day so we asked a knowledgeable friend to assist with Buddy and Girlie. We sold Susan (more later). After opening the polywire fence, I politely asked Girlie to follow me to the combine shed so we could shoot her in the head. She obliged. Everything went swimmingly.

Next, I asked Buddy to accompany me as well. He came out of the pen and followed me to the shed. My friend lined up to shoot as Buddy ate a cookie but…missed slightly. Buddy was hurt and went running. The goal is to finish it cleanly. And every pig since then has been clean. But with Buddy…it was not clean. Buddy had to teach me how not to kill a pig.

Have you ever had an experience like that? I know. It happened to me too, and I’m still here.

Susan the pig was absolutely pig-headed. She would not load into the livestock trailer. We tried every trick imaginable and failed miserably. Ultimately, I used a sorting board to push her into the trailer. Somehow she squirted away from me, fought her way through the electric fence and went running across the pasture. I had stressed her, put pressure on her and she responded negatively. I think she is the pig we had to rope and drag into the trailer and I not only promised my wife I wouldn’t swear like that anymore, I promised myself I would find a better way to load pigs. (We found we could open their pen to the trailer a day or so before and they would explore it and lose their fear as the new wore off).

Has that happened to you? It happened to me, and I’m still here.

When we got Susan to town I backed into the loading chute at the slaughter house. But I backed up a little crooked. One of the guys held up a board to close a gap between the trailer and the chute but Susan was still freaked out, saw the gap and nearly knocked the guy over on her way to freedom. Every employee at the slaughter house and the state inspector was out in the street trying to help catch a pig that had gotten loose in town.

But I know. And I’m still here.

So here we are, 8 years later. Surely I am now an expert in raising and selling chicken, pork and even beef by now, right? Surely I am making my full-time income from the farm, right?

Heck, I’ve been a parent for 16 years now. Surely my kids are perfectly well-behaved, right?

I’ve been married for 20 years. Surely, by now, I have some clue what she wants and it’s all easy, right?

I have been alive for 40 years. Surely, by now…

Look, man. I know. It happened to me too, and I’m still here.

I don’t know if I would be here without my mom and dad. Not in the physical sense, obviously. I don’t know if I could have survived the learning process without their help.

And that’s the point Eric Gamio was making. You need help from others. You need help from people who know. People who have been there too.

You can make incredibly stupid mistakes but not be stupid yourself. You just have to learn. It’s Maxwell’s Law of the Process. It takes time for those hard lessons to sink in.

And it takes encouragement from mentors to continue. Relationships I treasure with people like my parents and Steve and even remote friends like Darby and Matron and many others.

Believe me. I know. I’ve been there too.

You probably have been through some difficult experiences…anything ranging from personal rejection to dead calves to pediatric oncology. While you may not want to wear them in public every day, there may be someone you know who needs to hear, “I know. It happened to me too, and I’m still here.”

Or you may be someone who needs to hear that you are not alone. You are not a freak. You have not made a mistake. It is OK if you don’t know everything on day 1. Or day 100. Believe me. I know. It happened to me. I’m still here.

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A Failure of Reduction

Remember the movie Better Off Dead? That movie is a family Christmas tradition for us. Lane Meyer has to ski a dangerous mountain to prove himself to Beth. He seeks advice and receives the most boiled-down help imaginable.

While entirely accurate, it is incorrect and Lane barely escapes injury.

I was talking to our children recently about the search for that special someone and I, too, fell prey to the temptation to reduce. Not wanting to embarrass my child on the internet I’ll begin this way, one of my children was found to be holding hands with someone…but they were way, way in the back of the group trying to express their affections without being “caught”.

Allow me to reduce the other mother’s response: shock.

From my perspective it’s no big deal. Immature. Silly. But no big deal. But it gave me an opportunity to boil relationships down to the minimum: Whatever else happens, don’t anger the mother. You will lose. Make her your ally…pursue real friendship with her. And if you find you don’t like the mother you will find you no longer need to pursue the child because, if things go according to plan, you will have to spend every Christmas with her for the rest of her life. And that may not be what you want.

Whatever you think of my guidance above, it is hardly adequate. But I do this with everything.

How to take a shower? Get wet all over and put specific emphasis on cleaning places where the skin folds.

How to drive a car? The pedal on the right goes, one on the left stops. The wheel keeps you from running things over. Let’s do this.

The majority of server issues boil down to capacity management or connectivity.

So I have this pattern I fall into of attempting to boil it down to the essence. What is trying to be done here?

That practice, in summary, fails when people are involved.

Let me give you another one and then I’ll give you a few more.

I tend to manage people by setting expectations and turning them loose. I don’t micro-manage. I expect my employees to learn the basics and grow from there by teaching others. Let me know if something comes up.

But that’s not enough because these are people we are dealing with!

I have successfully described the work that needs to be accomplished but nobody comes to work to do the work and get money. We come to work to be with people.

People who care about us. People we enjoy being with. People we can trust.

So there’s another reduction. I would suggest my job accomplishes several things all at once. My work is meaningful, it pays the bills and allows me to enjoy interacting with others.

There is a kernel of truth there but it misses so much subtle detail.

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the subtle detail.

I’ll typically arrive at work in the morning after most of my team has arrived. I’ll walk in and speak some song lyrics or something like, “You know, I don’t need dolla bills to have fun tonight…as long as I can feel the beat.” Two of them will look at me like they have no earthly idea what I just said. Another will laugh because I’m such a dork…but everybody loosens up a little we greet each other and then tie into work.

But I have already reduced the workey part. Let’s pretend I have a new employee named Larry. “Larry, each of your co-workers assume primary responsibility for a platform. They have created documentation so anybody else can do the work when they are on vacation. I need you to learn A, B and C in and out. But you won’t be primary on any of those. You are going to take on a new project. You are going be primary support, create the documentation about it and teach everybody else. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ma go over here and work on the things.

“Oh, and on Wednesdays we get together as a team to update project status and do some team training. In your free time I need you to learn all about technology X and teach it to us next month. I know you don’t know anything about it at all. In fact, I’m well aware that you have never even heard of this. My goal is not to make you look stupid in front of your peers, it is to expose our team to something new and help us to find better ways of doing our jobs. I can’t sift through all of the options on my own so we learn things together and discuss. I need you to be a part of that.

“Oh, and one more thing. If I catch you working evenings we’ll have to have a serious talk.”

I REALLY like that freedom. I have had at least three managers who worked that way. They gave me a lot of room to run, expecting me to just get my stuff done because I’m a grown-up. And, for the most part, I do. But it’s not for everybody. Some people need much more structure. So I interview for that. I honestly and completely lay out the culture, the environment and the expectations in the interview. We have fun, we learn how much we don’t know, we teach each other. We own our projects. And if their eyes pop out of their head I scratch them off the list.

My style is not for everybody. Sometimes people need each day planned out. They need to be told each step along the way.

I failed to discover this when I interviewed Julie and the kids.

I tend to give vague instructions like, “Please move the cows before noon.”

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What I really mean is, “How are you feeling today? Look, I have to go to St. Louis today. I know it’s a bother but I need help with the cows. They cows are by the hog building. They are watering in the creek down the hill. Please set up a new grazing strip about 20′ wide to the East beginning at the hog building and going down to the bottom. Julie should carry the reel, oldest boy should set posts. As you are walking back, shift 40′ to the West and Julie should reel up the previous day’s rear fence while the boy collects the posts. Then leave any extra posts and reels in the SE corner of the grazing area. This should take you 15 minutes but give yourself 30 just in case. I really appreciate your help in this. The cattle are important to me but you are more important. This farm is important to me but we can put it aside if needed. I hope it is important to us. Maybe I can bring dinner home to make it up to you. I love you.”

It is not safe for me to assume they understand what my expectations are. Nor that they realize the most efficient way of getting it done. Nor that they won’t need discussion time to offer feedback. I just say, “Make the magic happen” and expect it to happen.

I had a boss named Rosie. She was a great boss. She was not technical so she relied on us to know how to fulfill the vision she gave. But she gave clear vision and she encouraged feedback. She didn’t say, “Go fast and turn”. She said, “Here’s the plan. Here’s where you fit. What do you think? Let’s go.”

Ugh. If only I could be more like that.

But I don’t even make time to talk to myself about why and how.

With the events of last year we were unable to raise replacement pullets. So right now, I have 100+ birds laying as many as 6 eggs/day. I know what needs to be done. There is no discussion. Nobody cares about feelings. Those birds have to die. We are already out of the egg business. That’s a fact.

But there is more. There are no replacements. There may never be. I have shown the kids the viability of the business model…when appropriately scaled and in partnership with other enterprises on the same resource base. And if they want to do it, they can. But if I am to put my resources to their highest and best use, I have to spend my time elsewhere. I can’t stay up all night hunting a skunk that is killing my birds and still answer tech calls at 2am and still show up at my desk ready to rock at 8. I am not 25 anymore.

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There are more factors involved. I can no longer reduce it to “I want chickens so I have chickens.”

Reductionism only goes so far.

So I guess I should spell out what I’m trying to say. I do a fine job of reducing tasks to their essential points. But I should not be reducing people…because people are more complex than tasks. And I need to encourage feedback rather than just act like it’s all obvious.

So…what do you think?

The #1 Reason We Farm

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Cattle I Have Owned

I plan to write a short series on the cow herd. I believe the cattle are the future. Feed them well and let them lead the way.

The future. I see the future in my mind. More cattle. Many more. Grass growing in dense stands, cattle, bunched up tightly, pushing organic material (grasses, tree branches, manure) into solid contact with the soil to feed the earth. The soil responding positively as impact and recovery cycles steadily build topsoil as the years pass by. And keep in mind, building soil is the goal, cattle are just the mechanism. I see it. Not just on my 60 but starting here. Right here. Today.

But I didn’t start today.

I started a few years ago. With just a few heifers.

First there were two dairy heifers, Mable and Flora.

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Both great animals. Bred to thrive on grass. We bought these from Steve in 2011. What an upgrade from a goat! These would eat grass! It seemed to help for us to graze shorter grass, not tall grass. Also, you know that part about “thriving on grass” I wrote above? Well, when they are producing milk, they need quite a bit of energy. Energy that you just can’t get from fescue. We tried several things to keep them moving forward including giving them large areas of pasture daily but finally settled on giving them a mix of beets, carrots and oats with a smattering of molasses.

But we had cows. May is still with us. Expecting any day now. She is in a pen with the other recent moms. More on that later. Flora got sick. I don’t completely understand why or what but she just withered away over the course of a month or two. We suspect Johne’s but it could have been hardware disease too. We cried quite a bit when we lost her. Flora gave us only bull calves. May has only given us heifers.

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Freezer was her first. I had no way to control a bull so we sent her back to Steve for breeding. He was born on the coldest day of February. We learned some lessons that day. Freezer didn’t stand up. We brought him in by the wood stove to dry and warm him in the back room. Julie and I tied and milked Flora to bottle feed the calf. It all worked out once he drank a little milk and he grew to be a fine young steer. We did not cry when we shipped Freezer. If anything, the pasture was a more friendly place in his absence.

The picture above shows the first four shorthorn heifers we bought and the day we introduced them to the herd. Here is another angle:

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One problem we dealt with immediately was that Jersey cows are generous milkers. We had a few heifers drinking our family milk. I now separate mothers from calves. I hope someday to own more cattle who will kick away milk thieves…even their own calves after about 3 or 4 months.

Those are numbered 111, 41, 70 and 76. 70 turned out to be a freemartin (a sterile female) and is no longer on the farm. 41 has never weaned a calf. By accident, by injury by whatever, her calves don’t make it. 111 has given us two nice calves but came up open this year. 76 breeds back early and often, but her calf was stepped on last year. That was entirely my fault. Entirely.

Outside of those four heifers, we bought 81 and 27. Later we bought 2 and Snowball. I don’t remember Snowball’s number. She was pure white, except for the mud on her butt. Snowball was always a poor doer. We had little hope that she would breed.

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Snowball went down the road. Twoey (2) turned out to be another freemartin. 81 gave us a heifer last year but we had to pull it. She came up open this year. One calf in 3 years. 81 is just too big. So is 27. They can’t eat enough grass in a day to maintain condition, let alone to make milk. They have to leave the farm.

If you review that list again you will see that out of 10 heifers we bought, four made the team after 3 years. And all four of those only make the team because I make excuses for them.

 

Long term, the herd has to survive on the grass we have. The goal is for a cow to wean four calves in its first 6 years. I want those calves to wean between 400 and 600 pounds. Not too big, not too small. But if I demand that every cow on my farm meets those criteria immediately I won’t have a herd. I’ll have to cull every animal. And maybe that’s the right idea but what would I do with all of the grass?

But the reality is, I can’t buy cattle that thrive on the grass we have. They don’t exist. Oh, there are a few out there but the majority of the N. American cattle herd grows fat on corn. Do you read bass clef? All Cows Eat Grass. That is no longer true. We have nearly doubled the size of each animal on pasture in 50 years. Now I come in with these animals and put them at a severe disadvantage, asking some gas-guzzling hot rod to run on self-harvested solar power.

On top of that you have a greenhorn like me. I don’t know what I don’t know about cattle. And it shows. I bought freemartins for crying out loud! And I don’t always know how to give the cattle what they need. Water, grass and minerals? Oh, it sounds so easy. But let me tell you, it isn’t. It doesn’t work according to plan.

Well, it kind of works.

76 gave us Edith and a nice roan heifer this spring.

first new calf

111 gave us Agnes and a little bull calf. Turns out the bull calf is horned so I’ll have to make a decision on his future soon.

Mable gave us three heifers so far. We sold her first back to Steve. Clover is half shorthorn and gave us a beautiful 3/4 shorthorn bull calf this spring. Lucy is developing in the pasture and is stringy and bony like a dairy cow. Ugh.

81 gave us one heifer. We had to pull her. That heifer needs to leave the farm.

All of these second-generation heifers are better than their mothers. Their daughters will be even closer to what we need. But progress happens slowly. Deliberately. Gaining momentum over time.

Maybe by the time I’m 70 I’ll have cattle worth owning. Maybe.

So how can I begin to impact my pasture with so few cattle? It takes a lot of animals to make herd impact. Apparently, you need 300 head of cattle to make the herd become a different organism altogether, something that acts like a mob, eating what is available instead of just what is tasty. Pounding the soil with hooves and manure, restoring pasture ecology and diversity quickly and efficiently, pushing the weak animals to the perimeter like a real herd in the wild.

Someday.

We have kept 40% of our original herd for 4 years. I am not happy with that number. But I am willing to be honest and open with you about mistakes we have made. You need to buy cows that are closer to grass, even if you have to pay a premium for them. Our cows were purchased at market price and are costing me years. Years.

Tomorrow I plan to write about how I am controlling the small herd I have as we work to grow better grass tomorrow.

Reading Journal Week 24

This about sums it up for me:

Oh, Despair! Woe is me!

There is no end of weeds in my garden! I noticed them as I was picking the umpteenth gallon of strawberries. I’m so sick living with all this abundance! Poor me!

That’s not a bad impression the “me” I hear inside my head. What a whiner.

You know what man? Every day is the same. I go to a great job working with highly intelligent, highly skilled people I genuinely care about working on products that QUITE LITERALLY SAVE PEOPLE’S LIVES! Then I come home to a loving wife and healthy, happy children to find that my dad and my oldest son have already put up the hay. All I have to do is move the cows and close up the chickens. Maybe play some video games after I pull a few weeds while drinking something cold. Then I kiss my beautiful wife and drift off to sleep in, as our FitBit reports, under three minutes.

Woe is me indeed.

I love the movie Groundhog Day. I went through a spell of watching it every day. In the movie, every day was the same. The same. Same kid falling out of a tree. Same groundhog. Same prediction. Same episodes of television game shows. Nothing ever changed.

Until he did.

The main character changed. Punxsutawney didn’t change. Just Phil.

I’ll come back to Groundhog Day in a minute.

This week I am reading The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins. I am reading it. Present tense. I read a page, exclaim, “WOW!” then go read that page to Julie. Then I sit and think for a little while. I’m not going to share quotes. I just want to make a record that I’m reading this now. The book makes a study of management transitions and how to set your team up for success.

I’m in my first 90 days of a new assignment. While I seem to be fine with sharing my farming and fathering insecurities, I have real reservations about sharing my professional insecurities. But I have them. One thing I will say is that I currently have a level of anxiety I have never faced before. Not even once. I am afraid. I’m not afraid I will get fired, though. That’s something of a concern but it doesn’t keep me awake. My co-workers and customers are patient with me. They seem to understand that I have accepted a difficult assignment. I think I’m just afraid that I will let my team down…somehow.

So that’s enough about work. The Chris that goes to work is not the Chris that writes this blog. Different guy with different interests. But sometimes it is so completely taxing to pretend to be him all day that I have nothing left to give at home. And to get back to the Groundhog Day analogy, we’re talking every day. Every day.

Monday dad cut hay. The New Chris (the one with anxiety issues) sat and worried and watched the weather forecast and hoped the rain would go around us. It did. All week long. It poured rain just across the river. Not a drop here. Friday the sun was shining and dad was baling. The boy was out helping him. They had two wagons loaded when I got home from work…just as we were surrounded by showers.

We live on the plains. You can see rain coming in from a long way out. I went to get a fourth hay wagon and looked to the west. Sigh.

Rain

The good news is we had the hay baled. The bad news? All four wagons and the baler were getting a shower. Dad and I hustled to get things pushed under roof as fast as possible but something was boiling up in me. Something, in fact, boiled out.

The last hay wagon needed to go in the barn and, wouldn’t you know it, the sidewall of the tire blew out. Hilarious. Standing in the rain. Can’t push a loaded wagon with a flat tire. Just happens to be the best hay from the field too.

Dad was trying to back the wagon in with the tractor but that tire is a drag. I ask the oldest boy to make sure we didn’t hit a pole. I guess he started daydreaming about whatever it is 14 year old boys daydream about and I snapped.

I rarely lose my cool like that. But when I do it tends to be with people I care about the most.

The hay wasn’t that wet. The day wasn’t a bad day. Flat tires happen. But on top of a week’s worth of tension from my job it was all too much for me.

When I snapped it made it all about him. Listing his failures, his constant, endless, limitless shortcomings. That really doesn’t make the situation better for anybody.

I caught myself mid-explosion and just stood in the rain watching my enormous 6’2″ child shrink before me.

My father never did this to me.

Not even once.

Even at this moment, he stood back and let me work it out for myself.

I wish it was Groundhog Day. I wish I could do that over. I can never un-say words I said to my son.

Somehow I manage to avoid these situations in my professional life. Somehow I keep my cool under pressure. I had a situation recently where a server went offline on a Monday morning. I had never heard of this server before and had no idea how to fix it. Worse, I slept through the notification call. When I realized the situation I only had one course of action. I had to get that server online ASAP. That’s it. I couldn’t fix it remotely so I drove on in to work hoping and praying that the solution would be clear. The whole drive I cried out for help from the Lord. “Great is the Lord and Greatly to be praised!” “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” I stood on God’s strength because, while I know I promised not to share my professional insecurities with you, I am not really a computer genius. I’m just persistent.

Within 5 minutes of getting to work I had the server back online. Whew!

But the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy. That was the beginning of the worst week of my entire career. Everything went wrong.

But I never lost my cool. Even when under personal attack.

So why did I lose it with my son?

I hope we never have a flat tire on a loaded hay wagon in the rain again. But, really, every day here is the same. The chickens need us every day. The cow needs milked every day. The garden sprouts new weeds every day. There are always dishes to wash. There is always laundry to put away. It seems they are always the same dishes and the same laundry. It’s Groundhog Day.

Every day is the same. And nothing I can do matters.

That’s not true.

There are things I can do. Things that matter. Things that lessen the burden on those around me rather than multiply them. My son has 14 year old insecurities. He doesn’t need me to list his faults. He, like me, is acutely aware of his own limitations.

Every day he needs me to show him how much I love and appreciate and cherish him. How grateful I am that he is my son. How proud I am of the man he is becoming.

In Groundhog Day, the day finally changed when Phil changed.

Goofy movie. Sure. But I think I can change our day for the better.

Three Minus One

Two calves were born Friday morning. I kind of think the bull calf ran out…and just kept running. What an energetic little guy.

BullCalf

The heifer calf from our dairy cow was a little slow getting up but she’s a happy, spirited little one too. And now we get to milk a cow again. Please note the enthusiasm in my writing voice.

IMG_20150507_104114

Another calf came on Sunday evening. This story ends differently.

Some of my blog posts are more real than others. Not more honest, just more…just…sometimes…sometimes farming is really hard and I try to address it. This is one of the hard posts.

I don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff…though I do hear it going on in a loop in my head. “Was it my fault?” “Could I have done more?”

I don’t know.

But I do remember my grandfather. So let’s go there instead.

I have strong memories of the farm when I was much younger. Grandpa had the herd in the feedlot across the road by the red barn. I guess it was spring and Sis and I were visiting for a weekend. Grandpa took me out to do chores then, later, to meet with a man about some equipment. One of the cows in the lot was pregnant and grandpa said she should calve soon. Grandpa needed to run and take care of a little business and it looked like the cow would wait. When we got back I was excited to see a calf peeking out of the back end of the cow! Grandpa was alarmed.

That cow couldn’t have that calf without help. Grandpa saw it, dropped me off at the house to get some milk and cookies then went to help the cow. I don’t think he even changed clothes. I assume they pulled the calf.

The calf didn’t make it. The next morning I saw it laying on the tailgate of grandpa’s truck. I remember its tongue was sticking out and its eyes were open.

I cried.

That one event has made a lasting impression on me. For example, I actively seek out bulls that throw calves with a low birth weight and cows that calve easily. But I have so many questions for my grandpa. Just questions about this one event! But I didn’t know or think to ask 30 years ago.

So I just have to put things together from what I know about Grandpa. I obviously admired the man. I found my grandpa to be loving and caring, though some found him to be harsh and hard. I don’t remember sitting on grandpa’s lap reading stories. I don’t remember him ever taking me fishing. That wasn’t his thing. But he took me with him to do chores…even if I had to wear bread sacks over my shoes and he took me to cattle auctions.

I can picture my grandpa smiling and laughing – maybe more of a chuckle than a loud laugh – but I don’t remember him ever telling a joke. I saw him kiss my grandma once. He was an intelligent man and a hard worker. He was honest. And he would let me prattle on and on about whatever stupid things children think to say. He was big and strong and steady and he didn’t need to talk much. When he spoke to me it often started with, “Now listen…”.

The only thing he said about the calf was, “Now listen, sometimes this happens.” Then we went out to do chores.

I lost a calf this morning. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.

It must have hurt grandpa that day.

But I guess sometimes this happens. I still have to do my chores.

Grandpa didn’t cry.

I can’t imagine my grandpa wondering to himself, “Am I a failure?” I can imagine grandpa evaluating the livestock involved, making appropriate management decisions that needed to be made and moving forward.

Sunday afternoon a calf was born. My nephew spent the night and was there to see the calf shortly after it was born. Then he went back to my house for a snack. The little heifer never stood up. At first I thought she just needed more time so I stepped away to give mom some alone time with her calf. I came back to check her and things were only worse. I massaged her spine, I tried to stand her up, I rubbed her legs, Dad and Steve and I fed her with a tube. No response. A little grunt, a little manure, no strength in her legs. She died early the next morning.

I came back to the house at 10pm, my arms and clothes covered in dried blood, manure and amniotic fluid. My nephew had gotten out of bed to go potty and saw me come in. He asked, “Whatch doin?”

How do I explain?

What do I say?

My nephew will not see a little dead calf laying on the tailgate of the truck in the morning. Maybe he will never know what happened. He didn’t see me cry. What did he see? What does he see when he looks at me? Do I read him stories or take him fishing? Or am I just busy?

My grandpa was a strong, loving, caring man. A better man than me by any measure. He would be working now, not typing. And he certainly wouldn’t be crying. He would not be questioning his decision to farm. He would not be wondering if he would ever do anything right.

He would make notes about the bull and the cow. He would dispose of the calf. Then he would get back to work.

I need to ditch the drama and get back to work…with this one, small tweak. My nephew needs to KNOW that I treasure him more than any cow. My children need to know that. My wife needs to know that. Grandpa worked hard and Grandpa loved us. And I knew it.

Grandpa still has a lot to teach me.

Spring Bee Situation

OK. Well. I have learned my lesson. Again.

I like to keep my bees by the pond. In my mind that’s a convenient location and is near water. After several years of beekeeping in drought I thought the pond was the solution to all of my hive cooling problems. Well, after several winters of frozen hives I have decided I need to place my apiary near water but near shelter and away from the freezing cold air that blows out of the west and across the frozen pond for four months every winter.

BeeHive

So we are back to one hive. Again. But it looks strong.

I haven’t blogged about beekeeping previously for two main reasons. First, I am more of a bee owner than a bee keeper and I’m not very good…even after 10 years. Second, it seems…and I hope you understand this…intensely personal. Beekeeping is very…zen. I have to be totally chill when I have a frame of brood in my hand and about a thousand stinging beasts ready to launch at any moment.

I have a beekeeping mentor (get yourself a mentor) who took me out on January 1 my first year of beekeeping to check 50 or so hives. I don’t remember what the arrangement was. Either he pulled the lid and I poured sugar on the frame tops or the other way around. Whatever the deal was, he didn’t let me wear gloves. Hood? Fine. No gloves. Fewer smashed bees that way. Did you know that I type for a living? It’s hard to type when your fingers are swollen like bratwursts. I got so stung up…you wouldn’t believe it. I hardly have any reaction to bee stings these days. Thanks Arvin.

BeeFeeder

I am down to one hive right now. I have high hopes of splitting that survivor hive. But I need that hive to continue to survive. They are pretty low on food and are flying hard. The trees haven’t bloomed yet so we set out a feeder with a 1:1 syrup. Should see big bees in three weeks. Should be good times.

We use spare chick drinkers. Multi-purpose infrastructure, right? We place rocks in the bowl because bees are not good at swimming.

Do you keep bees? Do you understand what I mean about it being personal? It’s my alone time. It requires my complete attention. And it’s a lot of fun. Sorry I don’t write about it more.

Brooder Blues

So after I bragged to the internet about how great I am at brooding chicks I have to talk about my failures too.

These are management issues. Totally management issues.

The blame falls on me. That’s it. I failed to follow through on a conversation Julie and I had. Julie moved a heat lamp to the third tank in preparation for moving birds. We just wanted to warm things up a little bit. We made a bad decision.

The second failure was a lamp burned out and we didn’t have a spare. I thought we could make it on two lamps.

The third failure was using a lamp that didn’t produce as much heat as expected. So the chicks in brooder #2 weren’t as warm as they should have been. And they all crowded up under one lamp.

The fourth failure is a lack of fresh bedding in the brooder. The remaining birds aren’t as clean as I would like them to be.

I should have bought extra lamps. I should have made sure the temperature under each lamp was consistent. I should have spread the birds out among the brooders immediately. I also rolled the dice on weather, trying to brood chicks when it’s negative infinity outside.

But here’s the end result. For four hours brooder #2 was a little cool. Over the following 48 hours 32 chicks died.

One little mistake.

I’ll recover from the loss of chicks. It hurts. It hurts badly. But I can never take back words said in anger and frustration.

My worst mistake in this was blaming others.

That too is a management issue.

Because I Didn’t Do It

My boss is a remarkable man. Truly. I believe he can do anything he sets his mind to. I’m not wanting to embarrass my boss but, really, I admire the man. Like in real life…and I’ve known him for 15 years. I’m not up for a review or anything.

At Christmas he installed a new car stereo in his wife’s car. This included removing the wiring harness and soldering a new one on because an adapter wouldn’t fit in the dash. He also replaced a broken powered, heated mirror. The replacement he ordered from a junkyard didn’t match the color so he disassembled both the new and old and made it all work like new.

Because that’s what he does. He makes stuff work.

I don’t know how to describe him. He’s my boss. He’s a programmer. He’s a carpenter who went to help rebuild after Katrina. In his younger years he could walk up stairs on his hands. Father. Husband. Cool dude. You got the picture? Good. I’ll get to the point.

I drove somewhere with him recently in his car. On the way to the car we walked on a salted sidewalk and I noticed I was leaving salt footprints on the floor mats in his immaculate car.

His IMMACULATE car.

“How do you keep your car so clean?”, I exclaimed more than asked.

He replied, “Well, I just clean it when I get a minute.”

Just like that.

I think everything he does works that way. He just gets it done.

He just gets it done.

He also reads, plays guitar and keeps up to date on tech. He balances life at home and excels at his job. And he keeps his car squeaky clean.

He just goes out there and does it.

Why aren’t my dishes done right now as I type? Because I haven’t gone to do them.

Why are my fences in the condition they are in? Because I haven’t gone to do it.

Rotted beams in the barn collapsed under the weight of hay. Haven’t done it.

Why are the thousand other things incomplete?

I just need to go do it.

I sound like a 90’s shoe commercial.

Let’s just get some stuff done today.