Monday, March 31, 2014

Worst winter ever?

A few weeks back, during evening milking, Monika came running up to us. She was holding one of the small blue sample bottles that we use for testing milk. The sample bottle was full of snow. "I filled this with snow so that I always have something to help me remember winter," she said after I asked about the bottle. "I just love winter!"

Last week, as Dan first stepped out of the house to get on the bus, he saw the dusting of snow on the muddy driveway, like powdered sugar on a brownie, and cried, "More snow! I hope it doesn't snow for a YEAR!" This is the boy who, a few short (long?) months ago, shouted, "Mom! Mom! It's snowing! Dad! Dad! Can you push it into a pile so we can play on it?"

Little did we know that, three days later, that dusting would look wimpy compared to the five inches of wet, heavy snow that fell in five hours.

March 27, 2014

I tried very hard this winter to maintain an attitude like Monika's. I kept telling myself, this winter hasn't been that bad. I tried to refrain from complaining about the cold and the snow and then the ice. I tried to embrace all of the late starts and weather cancellations, viewing them as extra days for my kids to just be kids and not worry about schedules and school.

Our neighbor's farm is hiding behind that drift.

I tried not to complain about how cold our house was after we decided to turn the thermostat down five degrees. With the price of propane where it was and the fact that our air source heat pump wasn't running at all, we (meaning Glen) figured we could reduce our heating costs. The house was so cold that I had to soften butter for baking in the bathroom, where we kept a small space heater. The colder house didn't seem to bother anyone, except me. I wore my winter hat inside the house for the whole first week, until my body adjusted to the change. Thankfully, Glen's mom came over one day and said we couldn't keep the house that cold with a baby in the house. "It's just money," she said. So we compromised and turned the thermostat up three degrees. I still can't soften butter in the kitchen.

As the winter wore on, pictures and posts started showing up in social media labeled #worstwinterever. And I thought to myself: This isn't the worst winter ever. This is just a good, old fashioned, Minnesota winter, with snow drifts as high as houses and frosty heifers that look like wooly mammoths. We have it easy compared to what our forefathers must have endured. We have tractors and skidloaders instead of horses. We have tractors and skidloaders with heated cabs. We're not pitching silage out of our silos with forks. We have well-insulated houses and new windows that don't rattle with each gust of wind.

March 5, 2014

Gigi, Gala and Holiday on a cold, cold February morning.

Frost on the cows' feed, from the cold wind slipping through the crack in the silo room door. I thought it was pretty.

But then my attitude started to sound more like Dan's recent protest. In a matter of days, we went from this:

March 16, 2014

Back to this:

March 18, 2014

And then this happened:

March 27, 2014

On the way home from picking Monika up from preschool last Thursday, Old Man Winter finally got the best of me. Monika had just asked me why we were driving so slow when the rear wheels lost traction in the wet snow (on top of the morning's freezing rain). We didn't even fishtail. We just slid right off the road, through the ditch and crashed into the wooden corner posts of the county's four-strand barbed wire fence. Thankfully, our little off road adventure happened at a very slow pace and nobody was hurt, although Monika was pretty shaken up emotionally.

So, now I'm inclined to agree that this has been the worst winter ever.

What do you think? Has this been the worst winter ever?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Arizona Beef 'n' Cheese

Ground beef, sweet onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes, combined with southwest seasonings, and topped with shredded co-jack cheese. In a word, delicious!

If my house was a restaurant, this would be the most requested item on the menu.

This recipe was born shortly after Daphne was born. When we left the hospital, my hemoglobin was so low that my midwife sent me home with a prescription for high-potency iron supplements. I hated those pills, so I was determined to do everything I could to increase my hemoglobin as fast as possible so I could stop taking the supplements (and get my energy back).

The thought process for this recipe literally went: Beef has lots of iron. Peppers and onions have lots of Vitamin C which helps with iron absorption. How can I put them together?

For several years, I made a dish very similar to this with onions, peppers, tomatoes and beans (black, kidney and pinto). I took that recipe, substituted ground beef for the beans, changed up the seasonings and, just like that, Arizona Beef was born. (And I haven't made the beans version since.)

After the first bite, I decided the recipe needed cheese. Cheese makes everything taste better. And, at the time, I also needed all the protein and calcium I could get. It was a good decision; the addition of shredded cheese took this recipe from great to grand.

I named it Arizona Beef after the Arizona Dreaming (a Penzeys Spices seasoning blend) in the recipe. (It was a lot easier than naming our baby!) We had ordered the Arizona Dreaming with one of our last Penzeys orders, but hadn't used much of it. When I was looking through the cupboard for seasonings to add that first time I made it, I saw the Arizona Dreaming and tossed some in. It turned out to be the perfect addition.

Glen loved the recipe right away, as indicated by his customary, "You can make this again!" I did make it again. And again. And again. I ate a bowl of Arizona Beef 'n' Cheese for lunch nearly every day until my 6-week checkup showed that my hemoglobin level had returned to normal. (It reheats very well.)

I make Arizona Beef 'n' Cheese at least once a month now. I've made double batches and quadruple batches, for small family gatherings and large family gatherings. I've cooked it up in just about every cooking vessel I own – from a large skillet to a Dutch oven to a stock pot (for the quadruple batch). I like the Dutch oven best.

I still eat Arizona Beef 'n' Cheese just as it is. Glen prefers to eat it with tortilla chips and sour cream. My sister likes it over romaine lettuce. It would probably be good with rice, too.

Arizona Beef 'n' Cheese


2 tbsp butter
1 yellow bell pepper
1 orange bell pepper
1 sweet yellow onion
1 heaping tsp minced garlic

1 pound ground beef

2 tsp Penzeys Arizona Dreaming OR
          other southwest style seasoning blend (McCormick makes one)
2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp Penzeys Black & Red Pepper OR
          1/8 tsp ground black pepper and 1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground chipotle chile pepper

1 - 15 oz can petite diced tomatoes (undrained)

shredded co-jack cheese


Dice vegetables. Melt butter in large pot or pan. Sauté peppers and onions in butter until soft. Add garlic at end. Transfer sauteéd veggies to large bowl.

In same pot, brown ground beef. Mix spices into browned beef. Add tomatoes and sauteéd veggies (with the juice that accumulates) to pot.

Mix well and simmer to blend flavors (10 minutes is good, 20 minutes is better).

Serve topped with lots of shredded co-jack cheese. Also good with sour cream and tortilla chips.

(I was not compensated by Penzeys Spices or any other company for mentioning their products.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Raising children who love to read

I have known for years that helping my children learn to read is one of my most important jobs as a parent. I read books to them almost every night and supervise their reading homework.

But it hasn't always been easy. I hate to admit it, but when the kids were little, I didn't read to them as often as I thought I should. Our farm schedule was crazy, their attention spans were short, and I always seemed to have something more important to do. Thankfully, that has changed and we all look forward to bedtime stories now.

Dan started bringing AR (Accelerated Reader) books home in Kindergarten, with directions from his teacher to read them as a team. For the first couple months, those books about killed me. Dan had no interest in reading, so each page was a fight. My dream of raising children who love to read was about dashed.

child reading a book

You see, more than almost anything else, I want my kids to love reading. Not just because literacy is important to learning and citizenship and success and all that. But because reading opens the door to imagination in a way nothing else can. And because reading was my way to escape as a child and teen. During those years when social struggles made school a nightmare, I'd just bury my nose in a book on the 90-minute bus ride home and escape for awhile. (A girl can really whip through a lot of pages in 90 minutes!)

Reading is still a way for me to escape. Even if I don't pick up a book all that often anymore. The last book I read, for my own pleasure, was Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. I bought the book for a Christmas gift, but didn't end up giving it. So, one day shortly after Christmas, I decided I was going to read the book myself.

I've read most of the Harry Potter books already, so it was a quick, enjoyable read. I read mostly at night while I was sitting with Daphne, but I managed to sneak in a few chapters here and there during the day while the kids were playing. Dan saw me reading and asked me to read the book out loud to him, but I decided against it.

Something happened while I was reading that book – something I didn't expect.

One morning when I came in from the barn, I found Dan sitting in the recliner, reading the chapter book Santa Claus put in his stocking. I think Santa thought he wasn't quite ready to read that book – Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House #1) – but there he was, plowing through the chapters. He read the entire book from start to finish, taking only a short break to eat breakfast.

My heart just about exploded with pride! There was my little boy, reading a chapter book because he wanted to, not because he had to.

After that, Dan started bringing chapter books home for his weekly AR reading. At first, he would read them out loud to me or Monika or Daphne. Now he reads them to himself. And when his book order came in at school, he finished one of the books on the bus ride home. The next morning, he stuck another book in his backpack to read on the bus. The other day, he told me, "I love to read, Mom!" My heart beamed again!

The new focus on reading in our house had a trickle down effect, as well. Monika asked when she would be able to start reading chapter books. And then she started reading (reciting, actually) her picture books to anyone who would listen. She can now recite some of the books verbatim. 

child reading a book

I had no idea I was setting an example when I decided to sit down and read a book myself. But I sure am glad I did. And I'm sure I'll be picking up another book to read, sooner rather than later.

What was the last book you read? When was the last time your children saw you reading a book, not just the newspaper or a magazine? 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Keeping the barn warm

During one of this winter's really cold spells, a friend from town stopped me at school and asked: "How do you keep your barn warm when it's this cold? Do you have a heater in there?"

Considering that the temperature was -26°F (with a wind chill of -45°F) that morning, those were good questions.

How do we keep the barn warm?

We don't have a heater in the barn. We rely on the cows' body heat to keep the barn warm. A cow's normal body temperature is about 102°F, so 60 cows can really produce a lot of heat.

Our barn has exhaust fans that are controlled by thermostats. The fans allow us to keep the barn at 40°F during the winter. Without the fans, the barn could be a lot warmer, but then the air wouldn't be as fresh. By exhausting the warm air and pulling outside air into the barn, the air stays fresh, which is even more important to cattle than it is to people and other animals.

I should mention, as well, that keeping the barn warm isn't terribly important to the cows. Cows don't mind cold temperatures – in fact, they prefer temperatures much cooler than the temperatures humans prefer. Lots of cows live in colder barns and even outside during the winter. Baby calves, on the other hand, do benefit from having a warmer environment, as long as there's adequate fresh air.

We keep the barn at 40°F so that our water pipes don't freeze. That temperature also makes it more comfortable for us humans – and our little helpers – to work in.

Do you have a question about dairy farming? Post a comment or send me an email and I'll be happy to answer it.