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. 

Good Fences Make Poor Farmers

My neighbor Nell is a real agricultural ignoramus, pardon my French. A thousand times, I’ve told her cows are herbivores, and as such, my cows eat her herbs, particularly her basil and oregano. It’s just simple biology. Hence, there was no need for Nell to buy a shotgun and take shooting lessons, all just to pepper my cows with bird shot. Really, all she had to do was stop planting culinary herbs and start planting inedible weeds. A garden of pigweed, curly doc, and buttercups would suffice. Cows hate those pasture weeds; in fact, mine walk right past them on the way to Nell’s garden. 

Unfortunately, Nell always finds the hardest way possible to solve a simple problem. Concerning my cows crossing her property line, she now believes a good fence is the solution, which is exactly what someone who hasn’t studied agriculture would think. A good fence has never solved anything. For instance, the Chinese built an impediment fifty-foot high and 13,000 miles long, made of stone no less and with archers atop, and cows still got out. Cows will find a way.

The problem is Nell has no mind for agriculture, no mind for anything but sappy poems and iambic pentameter. A former English teacher, she is particularly fond of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”—you know the one where the old farmer says, “good fences make good neighbors.” Like most English teachers, she ignores facts–and the fact is Frost was a pitiful farmer whose agricultural advice should be altogether disregarded. He was such a bad farmer he quit and made more money writing poetry—rhyming poetry!

Thus, I had to set Nell straight, lest she make a big mistake. I told her listening to Frost for farming advice was like listening to Emily Dickinson for travel recommendations. I told her a good fence is a lot of work, even for a small garden like hers, but she could borrow my post hole diggers if she’d like.

“My garden, lordy no,” she replied. “I meant your pasture. Your fence is falling to pieces. Isn’t it the farmer’s responsibility to maintain fences to keep good neighborly relations?”

She delivered this with a straight face, an attempt at deadpan humor, which she really sold by pointing the shotgun at me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for second-amendment rights, but I believe there should be restrictions on gun ownership for people who like poetry. You never know when they may have a “spontaneous overflow of emotion,” as Wordsworth put it, and blast somebody. 

“Now, Nell,” I said. “That’s funny—though you really shouldn’t have taken the safety off. In fact, for a split second, I thought you were serious. But then I remembered everybody knows good fences make poor farmers.”

“How so?” she asked. 

“First, if farmers had good fences, they wouldn’t gain experience chasing livestock, which is an essential animal husbandry skill. Second, if farmers spent money building good fences, they’d be so poor they couldn’t buy livestock to go in the fence. Third, farmers have a lot more important stuff to do than mending fences, like chasing livestock.” 

“Powww!”  

Had I not ducked, I likely would have been sprayed by bird shot—but I noticed Nell starting to froth at the mouth as I talked and figured she was about ready to burst with one of those spontaneous overflows. To miss the second barrel, I timed my leap perfectly, springing upward right after she said, “Die, cow farmer!”

How to Achieve Pet Status on a Hobby Farm

Raising bottle dairy steers is not for the faint of heart. As purchasable animals, they rival only goldfish in price and ability to keel over. I’ve seen healthy day-old Jersey calves sell for less than five dollars at the sale barn. I’ve never seen a day-old Jersey bring more than fifty dollars, which is top of the market and still a reasonable value, considering some goldfish can sell for hundreds of dollars per piece. I guess koi is good eating, probably best fried with hushpuppies.

three bottle calves in a barn stall.

Dairy breeds, however, produce a bony carcass, so most of the bigtime cattlemen don’t want anything to do with a Holstein steer, and they wouldn’t be caught dead with a puny Jersey steer on their farm. “There is more meat on a big deer,” they might say. These days cattlemen just want big beefy angus cows. This may seem rather discriminatory, but it works out in favor of some dairy steers. Many are destined for hobby farms where they live a life of leisure and get a lot of entertainment out of watching people play veterinarian. I think it’s a well-known fact among dairy steers that the way to achieve pet status on a hobby farm is to get as close to death as possible without dying and then let the farmer nurse them back to health.

We’ve raised a lot of bottle calves over the years. The ones we remember the most are the ones we nearly lost and somehow doctored back to the living. Oftentimes, they’re a little stunted afterwards, which works to their advantage cause they last longer on the farm. My philosophy with raising dairy steers is most of the work is upfront, so even if it takes longer to feed them out, it’s still worth it to recoup the time spent bottle-feeding and doctoring. We grow our own grain and run it through the old hammermill, so we don’t really have a shortage of feed.

Eventually, whenever we take the calves to the sale barn, the handlers always comment on how tame the steers are. “They’re just big pets,” I respond.

Then I walk the catwalk one last time. Though the paycheck is nice, I still hate to see them go.

a group of our steers on moving day.

3 Reasons to Dwell in the Boonies during Covid Times

Please close gate behind you

Reason 1: You can go outside without fear of reprisal by the law. In fact, last week I got a visit from the law, blue lights flashing, actually requesting my presence outdoors, not deterring it–the reason being the cows were in the front yard eating shrubbery. The deputies spotted them and thought they looked out of place. Little did they know, I’ve pretty much got the cows trained to go straight for the shrubbery when I forget to close a gate. But the deputies were very nice, although Officer Beam needs to work on studying the cow wrangling section of the police manual, particularly the part about de-escalating the situation and not running wildly and flapping at bovines.

Reason 2: You can go outside in your underwear. Who needs pants when you’re holding a microwavable tray of scalding-hot bacon grease. One of my Covid-19 quarantine resolutions is to eat more bacon at breakfast. Of course, eating more bacon means I have to clean the bacon tray more often. I’ve found the fastest way to do this is to dump the grease before it cools and congeals and rinse the tray. I used to do this process in the sink before my wife caught on when the sink clogged up. Now, after negotiations with her, I’m contractually obligated to dump the grease outside and rinse the tray with a water hose, but I held my ground on wearing pants before breakfast.

Reason 3: Rural looters aren’t the smartest. I mean, if I was a beginning criminal, I wouldn’t pick an area that has more firepower stocked up than a semi-developed country. A few days ago, a local teenager decided he would spend his extra leisure time in quarantine by practicing thievery. He decided to steal a neighbor’s lawn mower at midnight. His getaway plan was to ride the lawn mower down the road. A rock solid plan, except for the fact that the owner heard him crank up and had plenty of time to handpick a weapon from his arsenal for just such an occasion. He picked such a high-powered piece that the gunshot was heard across the countryside, downed a satellite, and produced the desired effect of scaring the boy senseless and sending him fleeing into the woods. Nobody knows for sure who the boy was, but obviously he wasn’t very bright if he was stealing a run-off-the-mill riding mower instead of a zero-turn.

 Our calves–always the on lookout for escape.