The Three Truths of Raising Livestock

If you walk far on our farm during winter, you’ll likely come up missing footwear, especially if you try to traverse the Bog of Despair, which is centered around the hay ring. It contains a few old-growth rubber boots that are as firmly rooted in the muck as swamp gums in the Bayou. The poor soles are a grim reminder of what happens when bipeds with loosely-fitting rubber boots on their trotters attempt such a superfluous task as removing twine from a hay roll. 

A lot of farmers don’t bother cutting and removing the twine, but if anybody was going to lose a cow because twine got knotted up in the digestive tract, it would probably be me. I once lost a cow to a plastic feedsack. “Probably just a little case of pneumonia,” the vet said, having stopped by since the cow was off its feed and acting puny, “likely this shot will get her perked back up and feeling better by tomorrow.” By tomorrow, the cow was as perky as a three-toed sloth, and by the next day it was as perky as a dead three-toed sloth. Figures, most farmers get to tell stories of losing cows to cunning predators like coyotes or mountain lions or chupacabras, but I lose a cow to a plastic bag.   

I know it was a plastic feed sack because after we dragged the carcass off and let nature take its course, my wife’s poppaw returned to examine the remains. In the ribs, he found a feedsack that had been balled up and compacted so tightly it could have been an effective projectile in a small cannon. 

In my opinion, losing animals is the worst part of farming, especially when I easily could have prevented that loss by throwing the empty feedsack away instead of saving it for who knows why. After that, I was admittedly feeling pretty glum. In consolation, my wife’s poppaw told me there are two truths to raising livestock: “Animals are going to get out, and animals are going to die; a person who ain’t prepared to deal with those two facts don’t need to be raising livestock.”

He was right of course, but I’d also like to add a third truth: a farm is going to get muddy in winter, and a person who ain’t prepared to lose a boot, best walk barefoot. 

26 thoughts on “The Three Truths of Raising Livestock

  1. When we were kids, all five of us decided to go on a late winter picnic. We brought hot dogs and matches, figuring we’d cook up lunch. We took a shortcut across the soybean field, which hadn’t quite thawed, or so we thought. About half way across, we became mired. Deeply. At some point, we had to decide between saving my little sister–with or without her boots. The boots remained. We made it to the wind break between two fields. With some wild digging, all of us, except the little one, retrieved our boots. But we were covered in the slimy clay which was the soil of my childhood. We gave up on our final destination–having spent hours already escaping the quicksand. We built our little fire right there in the windbreak, with sticks and grasses. We were wet and cold. We circled the fire with our boots, to dry them out. We added more wood to get the hot dogs cooking and the picnic turned out okay. It wasn’t until we were almost ready to go back across the field that we noticed that the larger fire had burned the tops off of all of our boots! There was hell to pay when we got home. (And there, we thought we’d be heroes, for returning with the little sister.)

    1. It’s strange how parents never appreciate our acts of heroism. Sounds like quite the childhood adventure, though–with quicksand, and hot dogs and boots roasting on an open fire, all without parental supervision. Kind of makes me want to go back and be a kid again.

      Happy New Year!

  2. Great read! You the man to ‘splain something: A high school dairy hand, I never figured them rubbery slip-on sissy boots some farmers wear. Parlor hands said it was ‘water-proofing.’ I fancied it was because they couldn’t tie shoelaces. Or they wanted to shed those sorry looking, ill-fitting, clumsy things quick as Bossy 186 left her bi-daily contribution. I worked fields year-round. For example, running wagons to fill silos, dismounting to ignite the tractor running the blower PTO, I walked through knee-deep cow sludge. Wore weather-proof real boots, with laces to mid-calf. Socks never got wet. Knee-deep around the silo, cow sludge woulda topped the parlor hands’ pretend boots, filling them with, well, cow sludge. Never a problem for me. When a parlor hand didn’t show, I worked half the herringbone, in parlor-style cow-sludge only pitifully ankle deep. Sanitation, I reckon. Them rubber slip-on boots made no sense. You got it coming for wearing that kind of boot. Now in the summer, stretching fence hip deep in murk in a flooded swale’s a different story. Pretend boots wouldn’t do there either. Reminds me, once, it was either hip-waders or nekkid, and I…

    1. At work I normally wear real, waterproof, laced up boots. The problem is when I come home. The floor inspector won’t let me in the door with my work boots on, largely because she doesn’t appreciate the soil sample collections from random farms I will deposit on the floor. And I’ve always got to go in and out for some errand or chore of great importance, so stopping to lace those boots up and take those boots off ever time I approach the threshold to the inner sanctum is tedium to an inpatient person like me, hence the rubbery boots.

      I can’t explain the parlor hand’s rationale, but maybe they were just preparing for later in life when pleasing a Floor Inspector would become a top priority. 😉

  3. great storytelling (the truth) as always – really enjoy your way with words. my winter boot experience this morning was different than yours since i had to put on crampons – safety third! i don’t bounce very well anymore off that ice. I’ve lost cows and calves to wadded up netwrap i didn’t get removed before ice set it on tight to the bales – may bad management. i don’t leave it on whilst space bale feeding anymore thinking ‘oh i’ll get to it as i strip off the bales during the winter’ HA hA HA – what a nightmare. Now, as you have been reading, my focus is entirely avoiding hay feeding altogether. have a great end of the year celebration.

    1. Thank goodness we don’t have that snow and ice down here. I’d probably be slipping and sliding so much I wouldn’t survive. We’ve got a few farmers down here experimenting with not feeding hay; it’s just hard to get the balance and rotation right since we don’t have a real good option for summer grazing and then it seems like we have droughts every few years now that devastate fescue pastures and leave everybody scrambling for hay. But I agree, the less hay I have to feed, the better.

      1. you have pointed up many of the issues a producer must put a pencil to and make a quality of life decision based on your particular goals and resources. in my case, it simply costs too much time and money to be profitable in the commercial cow/calf business plus the time and machinery involved is astronomical in relation to any hint of profitability. i don’t like snow and ice either, but this is where my husband lives, so guess i’ll hang around.

  4. My donkey pooped out a plastic bag once. I got so angry that I wrote a presentation and delivered it to Master Naturalist groups. I pick up every bag I find, plus any of that irritating green stuff they cover round bales with. And all baling twine and wire must be taken care of. In the other hand, you have my sympathy on the boots. Muck is powerful.

  5. I’m never prepared for my livestock to get sick or die, but I still love having them so I just cross my fingers and do what I can to keep them safe. I also try to keep the plastic twine away from the goat and sheep.

  6. We have a young hen who was born and raised on our farm. Her leg has gone lame and is not getting better. Tons of advice – no answers. Critters have died on us, but this is the first one we have to end ourselves. You made an unfortunate truth a very good read. I actually snorted at the “dead” sloth bit.

    1. We got a eight year old hen. The old girl just limps about all over the place. We know the time is coming soon, and I dread having to dispatch her. Honestly, I keep hoping she’ll die of natural causes like a fox or owl but obviously she has been the luckiest hen ever to make it to eight years old.

  7. Laughing and crying because it’s all too true. My mother in law says, “that’s the stuff you file away in your “oh, shucks” folder and vow to never do that again.”

  8. I once nearly lost a boot doing field work in Washington near a very mucky creek. I went in nearly to my hip and needed my supervisor to help pull me out. We then fetched he troublesome loose boot from the muck.

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