Sunday, February 28, 2010

More lessons learned the hard way

This lingering cold has sapped both my energy and my creativity, which makes writing much more challenging than it usually is. So please forgive the choppy nature of this post. I think I'm finally starting to beat this bug, though; for most of the morning I could actually breathe freely out of my nose. The bad news is that Dan succumbed to the bug on Friday, which means at least another week of coughs and sniffles.

There's a lesson to be learned from these two weeks of misery. I have been reminded that I can't go like hell and not expect to fall off the horse every once in a while. I might have got sick anyway, but I'm sure any chance I had of avoiding this illness disappeared along with all the hours of sleep I've lost over the past couple months, mostly the result of trying to cram too many tasks into too little time.

It always seems like nothing can be done about how long chores take, but we found some ways to streamline heifer care. We moved some calves and heifers around, and combined two groups that I would have preferred stay separate for a while longer. I overrode my concerns about the new group of heifers, though, when I realized that sometimes we have to do what's best for the people involved in this operation, not just what's best for the heifers. The heifers have plenty of bunk space and plenty of room in their new pen, so I'm not sure why I was so reluctant to combine the groups, other than "we've always done it that way".

It's ridiculous how much faster my chores go now with the new heifer arrangements. It irks me to think of how much time I could have saved had we moved these heifers earlier, but special projects (moving heifers falls into the special projects category for us) don't get checked off the to-do list very fast around here during the winter.

We also sold some bull calves a little sooner than we probably should have. Since the bull calf price took a dive, we've been feeding our bull calves for about a month before selling them. During our first year of farming, we averaged $200 a head for week-old bull calves; it just about killed me when we got a $50 check last summer for a two-week old bull calf. There's always quarter-milker milk available, so it made good sense to feed them awhile before sending them off – until last week when I drew the line. Sometimes a couple extra dollars isn't worth the effort it takes to earn those dollars.

I would rather have learned those lessons the easy way, without getting sick, but sometimes we need to learn a lesson the hard way. Now that my chores are done earlier (at least until the next wave of heifer calves arrives), I can get to bed a little earlier and send this cold packing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Need. More. Sleep.

Parenting can be cruel at times.

As a parent of young children, I am accustomed to functioning in a state of constant sleep deprivation. (I don't even keep track anymore of how many hours I'm short each night.) Dairy farming only complicates the matter, because cattle, too, have needs that cannot easily be ignored.

That being said, there's a level of sleep deprivation at which people can function somewhat normally and a level at which they simply cannot. We reached that level this week.

Monika cut a new tooth and came down with her customary tooth-cuttting cold. Her miserable state carried on into the nights with trouble falling asleep and frequent wakings.

On Thursday night, Glen stayed up late waiting for Dimple to calve since she had so much trouble the last time.

That set the stage for Friday morning when Dan woke up at 3 a.m. after a nightmare and didn't go back to sleep until he was in his stroller in the barn. Thankfully, Glen handled that two-and-a-half hours from you-know-where. I'm really not sure how he functioned all day Friday.

The situation worsened when my sore throat turned into a full-fledged, cough-until-you-puke cold. Thanks, Monika.

Then, Monika's misery reached it's peak last night – well, actually it was this morning. She was up at 4 a.m. and cried inconsolably until 5:30. If I hadn't been so doggoned tired, I might have lost my mind.

I felt like a zombie most of the day, but I survived. On a wishful note, we are turning in early tonight in hopes of recapturing some of our lost sleep.

Good night!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Udder supports?

You know how when you bite your lip or the inside of your cheek you tend to bite that same place a couple more times before it heals?

Well, we've got a cow with that problem, only she's not biting her lip, she's stepping a teat. She stepped on the same teat six times during her last lactation. She's just fresh again now. Her teat healed nicely during her time off and we'd like to keep it that way.

Does anyone have experience with udder supports? Do they help prevent squashed teats? Any other ideas?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No more guilt

Why is it that we are inclined to feel guilty about enjoying the pleasures of life? Is it our culture? Is guilt such a pervasive feeling in other cultures?

One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a long, hot shower. As I stand under the water, letting it wash away my stress (and the smell of barn), there's a volley going on inside my head that goes like this: "I really shouldn't be wasting water like this. But I don't run the water while I brush my teeth, so I can stand here a couple more minutes. And I always do full loads of dishes and laundry. Just a couple more minutes."

I grew up in the "Save Water" decade. We had monthly seminars in elementary school about conserving water. The messages were well ingrained in my head. Wasting water was as sinful as stealing. Being a water-lover in a save-water-society is a tough row to hoe.

But I'm not feeling guilty anymore. I recently switched our showerhead to a water conservation model. (If you receive your electricity from a cooperative such as Stearns Electric Association you can get a water conservation kit for just $10 until March 31.) The new showerhead reduces water output by a gallon a minute. I'm in heaven. I'm having my cake and eating it, too. Yeah, a long shower is still not a good use of clean water, but now I'm using a lot less water.

As much as I love a good hot shower, I think Dan loves a cold glass of chocolate milk even more. Hands down, "bunny" milk, as he calls it (you know, the Nesquik Bunny), is his favorite food and beverage.

I used to feel terrible about allowing my son to drink chocolate milk for breakfast, lunch and supper. Not anymore. Recent research shows that children who consume flavored milk have greater total milk intake, less soft drink and fruit drink intake, but similar juice intake, compared to children who do not drink flavored milk.  Flavored milks are nutrient-rich and provide the same nutrients and benefits as unflavored milk. (Go to for more information.)

So go ahead and mix up a glass of chocolate milk for your little tike — and one for yourself — and skip the guilt. (Now, this only applies to chocolate milk. If you eat that whole box of Valentine's chocolates, you'll have to come up with your own justification.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Off Feed (Illness)

I spent the first couple days of this week feeling pretty lousy. I didn't have any obvious symptoms other than an upset stomach and fatigue. If I had a 9-to-5 job, I probably would have called in sick and slept on the couch for two days straight; but sick days aren't really an option when you're a self-employed parent, unless you're too sick to stand.

On Sunday, Dan asked me if I was sad.

"No, honey," I told him, "Mama's just sick. My tummy doesn't feel good."

"Drink some chocolate milk, Mama," he replied. "Chocolate milk help you feel better."

I wish it could have been that simple. But, usually, when I feel like I can't eat, it's better that I don't. When we were growing up, my dad always told us to stop eating as soon as we started to feel sick to our stomachs. I still abide by that advice.

On day two of dragging myself through my chores, Glen asked me, "Do you need to be stomach pumped?" (There's no line in our family between what happens to cows and what happens to people.)

"No," I said. "I'm keeping myself hydrated on my own, thank you."

When our cows stop eating and the vet can't find anything else wrong, the event is recorded in Scout as Off Feed (Illness). It's a vague, catch-all category for illnesses of unknown causes. We take cows off-feed pretty seriously – most cows can't live on nothing but applesauce for two days.

Thankfully, losing body condition and twisting my stomach were two things I didn't have to worry about.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Our trip to Texas last fall for the National Milk Producers Association's Young Cooperators Program brought us to the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, which claimed to be the Christmas Capital of Texas. And our hotel, it seemed, spared no expense in capitalizing on this claim. When we arrived at our hotel, the grounds were swarming with workers putting up Christmas lights (we later found out the display included 1.5 million lights) and there was a gigantic sign next to the driveway which announced "3 Days until ICE!"

The flyer we received at check-in announced the upcoming grand opening of the ICE! exhibit, but offered no description of the event and all the hotel concierge would tell us was, "Oh, you just have to see it to believe it."

So, for the next couple days as we traveled through the convention center's atria, we watched workers setting up Christmas decorations and sprinkling fake snow everywhere, thinking, "You'd think it's the week before Christmas in here, but it's not even Thanksgiving yet! What exactly is this ICE! hoopla all about?"

The day before the grand opening of ICE!, we finally heard our first explanation of what the exhibit featured. A Texan dairyman at our convention told us: "They chill this tent and fill it with two million pounds (literally) of sculpted, painted ice. They keep the tent at nine degrees. Oh, you should really go if you're going to be here when it opens. By next week, there will be people waiting in line for three hours to enter."

We were intrigued. When we got back to our room that night we called to inquire about tickets for ICE! The tickets were 23 dollars a person. We decided that 46 dollars was too much to spend to see ice. After all, we didn't go to Texas to don winter coats and ogle over ice. We have nearly six months to do that here in Minnesota.

Our reasoning was easy enough to understand. When we were asked the next day by another Texan if we were going to ICE!, all I had to say was, "Well, we're from Minnesota –"

"– Oh, I understand," he said before I could even explain.

I've found myself thinking quite a bit over the last couple weeks, with the ice storm in January and now this snow event, about the novelty of ice in Texas and their "green" Christmas. Maybe we should consider ourselves lucky to live in a place graced with the beauty of winter. Or maybe we should just start selling tickets.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lessons learned the hard way

For as long as Dan's been running free in the barn, I've been trying to teach him not to walk right in front of the cows.

"Walk with your hand on the wall, not in the cows' feed!"

Do you think he listens? No. I guess there are some lessons – like not walking in front of the cows or not touching the electric fence – that kids have to learn for themselves, because Dan still walks right in front of the cows. The cows either turn their heads to let him pass or back up in their stalls. They've become unflappable. The shrieking, skipping, feed tossing, seemingly invincible little being in the blue snowsuit has long since failed to cause them any concern.

Until last night.

Hermione, who usually stands in the back of the barn, was standing in the first stall. Dan and Skippy came barreling down the manger. Just as I yelled to remind Dan not to run right in front of the cows, Hermione tossed her head. I'm not sure if she was aiming for Dan or Skippy, but she sent Dan to the ground.

It was a relatively mild toss, so I was sure Dan wasn't hurt. But he stayed there on the ground and sobbed for quite some time. I think his ego was bruised more than anything else.

After he picked himself up off the ground, he was mad. He lowered his eyebrows into a scowl, pointed at Hermione and told me in his most authoritative voice, "Mama, you put her in time out!"

I turned around so he wouldn't see me chuckle. Maybe he's learned his lesson.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Murphy's Laws of Milk Testing

We're testing milk tonight. Generally, we have terrible tests. As evidence, our percent milk sold for the past year has averaged 94 percent. We try not to let it bother us – after all, we're not trying to set any records. But it would be nice to see the test results reflect how the cows normally milk. It seems like whenever Dan, our field man, calls, something goes wrong. Last month was so bad, that a week later Glen said he wanted to call Dan back for a do-over.

Here are the Murphy's Laws of Milk Testing:

1. When the DHIA tester calls to say he'll be there tomorrow night, you can bet tomorrow's high will top 90 degrees.

2. Your DHIA tester will schedule your test for the busiest week of your month, and often, the busiest day of that week.

3. In the 36 hours between when the tester calls and actually arrives to sample milk, the temperature will drop to -20 degrees, the silo unloader will break down and the cows will have to eat nothing but dry hay and grain for the 12 hours it takes to repair the unloader.

4. The morning before you're scheduled to test, the best cow in the barn will come down with mastitis, thus inflating your average SCC and eliminating your chances of making "The List".

5. You synch a group of cows to be in heat on Thursday. Wednesday morning your tester calls to say he's coming Thursday night. The good news is your synch worked and you've got a half-dozen cows to breed. The bad news is, they didn't milk worth a darn for the test.

And the list goes on. Dairy farming is always challenging, we just wish some of those challenges would wait until after we're done testing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I should have known better

About a month ago, I vowed to delete the words just, only and almost from my vocabulary. The reasoning went something like this: I'd be finished with about three-quarters of my chores for the morning (or evening), look at the clock, and think to myself, "I'm almost done. I just need to feed the bull calves and bed the heifers. I can be in the house early this morning." Or, Glen would flag me down, ask how my chores were going and I'd tell him, "I've only got the new calves left" or something like that.

I swear, every time I uttered the words almost, just or only, either to myself or to Glen, I could count on adding another hour to my chores because something would come up, I'd think, "I'm ahead of schedule; I have time to eartag those calves this morning" or Glen would ask me to push up feed and I'd say yes.

So, for the last month, I've resisted the urge to look at the clock and gauge my progress during chores. I'm certainly not getting in the house any earlier, but at least I'm not deceiving myself into thinking I'm almost done.

I forgot about my new rule on Sunday night. I had finished everything but bedding the heifers in the overflow pen and feeding two of the bull calves. I went out to the hay shed for a bale of straw and heard the unmistakable, nearly silent sound of a mother cow greeting her newborn calf. Just outside the door in the dry cow pen was Dinky licking her new calf. I looked around for the other calf, since we knew she was due with twins and the calf on the ground was tiny. By the time I carried the bull calf to the barn, the second twin was coming – backwards, of course.

By the time we got Dinky in the barn, delivered the breech twin (a heifer, of course), milked Dinky, fed the two calves and settled them into the warmer, my hopes of being in the house early had been blown to smithereens. I should have known better than to let myself think about an early night.

As I always tell myself, though, when chores run long, it could have been worse. We had two new live calves and a healthy cow. It won't be the last time chores trump sleep. I just need to remember that the mere act of thinking about getting chores done early is enough to guarantee that they won't be.