Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Seven Moments of Farming in 2010

10. New vacuum pump. Relatively small price tag for huge peace of mind. (This is the machine that provides the vacuum for the entire milking system. The old one made a lot of loud, anxiety-producing noises.)

9. Kris made cheese. This is what all farmers must do in their free time. I stood by, cheering him on, wearing an apron with my hair in braids. Just kidding.

8. Our first foray into grass-fed beef sales. Hungry, anyone?

7. Snapped corn for the first time with a kernel processor. (This grinds up the corn so the cattle can digest it better – which saves us money since we don’t have to buy corn.)

6. Buying more acres of pasture that were adjacent to another pasture. (Thank you, Marsha!)

5. Getting an entire cutting of hay done in one week. (Perfect weather conditions. It didn’t rain, and it was warm. This never happens.)

4. Putting up the paddock fencing and the resulting success that we didn’t have to feed them our stored hay.

3. Building the new concrete pad – more space to put feed! (A lot of this list revolves around food. Like our vacations.)

2. Kris winning a farming award. It’s nice to get an award for a job you’re going to do anyway. I’m thinking of giving myself an award.

1. My son yelling from atop the pile of feed, “I’m learning how to be a farmer!”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


We rent about 250 acres from a few different people, and today Kris took them their rent checks. We own acres ourselves, but we also rent them to grow crops we need to feed the cattle, and we spread manure nutrients on them.

Buying land has become cost-prohibitive here, due to the fact that there are lots of dairy farms. As a result, land regularly sells for over $4000/acre and has sold for $6000/acre a few times since we’ve lived here. As you add more cows to a dairy, the more land you need to grow crops and spread manure on, so you’re not over-fertilizing the land.

We use our rental acres to grow alfalfa (hay) and corn. A lot of people out here have ties to their land – like their families used to farm it. They don’t want to sell it but they don’t farm for a living, so they’re happy to have it used for farm land. It’s the best of both worlds – we can rent it, they can own it and look out on crops!

One of the people we rent from put it very nicely in her Christmas card. She wrote, “Thank you for taking care of my land!”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A bad call

When I was growing up, the cows getting out was always a big deal. A big, scary deal.

They always seemed to do it in the middle of the night. I particularly remember one July 4th when fireworks scared them and they ran several miles away. My mom’s particular fear was that someone would hit one with a car.

The first month we moved here the cattle got out and a cop stopped … at my parents’ house. My parents were a little annoyed, because they’d thought by moving they’d avoid being woken up to hear this bad news.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a community event. Earlier this year the heifers got out at 3am. All of them. At once. They’d managed to maneuver the fence open. We got calls from every direction – eight heifers were a mile down one road, 20 were a mile down a different road, ten were in our employee’s yard.

My parents, Kris, two employees and I were all trying to get them in. Kris took a truck down the road and chased them with the truck back to the barn. We’d closed the gate to keep the other ones in. I looked down the road and could see the heifers coming, illuminated by Kris’ headlights. It was dark and quiet – the only sounds you could hear were the heifers’ hooves, running on the paved road.

Meanwhile, I was frantically trying to get the gate back open. If I didn’t get the gate open when the herd was running toward me … they’d just pass the barn by and keep running. Not only would this prolong the couple of hours it was taking to get them back in, but I was really going to be mocked for it later. In the dark I fumbled with the gate and the wire we’d wound around it, and I kept glancing up at the herd running closer. Finally, I got it open and they all ran right back where they belonged. I felt like I was in a movie. You know, like those agricultural-suspense ones that are so popular.

Kris was eating lunch today, and an employee called to tell him that a calf had gotten out. She’d climbed out through the feeder and was kicking up her heels near the road. Cattle love being in new places! And running in the road! They got her in in less than five minutes. He continued his lunch where he’d left off.

Of course it’s not the last time, but it wasn’t bad as cows-getting-out goes.
But I’ll tell you one of the best feelings - even though you always help - when someone stops and you go outside, adrenaline racing, to chase the cows in and see … they’re not your cattle.

Doesn't look like she could fit through there, does it?

Monday, December 27, 2010

It doesn't seem like a Monday

For all the summer days that Kris works 14 hours, it’s nice to have winter days like today when he worked three. Just fed the cattle this morning and went to a family Christmas in another town for the rest of the day. And no calls about anything breaking or the cows getting out! (Again, this freedom is being brought to you by reliable employees.)

And, is there anything better than going to a family Christmas and hearing about how much far-away family members love to read your blog and in addition, how much they’re learning? That’s really making my Christmas merry.

As for the broken items: they’re going to rebuild the metal frame for the manure scraper. If it were a busy time of year (like the three other seasons during calving, planting, and harvesting) we would buy a new metal frame or have a fabrication company build it. However, since it broke during a slow time, we have enough hours in the day to make another one.

They had to order the belt for the feeder and it should be here this week. So the cows will be able to eat more, faster. Something I know we all mastered during the holiday meals. More sugar, anyone?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

It just wouldn’t be a holiday without something breaking

The feeder belt broke this morning. We have two feeders in the barn, a main feeder and a back feeder. This is how a feeder works – the feed goes from the mixer into a series of elevators that moves the feed to the center of the barn. Then the feed drops on a conveyor belt, which moves the feed through the entire barn so the cattle can eat it out of a manger. (Manger! We’re still hitting the Christmas theme!)

All the complexity of it is why people don’t build feeders anymore. We have feeders like this because they were state of the art in the early 1970s when the barn was built. When people build barns now, they design them so they can just drive a mixer wagon through the middle of the barn and dump it on the cement floor.

The belt broke on only the back feeder. Since the main feeder still worked, it wasn’t a disaster – just less cows could eat at one time. To fix it, we have to call an agricultural supply store that will probably have one in stock. But they’re not open on Sundays.

Even before that, Kris noticed that the cable you pull to direct the feed to the different feeders had snapped. It was old and rusty. He temporarily used a vise grips as the handle.

The first thing broke on Christmas Day. After every milking, they scrape manure out of the barn alleys into manure pits. The manure scraper is a huge tire cut in half with a frame on it that attaches to the tractor. The mounting bolt pulled through the frame. The tire was sagging away from the frame, and now that it’s been used for two days like that, it’s pulling apart. The frame is rusty from – guess what! – being covered in manure all the time.

Since, like everyone else, we and the employees are doing Christmas-y things, we’re trying to limp into next week until anyone has time to fix anything.

That’s something that’s not an easy fix - people. We have great employees and are always thankful for them, this time of the year and always! So, back to the real world this week … after a few more Christmas parties.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Christmastime in the country

Last night at 2:21am Kris' phone rang. There was the usual chaos of him scrambling to make the noise stop - slamming his alarm clock, grabbing the phone ... before he saw it was a salesman, obviously dialing him on accident. (Unless he's just a really persistent salesman? THE most in the world?) Kris just hung up and went back to sleep.

Like most business owners, Kris can't turn off his phone at night. Before we bought the farm, my parents wanted to make sure we knew that ... that you're really never off of work when you're at home.

On holidays, the cows still need milking and feeding, but you don't do anything extra. Just the bare minimum, so you can spend the rest of the time with your family, like most everybody.

Except that salesman. Maybe he's making some more calls today.

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Starter up

Kris had to jumpstart a tractor to start it three days in a row. Yesterday he called the dealer mechanic and they determined it was the starter. Kris paid for overnight shipping, because he figured the kids wouldn't understand why he was late for Christmas morning.

So the dealer mechanic is coming today to put the starter in - hopefully. If the shipping and part and mechanic's schedule all work out. The elements that have to come together are almost as complicated as Santa's.

We got another little snowfall and it's beautiful. Bum tractors aside!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Job decisions

As soon as I saw the officer put his hand on his gun, I knew I was going to get a ticket.

I looked exactly like what I was – a mom with a car full of kids, leaving a museum. I could barely look less threatening, unless I also had a BABY ON BOARD sign and some Beanie Babies on my dash. You know when he’s following procedure exactly - approach the vehicle ready for anything! – that he’s also not going to listen to your excuse for speeding.

It was a pretty good excuse. My baby was crying in his car seat because he was hungry. This makes anyone anxious to get home … especially if you’re the person that’s supposed to be feeding him.

Sure enough, I got a ticket.

Later, in the car, my son said, “When I grow up, I want to be a policeman. Because I want to stop robbers. And … pull people over.”

My other son said, “I want to be a farmer. I want to farm with daddy.”

Cop or farmer – apparently I’ll see plenty of both of them.

Milk and meetings

In the corporate world, barely a day passed that we didn’t have meetings. When you own your own business, you have . . . yes, meetings galore! Kris had two back-to-back meetings today in between feeding the cattle.

When he’s not meeting with contractors, salesmen, bankers, the accountant … he has meetings for Farm Bureau and our milk co-op, Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA).

Friends often ask if they’re drinking OUR milk when they buy it at the store. We sell our milk to MMPA, which is a member-owned dairy cooperative that started waaaay back in 1916. With MMPA, we are guaranteed payment for our milk. They then process and sell the fluid milk and dairy products to grocery stores, food companies, the government, etc. (So chances are if you’re in Michigan, yes!)

Earlier this year, Kris and I toured the MMPA plant in Ovid, MI. It was giant. It was room after room of generators, boilers, and milk separators. Some of them looked like they were just a joke:

It was a milk drying room – powdered milk is made by evaporating milk to dryness. You didn’t know people still consumed powdered milk? They do … here’s a giant room just full of bags of powdered milk, ready to be shipped:

My family has been MMPA members for a long time. Some things never change, like this: the milk has to get to the plant. Here’s the trucking company we pay to ship the milk. They pump it out of our milk tank and take it there.

Meetings are long, often boring, but really necessary. Know how to improve any meeting? Bring ice cream! Or various other dairy products! Just think how popular you’d be if you entered the room with a wheel of cheese. If this catches on, MMPA could have its best year ever …

Monday, December 20, 2010

Good fences make good pastures

When I’m flying, I wish there were an audio tour of what you can see below. (Except when you’re above the clouds, because then it would just be a running commentary on what you’re missing. Sort of like every time there’s a great astronomical event, like the BEST meteor shower you’ll ever see! Or tonight's lunar eclipse! And there’s a complete cloud cover. This has only happened 45 times in my life.)

An acquaintance once showed me her vacation pictures, and she had a few she’d taken out of the plane window. She said, “They were crop circles. I couldn’t figure out why there were so many crop circles. It was creepy.” I told her they were crops in circles, but they weren’t anything scary – it’s just that they were irrigated. Irrigation systems go in circles, and since it’s drier in the western US, they need water to grow. The corners simply didn’t grow.

When my dad was farming, he installed an irrigator for the pasture. As a result, the cattle can eat pasture even during years when there’s not much rain. We installed another one in a different field when we moved here. That's a picture of it on top of the page.

Last year, Kris divided the pastures into even more paddocks. (A paddock is just a word for an enclosed pasture where animals eat.) They moved the cattle every day so that each paddock had longer to grow in between the times cattle were grazing on it.

So from above, our pasture looks like a pinwheel. And every day, they move the cattle to a different section of the pinwheel. By the time they get to the beginning, the grass has recovered and is ready to be eaten again.

In winter, our heifers are still on pasture (even though we also feed them). Today the employees are replacing a temporary fence with a high-tensile fence. The heifers and deer keep breaking the temporary one. So even though pasture and fencing seem like warm-weather events, it’s something you can always work on in the winter.

So maybe someone is on a plane right now, looking down and wondering . . . “What the heck am I looking at?! Crop pinwheels?”

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Long before I had kids, my sister told me about a conversation she had. She heard her young daughter explain to her son, “There’s a chicken that goes ‘bawk bawk’, then there’s the chicken you eat.” My sister corrected her, saying, “That’s the same chicken.” Her daughter insisted she was wrong.

I remembered this when my kids started eating meat, and with all the talk about people not knowing where their food comes from, I wanted to make sure they knew. So I explain that ham is made out of pigs, the chicken we’re eating are like the ones our neighbor has, and beef is cow.

Specifically, the beef we eat is either from a 4-H Fair steer, or a steer of our own. We had a steer butchered last year. Kris named him Ribeye.

We were grilling and a friend said she wouldn’t eat our burgers (though she normally had no problem with eating meat), because she wouldn’t eat anything with a name.

“Do you think the eggs that went into those brownies you’re eating had names?” another friend asked her, chewing away happily.

Sometimes our kids use the names too correctly. “Can I please have more cow?” they’ll ask at dinner. At a restaurant last night one asked about a pizza with ham, “Can I have more piggy pizza?”

I’m glad it’s this extreme rather than the other. In fact, they were in a Christmas program at church today. Someone asked my son what he was going to be in it.

“I’m going to be one of OUR cows,” he said, meaning he was black and white. The other son pretended to eat him.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The fuel pump seemed to solve the problem! UPS rolled in yesterday afternoon ... right after Kris had left for the barn. I called him and he came and picked up the package right away. Here's the skid steer working as intended!

Cell phones ... when I was growing up, what I wanted more than anything was a phone my dad could carry around with him. My dad seemed often unreachable. (Especially if I was waiting somewhere for him to pick me up. Like from high school orientation, when I waited two hours. I finally got ahold of my grandma, who wasn't driving much anymore. As she drove me home, I thought, "If we get in an accident, dad's going to feel really bad for forgetting me." Ah, the nostalgia! Ah, the self-centeredness of a teenager!)

But with the wonder of cell phones, my dream has come true! Kris is available for calling and texting at all hours - whether it's me asking a question or the employees telling him the cows are out.

But for today, a mechanical problem is fixed. Maybe my dreams of cell phones that don't drop calls all the time will someday also come true.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Breaking down silos - and not in the business context

Kris is hoping UPS gets here with the skid steer’s fuel pump before it’s time to feed the cattle tonight. (He uses the skid steer to feed them every morning and night.) He uses it to take feed off of the feed pile, which is made up of alfalfa and corn we harvested. Since there’s no pasture right now, we feed it to the cattle all winter long.

Then he loads the feed into a mixer, which mixes the different types of feed together. It goes into the feeder inside the barn, so all the cattle who just got milked can eat. He also uses it to feed the heifers who are outside.

Here’s what the feed pile looks like before we cover it with the tarp and tires:

People used to store feed in silos, until everyone got sick of them. (Some farmers still use them, but few build them anymore.) They’re really hard to fix, for one thing. Anytime anything breaks in a silo, or needs adjusting, you need to climb up into the silo. It’s physically hard, it’s hard to breathe, it’s dangerous, and often really hard to fix anyway. It’s a lot easier to work with feed in piles on cement.

As a result, when we moved to the farm, we took down three silos. How do you knock down a silo? you may ask. Well, one silo someone wanted to reuse, so a company took it apart block by block and took it away on a trailer. This silo was starting to lean toward the barn and was unusable.

Here’s the scene: Kris, my dad, and our employee. Me, standing faaaaaaaar away in the field, ready to call for emergency medical help. First, they attached a cable to the silo, then attached it to a tractor, in order to encourage the silo to fall away from the barn. Then, they took turns hitting it with a sledgehammer.

Yep, you read that right!

They took a lot of hits, knocking out the entire bottom – you can see the black stripe of emptiness in the picture below. It seemed impossible it was standing with all of that support gone. However, when they pulled with the tractor, the cable came off, so my dad climbed up to reattach the cable. I was yelling things like, “Don’t do it! Mom’s going to be SO MAD!” (You know, when he's crushed. I have to note that I was the only one who was nervous about this. The guys were fully at ease.)

They took one more hit with the sledgehammer. The block crumbled from the weight, everyone ran to safety, and it fell perfectly in the right direction. Just as they planned.

I even got a video of it. Think the camera work is a little shaky due to my extreme nervousness? No doubt … but still, with 12,000 hits, here’s our biggest YouTube sensation. I like to call it Extreme! Farming!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Outdoors and indoors

It was one of those beautiful mornings where everything was completely covered in ice. It was so pretty it made up for it being 5 degrees.

We've had lots of mechanics around ... how about piano mechanics? Here's a piano tuner getting us ready for Christmas music in our cozy house.


We own two Caterpillar skid steers. When I use the word 'skid steer', none of my friends know what I'm talking about. Sometimes I have to say, "Some people call it a Bobcat ..." which is like using the word Kleenex for tissue. Since they're made by Cat, and Bobcats are made by - guess - Bobcat! - the formerly-employed by Caterpillar Kris really doesn't like that. In fact, he still has a shirt from Caterpillar ...

Some of our employees are good mechanics. When you work with machinery all the time, you also get to be a good mechanic. Because if you can't figure it out yourself, then you have to pay for the dealer to come and work on it. Yes! They come to you, because it's obviously much easier than trucking your equipment on a trailer and taking it to a shop.

If it's really bad ... and sometimes it is ... you do have to do that. Last summer we took in a tractor to a dealership because it was stuck in 4-wheel drive. They had to split the tractor. This is a big deal - it means they opened it up from the middle to get to the drivetrain.

Kris and I stopped in at one point to look at it. It was amazing: there was a tractor in two parts, with a million tractor-pieces laid out on a table. I could hardly believe anyone could put it back together again in the way it was intended. (Then it still didn't work, so we had to take it back, and they had to do it again. So it IS a hard puzzle. An expensive, hard puzzle.)

So our skid steer isn't working very well. Kris said it "chugs" and "runs hard." So the dealer mechanic came out and worked on it. It still isn't working quite right. So we're trying some of his suggestions tonight. Kris ordered a new fuel pump and hoping that it fixes the problem.

In the meantime, Kris has been using the skid steer without the cab on it. In fact, he purchased his first pair of Carhartt bibs yesterday to fight the cold. Oh - never heard of Carhartts either? They're a brand name for heavy duty workwear.

Carhartts ... skid steers ... when you get a new business, you also get a new vocabulary!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We've come a long way

My great grandma Ione was born in my house. Her dad, Warren Casterline, built our barn and granary. Ione married Floyd Anderson, and the two of them farmed. They had two children – Jean and my grandpa, Dale. (They were also born in the house. Home births – popular then, popular now!)

In 1918, they added onto the house and renovated. Dale graduated from Michigan State University, taught agriculture for about five years, got married, and moved to farm with his dad. My dad, Jack, graduated from MSU with a civil engineering degree, was in the army, got married, and worked in Detroit for about five years before moving back to farm with his dad and brother.

Our farm is a centennial farm. Our house is about 130 years old. I chose this state, and I chose to live in this house. Sometimes I wonder why my ancestors didn’t start a farm in (sunny!) North Carolina. Or I wonder why they didn’t put more than one electrical outlet in each room.

But also … I like to think about looking at the same views my grandpa saw. I like to think about walking on the same creaky stairs my great grandma toddled up. I like to see the beautiful non-code floor windows and caution my children about breaking them. (I’ll appreciate the windows more when they’re older!)

This was the sunrise this morning. I’m probably the fifth generation in my family to walk outside and run back inside to get my digital camera so I could upload it immediately and share it on my blog. Wait ... that’s ... quickly draw a picture and send it in the mail that took a month.

Well, I’m sure we’re sharing all sorts of other experiences - those windows are hard to wash no matter what generation you are.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Terms of endearment

When my dad was a farmer, I didn’t pay much attention. But when it’s your business, you note every detail. For instance, people usually call all cattle “cows”. But there are different terms for them, that I didn’t even use correctly until I moved here as an adult:

Calf - from birth until one year old
Heifer – a female from one year old until she has a calf
Cow – a female after she’s had a calf
Bull – a male
Steer – a male that has been castrated

Before I went to college, I never thought much about being from a dairy farm, since there are so many in the area. But if it ever came up in conversation, people were interested. I remember one girl telling me, “I just figured everyone in Michigan went to the beach all summer – like me.” I had lots of friends come and tour the farm.

After college and grad school, I got married and lived in three different states. When we moved back, I met new friends … and they were all interested to come and tour the farm! Even though they live in an area where there are farms, there’s no reason they’d go to one unless they were friends with a farmer. It’s not like they could just walk into their barns and start poking around.

I love giving tours. I like people to come in warm weather, when they can see the new calves – or maybe see a calf being born. We also – year-round – take people to the milk parlor to see the cows being milked. We also give everyone a chance to milk a cow’s teat with a bare hand, just to see what it was like in the olden days. That, and it’s cool. Who doesn't love new experiences?!

Winter is a quieter time. Even the cattle change - every morning when Kris starts the machinery, the heifers run up from the pasture to see what’s going on. He said that it was so cold and windy yesterday morning that they didn’t even leave the woods.

The bulls have impregnated most of the heifers and cows, so they’ll have calves starting in April. They gestate for 9 months, so they spend the winter being pregnant. (Cows have to have a calf every year in order to produce milk.) The winter I was pregnant I’d walk past them in the pasture and wonder how they looked so much more nimble than I was.

Pregnant on a dairy farm, you ask? Are you guessing there were comparisons made to cows and milk production? ... More than even a girl raised on a dairy farm could imagine!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oh the weather outside is ... not surprising ...

When I was growing up I swore I’d never have a job that depended on the weather. Since we lived on the farm, my dad’s job wasn’t just somewhere he went every day – it was a part of our lives. So when the wheat blew down, or we had a drought, or it rained when they were cutting hay, we all knew about it. As a result, I didn’t want any part of that. (I didn’t want to own a business that depended on attracting customers, either. Can you guess how many options that leaves you with? Few!)

When it’s cold, things just don’t go as smoothly. We got five inches of snow, a fierce wind, and a high of 13 degrees today, not counting the wind chill. So what went wrong?

The tube cooler line froze. When you milk the cows, the milk goes first into the tube cooler - a pre-cooler for milk before it goes into the bulk tank. (That’s where the milk is stored before the milk truck comes to pick it up, once a day for us.) When they were thawing it, part of it broke, so they had to replace it.

A block heater - which keeps engines warm - wasn’t working on one of the tractors. We’ll have to get a new one. Almost all of the tractors needed jumpstarting.

Just regular winter weather, regular freezing problems … at least we didn’t have to convince any customers to come here!

Young Farmers

Last week Kris won the Michigan Farm Bureau Young Farmer Achievement Award! After an extensive application and interview process, he won use of a tractor, money, and a trip to the national competition.

At the awards dinner, they show videos of all the nominees on their farms. So we were standing in front of the audience of over 1000 people ... excited and anxious about seeing the video for the first time! Farm Bureau videographer Steve Paradiso did a great job. Here's a quick view of our farm.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I never thought I'd own a farm. Even though I grew up on a farm and married a guy who also did, we never once discussed owning one. We always talked about owning our own business ... but never a farm.

Six years into our marriage, living in a different state, with both of us working corporate jobs, he suggested buying my parents' dairy farm. I was surprised - I had no idea he wanted to be a farmer. But sure - why not?

When we moved here, we knew nothing. Now with three entire years of experience, I know one thing - people like to know where their food comes from, and they're interested in how farms work. So ... here we go!

Here's a side of farming probably a lot of people don't think about. Today we had a ton of blowing, icy weather. All the schools are closed tomorrow - already. Here's Kris coming home from feeding the cows. Dark, cold, windy ... no matter what, the cows have to be fed.