Monday, February 28, 2011


This past week, Kris took our twins to Texas to visit his family. Everything went smoothly on the farm while he was gone. I asked my dad, who was feeding the cattle in his place, if anything went on that I needed to know.

He told me that, in his opinion, everything went fine because Kris plans ahead.
Kris leaves detailed written instructions, and he makes sure everyone knows when they’re working and what they’re supposed to be doing.

Kris tries to do other things too – like taking tires off the feed pile so my dad doesn’t have to do it. Just little things that you do ahead of time, (like anyone leaving their job does), so that other people don’t have to deal with it.

Of course, you can never plan for things to go really wrong. The weather can turn against you. A cow can get sick for mysterious reasons. Machinery loves to break when people are on vacation.

But! None of that happened this time. The cows and tractors were probably just biding their time … waiting for Kris to return.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let's go

My sister Tracy lives in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, where she’s raising her son and daughter. When they come to visit, it’s so much fun. The kids love to play along the creek, in the barn, and in the haymow, just like we did when we were kids.

Last summer, when they were here, Tracy said to her daughter Caroline, “Let’s go to town.”

“What’s that?” Caroline asked.

Tracy realized that Caroline didn’t know what she meant because where they live, they don’t ever go to town because . . . they’re already in town. She’d never said ‘to town’ before – it was always, ‘Home Depot,’ or ‘the store.’ Caroline thought she was talking about somewhere much more specific.

Tracy is a high school English teacher there. She said the other day the students were reading The Odyssey out loud and the reader didn’t know how to pronounce the word ‘heifer.’ Tracy asked if anyone knew how to pronounce it, and one student volunteered and said it correctly.

“Do you know what it means?” Tracy asked.

“It’s . . . a goat, right?” the student answered.

“Oh, you city folk,” Tracy joked.

I laughed really hard when she told me this story, because it answers my question – who besides me still says the word ‘folk’? My sister. Must have been something we learned on the way to town.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I was out with some friends last night. Amanda said she’d like to visit the farm so she could show her son tractors, because he’s interested in them right now.

Megan said, “Forget my kids, I want to come and see the farm!”

I suggested they wait until May, when it’s warmer (hopefully?) and all the calves are being born. I love showing people the calves, the milk parlor, and the irrigation system. Last year many of my friends were lucky enough to actually see calves being born. (Another friend of ours hung out in the pasture for three hours and didn’t see even one being born. She’s going to try again this year.)

Of course people want to expose their kids to a farm, because kids are curious about everything. My kids ask questions all day: “How do you make bread? How do magnets work? How do you get a baby?” I answer every question, some with the help of images on the internet, and some vaguely so they don’t repeat something I don’t want them to later. You can guess which.

Some places are really set up for it – like Dairy Discovery at Swisslane Farms specializes in agritourism.

We also welcome visitors anytime. Bring your kids! And get ready to answer their questions about how calves are made.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Read all about it

When I worked at TechSmith, I remember Bill Hamilton mentioning during a meeting that he liked to pick up magazines he'd never seen before, to learn more about subjects he knew nothing about.

A friend who lives in North Carolina recently texted me from her doctor's waiting room to ask if I'd ever seen the magazine she was looking at: Garden & Gun: Soul of the South. I hadn't. But I bet there was a lot we didn't know in that too ... like how those two subjects mesh.

The amount of farming magazines? Staggering. We get Hoard's Dairyman, which recently celebrated its 125th year of publishing. The Progressive Farmer. Successful Farming. Farm Journal. Pioneer Growing Point. Some we pay for, tons we get free. We even get one in Spanish. Even though the most either of us can do in Spanish is count to ten. With a terrible accent.

Of course, magazines are written to sell magazines, but a lot of it is interesting. They cover a lot of dairy-specific political news and university studies that relate to farming practices.

And there's always something new to learn. One day, Kris showed me an ad with an illustration:

"What does that mean?" I asked him. "It won't cause your bulls to have ... intestional difficulties?" But it was in an ad for a barn builder. I didn't get it.

"It means they won't give you any B.S." Kris laughed. It seemed so ... blunt. Yet not quite blunt enough, since I needed it explained to me.

So whether it's about farming current events or a new symbol, there's something to learn in every magazine. Maybe the next one will teach me how to say that word in Spanish.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Sunday we got about ten inches of snow, and this morning it was -3 degrees when we got up. It was one of those mornings where everything was covered in ice. Every twig, every barb on the wire, every tiny weed sticking up from the snow. It was so beautiful, especially after the sun rose and it all sparkled. It’s one of those things that’s difficult to capture on film, but here’s my shot – a weeping willow tree, completely encased in ice.

Later, when it warmed all the way up to 17(!), all the frost started falling off the trees and flittering to the ground. It looked like it was snowing, but nope – just coming off the trees in giant pieces.

My parents went to Mexico this past weekend and their favorite part about the trip was being warm. Then they returned to this … like I’ve said before, I’ll never complain, because I knew what Michigan was like before I chose to live here.

But mornings like this certainly make winter worth it. Sure, the pool cover is straining under all the snow, the belt froze on the feeder, and the roads are slippery. I can still appreciate the beauty of today’s morning.

Not to say I’d say no to Mexico right now. I like winter, but I’m not crazy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark your calendars

Katie Eisenberger, MSU extension educator, is starting a 5K race to promote agriculture education!

We had the first meeting tonight, and I'm so excited to be helping. The race is going to be August 6, in Alma, MI on the Gratiot County Fairgrounds. Katie has tons of ideas, from cowbell medals for the kids' race, to farm facts on the shirts, to incorporating the pancake breakfast into the post-race food ... it's going to be great! You're all invited!

I immediately asked my punniest friend, Julie of Ad Bits, to help think of a name for the race. You can see from her witty, marketing-focused site that she'd be good at this.

Katie said her goal is to run 15 miles this week, and wondered if planning a 5K counted for three of them. I think blogging about it counts for probably three more. And asking other bloggers to work on it ... maybe three and a half.

Registration information to come!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Foot bath

What does the term 'foot bath' bring to mind? I’m thinking … a spa, white towels, some tea brewing, lilac-scented water, some new-agey music playing …

A dairy farm foot bath is almost exactly like that. It’s like a kiddie pool that the cows wade through when they leave the parlor. (All dairy farms do this.) We put copper sulfate in it. We can’t use it when it’s super cold, because it freezes, and then the cows exiting the milkhouse would look like the ice skating scene from Bambi.

We have a relatively new one. The last one was so small that the cows would sometimes just step around it. This new, bigger one ensures that it bathes all four hooves as they walk.

Unfortunately, ours cracked. Now we need to get a new one, because it’s really important that the cows get their feet treated. Why? Because the copper sulfate reduces the incidence and severity of hoof rot and hairy heel warts.

Yes, you read that right. Go ahead, look at some pictures! You’d do all you could to prevent that too. They’d never let you back in the spa.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Young Farmer Leaders' Conference

Last night Kris and I attended some of the Young Farmer Leaders' Conference put on by Farm Bureau. It was fun to see the friends we met in Atlanta again! I also met a lot of Kris' friends from his Profile trip.

During dinner my friend told me that one of the members of the state board, Jeff VanderWerff, showed my blog during the section on social media. I was so happy! I thanked him afterward for the exposure. (Welcome, young farmer readers!)

One of the events was Casino Night. I am such a huge risk taker when it comes to fake money! Put down all my chips? Sure! This is the opposite of my gambling in real life. When I was in Las Vegas working at a tradeshow a few years ago, I was down $5.00 on a blackjack table. I was disgusted. I decided to quit ... even though I wasn't ahead. On the way back to the room, I found a nickel on the floor and picked it up, triumphant over having gotten back at least some of my money from the casino.

When I got back to my room, I called Kris and said, "I'm down four ninety-five."

He said, "What? You lost $495 dollars?!"

I said, "No - Four dollars and 95 cents!"

So you can see how I really roll. But last night we cleaned up at the fake tables and traded our chips in for some lovely pruning shears.

After that, we went to a bar called the Whiskey Barrel. It was my first time there and it was a real country bar! I'd only been to country bars in Colorado and Texas before - places I think of there being cowboys - but this compared with both those states. Cowboy hats, boots, and belt buckles everywhere, live band, and a mechanical bull. It was really fun to see.

Then today I saw in the newspaper that this weekend was the MSU Spartan Stampede Rodeo, which draws 8000 people. So now I don't know - is that bar full of cowboys all the time, or were they rodeo folk?

And am I the only young farmer still using the word 'folk'?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Rural myth

In college, I was at a party. A guy said, "You're from a dairy farm? I went cow tipping once."

I laughed, thinking he was joking. I said, "Cow tipping is fake. It's just a joke ... like country kids would take city kids out to a field to go 'cow tipping' and then leave them there." (I never did this to anyone, nor did anyone I know. It's just one of those rural myths. Both the tipping and the joking.)

"No, I did it!" he said. "We just walked up to it and pushed it over."

"Really," I replied. "They don't sleep standing up. A cow wouldn't stand still if you pushed on it. And they weigh 1000 pounds. How could you possibly push one over?"

"I just did," he said.

I just laughed and walked away. The truth wasn't going to sway him. Perhaps that's the same night he also went pegasus riding and unicorn hunting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Milk inspector

Our MMPA field rep came yesterday. MMPA is the name of our milk co-op - Michigan Milk Producers Association. Part of his job is to do routine milk inspections. So we get inspected at least four times a year for cleanliness, food safety, safe medicine use, and acceptable farm practices.

This rep is new at his job, but he grew up on a dairy farm, so he seemed pretty comfortable.

There are also mandated state milk inspectors. The state of Michigan had to eliminate one of their inspections due to budget cuts, so the co-op picked it up. It seems imperfect because it's your own c-op inspecting you, but they're even harder on you than the state, because they want to make sure that when the state inspects you you're free of problem areas.

It's always a surprise inspection, and he looks through the parlor, the milk house, the utility room, and goes through a checklist.

We passed with flying colors as usual. I just hope he doesn't bring those white gloves of his in my house.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


We bought our first house during the great housing boom. We were on a house hunting trip in Connecticut, paid for by Caterpillar, and we had exactly three days to find a house. It got kind of stressful.

After the first day, we threw away our list of what we definitely needed to have in a house. On the second day, we had a lot fewer houses to look at, because some houses from the day before already had offers. By noon, I found a house I wanted. Our realtor called and ... someone had put an offer on it that morning. I couldn't believe it. So, we bought the next house we saw that we sort of liked.

So, even though I've watched our parents build their own homes, I haven't ever been in on the building process of anything. Buying in desperation a house you pick because it has a cool address number (it was '1'! Who doesn't love that?!) doesn't count.

So Kris is planning this calf barn. There's so much that goes into it. He has to consider which direction to put it in, to account for which way the wind blows, so it's well-ventilated. He looks at what rafters to put in, to lessen the number of birds that roost in it. He looks at what materials the gates and panels should be. And the design - two-row or four-row calf pens? Where should the cement be? How will it be cleaned out? He's been busy touring tons of other barns, researching, and getting lots of opinions. And this is all before we've even started building it ... which is better than deciding this after it's built.

It's certainly different than picking whatever house happens to be left. More work, but more exciting too.

Also, the barn doesn't have an address yet. I'm pulling for '1'.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Pretty soon after we moved here they started working on a bridge on our road. They took it down completely because they said it was unsafe, but they didn’t have the money to fix it until this winter. They started on it in December and now have just a few things left to do after the ground thaws. So … opening soon!

Before they took it down, they first reduced the weight limit on it. It’s near an alfalfa field of ours. Kris and our employees would drive over it with a tractor and an empty wagon, but after they filled the wagon with alfalfa, they drove a few miles around the square to get back. No one really wanted to test the new limits.

There are good and bad points - I’m going to kind of miss having a dead end road, because there’s a lot less traffic. But, I’m looking forward to being able to see our neighbors down the road again. We all felt kind of cut off from each other after the bridge was gone! We’ll save on time and fuel with a reinforced bridge. I’ll have more running routes.

I also liked seeing what happened to the gravel in the road. The weeds crept into the road almost immediately. There were deer, rabbit, raccoon, and squirrel tracks in the gravel-turned-to-mud. There were flocks of turkeys hiding out in the newly deserted woods.

But, on a less romantic note, Kris is really excited about it from a farming standpoint. Now it’s time to test this bridge for things other than nature walks. Kris hopes to christen it by driving our giant planter over it this spring.

Bridge work

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Kris is back from his tour. The calves are healthy, the equipment is working, and today it reached - wait for it - 50 degrees! And sunny! We wore the same amount of clothing. I'm waiting for it to get to 60 degrees until I choose a less-bulky coat. I even heard a bird sing this morning. It might be singing every morning, but the wind would be drowning it out anyway.

One of our valued employees gave her two weeks' notice today. She's moving to another town to work full-time for a custom calf grower. That's an operation where they just raise calves. That's how delicate an operation it is - there are entire farms and ranches where people send their calves to be raised, then take them back when they're ready to be milked.

She's excited about it and we're happy for her. (There are no hard feelings. I've known her her entire life, her parents have known me my whole life, etc.) We don't need to hire anyone right now, because we have enough milkers to fill in her shift.

So, just one less person here, mucking around in our glorious mud.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just pretend

It's not like I go places just thinking about dairy. But there are some times you can't help but notice.

I went to see a couple of high school plays at Michigan's regional theatre competition today. (It's called the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association Theatre Festival.) It was held at St Johns High School.

At first I noticed the giant 'Got Milk' sign by the lunch lines. They also had coolers for milk painted black and white like Holstein cows. You couldn't help but notice it - they really drew your attention. I went into the play feeling good about dairy in high schools.

Then I went to see the next play - Into the Woods. One of the characters in it was a cow. As soon as the cow entered the scene, it was all I could stare at. They had sewed an udder and ... the udder had five teats!

I thought about the process that the play had gone through to get this far. They'd had the design, sewed it, presented it to the director. They had been through months of rehearsals, performed it for their school, their parents, and at the district competition. And not one person questioned the number of teats on the cow. They didn't know, didn't care, didn't notice, most likely. They were probably focused on things like acting, singing ... ha!

I couldn't let this go on for any more performances. After it was over, I grabbed one of the judges and said, "I'm a dairy farmer. Could you please tell them that cows have four teats, not five?"

She burst out laughing. I laughed with her.

I was really doing them a favor. I didn't want anyone else who's concerned about facts to be distracted during an otherwise really plausible play ... about witches and magic beans.

Friday, February 11, 2011


As Kris is still touring the countryside ... something on the radio today caught my attention. Charlie Sheen is some loser actor, apparently famous for being a druggie and a philanderer. He's been in and out of rehab, arrested, and is a definite train wreck.

The UCLA baseball team asked Charlie Sheen to come and speak to them. (Why him? I wonder if all the positive role models were busy ... working?)

What did he have to say to them? He told the team, "Stay off the crack. Drink a chocolate milk."

My ears perked up when I heard this. Maybe the results are common knowledge now. They're oft-quoted, anyway - specifically the study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism that outlined how chocolate milk helps refuel you after a workout better than other drinks.

Which goes to show - even train wrecks get it right sometime.

Maybe Charlie was trying to tell us something. From someone who's done the comparison. I think we can safely assume from this statement ... chocolate milk is the legal equivalent of crack.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


It was my sons' turns to take snacks to preschool. I decided they should take something made from milk. A dairy promotion opportunity!

The first week, my son Cole took cheese sticks.

"Something wrong happened!" he said as he was getting in the car after preschool. "Some of the kids didn't like cheese sticks!"

"Huh. That's funny. Who doesn't like cheese sticks? You like them! Dad likes them!"

"I know!" he said, reassured. "But TWO kids said no, they didn't want one."

The next week for Ty's turn, he took Go-Gurts, which is yogurt in a tube.

After preschool, I asked if the kids liked it. "Yes!" he said. "All the kids liked Go-Gurts!"

Cole was reminded of his snack. "Why didn't some kids like cheese sticks?" he asked.

"Well, they don't like every snack, do they?" I asked.

No, they said, and listed snacks some kids wouldn't eat - like oranges and raisins.

"And you don't like every snack - Ty, you said you didn't like some orange crackers someone brought, right? So you didn't eat them?"

"Cheez-its. But I ate them," Ty said, looking confused.

"Oh. Well, you don't have to ... eat things ..." I started.

"But I had to. They put them in front of me," he said.

After a lifetime of teaching him to eat what I give him, I wasn't going to try to talk him out of that one.

I guess I'm not the only parent bringing dairy products. Cheez-its really do have 'cheese' in the ingredient list. Even spelled correctly.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


The guy Kris stayed with last night works on an 800-cow dairy, and he gave them a tour. They also grow cabbage, mainly for sauerkraut, which explains their logo:

They use 13 robots to milk the cows. (Our neighbors across the road also have a robot milker, which is super cool. It'll be the subject of a future post. After the temperature heads at least into middle age-ish numbers.)

They also had something I've never seen before - a robotic feed pusher.

Every day, Kris pushes the feed closer to the cattle with the skid steer. That way, they eat it all, so none is wasted.

The robotic feed pusher pushes feed up every other hour. It has an ultrasound sensor that detects where the feed curb is located. It has floor magnet stops so it knows where to quit. It saves on labor, because no one is going to push the feed up that often. Also, it's better for the cows because they always have fresh feed.

We'd have to build a new barn to use a robotic feed pusher like this, which is unlikely. But this robot that looks like Roomba's bossier, older brother is some neat technology. (Pushy, sure, but cool.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Oh, Canada

Kris and his group's bus left this morning from Lansing. They had lunch in Ontario, visited Niagara Falls, and stopped in Geneva, New York. They attended a dinner with the NY Farm Bureau Young Farmer organization and are staying with host farm families tonight. He sent this today:

We're really lucky. When Kris is gone, my dad is willing to help out. (The first time we left the farm on vacation, I asked Kris if he'd called dad to see how things went. Kris said, "It's kind of a strange question. Hey, did everything go okay on the farm you ran by yourself for 30 years?")

I called my dad to ask how everything went today.

"Well, none of the cows died," he said. "That was good."

I laughed. "That is good," I agreed.

"Of course, all I did was feed them this morning. They could have all died this afternoon, for all I know."

So, Kris is having a good time, the cattle are alive, and my dad is still funny.

Well, he's funny as long as they're really not dead.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


When Kris worked for Caterpillar, he was gone an average of three nights a week. Often, he was gone for a week or two at a time. Since we've moved here ... nope. Sure, he takes trips every now and then, but it's usually just a night or two. But he's getting ready to leave for a long trip. He's going various places (the end point being Washington DC) with a Farm Bureau leadership class.

As everyone knows, getting ready to take time off is a lot of work. So in preparation ...

Kris took a bunch of tires off the pile and cut the plastic off the feed, so that no one would have to do it when he was gone.

He talked to the employees about being gone and left instructions on things to do this week.

He made sure all the feed is ordered, so it doesn't run out while he's gone.

He ran around the farm doing various things like plugging in the timer for the space heater so the pipes in the calf barn don't freeze. He's been leaving it plugged in all day, since it's been so cold, but at least this way if someone forgets to turn it on, at least the timer will make it go on at night.

When Kris was gone before, it wasn't a big deal, because it was just ... me. Now, with kids, I'm preparing for his trip too. How? By making lots of plans with lots of people. The farm just isn't as fun without the farmer around.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

New and old

The roads are clear, Kris' schedule is full. First of all, he turns 33 years old tomorrow. His birthday often falls on the Super Bowl - isn't that a fun day to share? You're already planning a day around eating and sports and celebrating!

He and my dad went to look at a tractor yesterday, and are probably going to buy it. It's a John Deere, and our (free for a year) Kubota is also on its way. Red, blue, green, orange - continuing to add to our rainbow of machinery.

Today Kris is meeting with another barn builder, which we hope to build this year. So, happy birthday, Kris! Build yourself a barn.

My mom got him a gift he asked for - it's called Lightning Reaction Electric Shock Game. This is how it works. You all hold a controller and look at a flashing light. When the green light turns to red, you push the button on your controller. The last person to push the button gets a shock. We played and I lost. It was quite a jolt! I yelled, dropped my controller, and massaged my hand. I felt it down to my toes. It took me a lot of courage to play again, but I did - and Kris lost. BUT HE HAD NO REACTION.

"Didn't it hurt?" I asked. He said, "Not really. Maybe I've been shocked by the cattle's electric fence too many times. One time I touched that and my shoulder hurt for two days."

We had it on shock level one. You can turn it up to four. I guess that's the 'works with cattle' level.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Calves need a lot of care. What they eat, where they live - you have to pay careful attention to them because they're delicate, like babies. The cold, windy weather we've had lately has been hard on their respiratory systems. They're not loving it.(What sane creature would? Who would choose to live here? Oh, wait, me.) Kris heard some of them coughing so today he gave them shots.

The first year we lived here I watched my dad and Kris try to give a heifer a shot. She was in the pasture, which meant she could easily run away from them. My dad got a lasso and lassoed her. (Impressive, no? He wasn't swinging it around his head or anything - but he did throw it over her neck. Looked hard!) They tried to hold onto the rope - impossible, since she was so much stronger, and running at top speed. So they got in the truck and chased her until they could drive over the rope and stop her. They successfully gave her the shot.

Today was easier than that, because the calves are in an open lot. Still running free, but smaller than an entire pasture!

It's just that time of year, it seems. Calves are coughing, my kids are coughing. If I could give my kids a shot to heal them, I'd do it too. If they gave me any problems, I'd just have my dad bring over the lasso.

The calves, hoping the groundhog was right

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Not a lot of fun

"The milk truck's here," Kris said, as we watched it go past our house toward the barn.

We stood side-by-side and watched intently out the window, hoping it'd be able to make it. Mike had plowed the road with a tractor - there's no way it'd get through otherwise.

We watched it go up the hill, turn in the drive, almost there! And then ... stop. It was stuck.

"I'll see you later," Kris said. He'd been home about 45 minutes, after a long morning, and obviously had to go help.

I had doubted, but the meteorologists really got it right this time! We got about a foot of snow, and it blew and drifted - a true blizzard.

The milk truck wasn't the first vehicle stuck that morning. When Kris drove to the barn, the snow was up to his headlights. He got stuck right before the driveway where it had drifted. He walked to the tractor, plowed the snow around the truck, and towed it out.

When Kris got to the barn, the snow had actually blown into it. Here are the controls to the feeder:

At home, we decided not to dine outdoors.

Everything took longer, everything had to be plowed. (The plows haven't come to our side roads yet. Most dairy farms plow their own roads, since we need the milk trucks to come.)

So, due to today's weather, being a dairy farmer wasn't the most fun job. Nope, today the best job goes to ... meteorologists.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


There’s a blizzard a comin’. It’s all anyone’s talking about. I’m assuming you’ve heard about it? And made fun of the coverage? We’ll see how much snow we end up with. The roads are already pretty drifted, everything is canceled, and Kris told the cattle to fend for themselves tomorrow. Just kidding, he’s working like normal.

There’s a new project on the horizon – building a barn. Today, Kris went to a friend’s large farm about a mile from here to check out their barn setup. How large? We milk about 300 head; they milk 4300 head. In fact, they just added on to one of their barns. They added one row of freestalls (the places cows lie down) to make space for 300 more cows. That’s right! They added our entire milking herd. So, yes, a pretty large farm.

He also met with an excavation company to see where we’d be able to build the barn. It has to be close enough to a well to use the water supply, but not too close or it won’t meet health code. We could put it on one side of the barn, but there’s a slope, so we might have to bring a lot of dirt in to make it flat enough to build.

Lots more meetings ahead, but everything will be on hold until we dig out from the storm. That is, assuming it’s as bad as they say it is. Of course, if you watch the coverage, this’ll be my last post because this storm will cause the world to end.