Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sheep, lambs, and ewe

We were lucky enough to be invited to my friend Elaine Bristol's family farm - Bristol Lamb!  Her dad, Jim, gave us the tour.

First of all, HE WAS HOLDING A SHEPHERD'S CROOK.  I immediately commented on it and said, "What do you use it for?"  He said, "Everything!  Pushing down fences, getting sheep ..."  He then demonstrated his use for it many times over during the tour.  (Side note - my brother's corporate job title is 'shepherd' and I really want to get him one of these and see how it goes over if he took it to work and started using it to pull over his coworkers.)

I've never been on a sheep farm before, and I am never around sheep.  Jim told me, "Everything you need to know you learned in a nursery rhyme."  Sure enough, we walked in the pasture and there was a lost little sheep.  It followed us everywhere we went.  

It was absolutely adorable.  My great grandparents had sheep as well as cattle.  In the St Johns Courthouse there's even a picture of my great grandpa Floyd dipping sheep.

However, my grandpa didn't like sheep at all, so he sold them all after he died and milked exclusively. But I totally understand the attraction!

The lamb had lost her mother and we were going to help her.  Eventually we found a ewe that she thought was hers - and she was a twin.  She tried to drink from her mother and she kicked her away, because she already had a lamb and didn't recognize her.  Jim picked up the lambs and rubbed them together so they smelled the same.  Elaine told me that if you do that with a lamb that's not actually a mother's it's called grafting, but this was her lamb - she just needed help recognizing her.

After Jim did it, the lamb drank from her mother and she was fine with it, because she smelled right. Jim joked, "These sheep make me look brilliant."

We went to the barn and he asked the boys, "How many bags full in the nursery rhyme?"  They chanted "Yes sir. yes sir, three bags full."  He said, "That's how much you get!" And showed us the giant bags of wool.

We got to bottle feed a lamb, and he showed us where and how he does the shearing.  Though it seemed to be it might be for the sheep, the hook hangs from the ceiling to make it easier for Jim to handle them - it's a support for the human so it's not as physically demanding.

 And ... there are special sheep shearing shoes!  They're comfortable and grippy, he said.

We checked out the sheep in the barn, then another pasture of sheep, then he prepared us lamb chops - of course!

It's always so interesting to see different kinds of farms, because you never really know about them until you see them in real life.  If you have a chance to take a tour of a farm - do it!  And bring your shepherd's crook along.  Those have really stood the test of time ... and are headed to the corporate world, I can just feel it.

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Reason for leaving? Covering pile.

The farming tradition is alive and well! My mom was working in a high school office and noticed this ... kids give the reason why they are signing out early and one kid's reason? 'Covering pile.'

Here, this refers to putting plastic and tires on a pile of just-harvested alfalfa. Here are some pictures of years past:

It's a tough job and takes a lot of people. Here's to hard-working kids!

Speaking of ... as of this morning we have 16 calves, and we are eagerly awaiting all our summer kids to be done with school!

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ag-STEM Gateway 4th graders visit their class farmers

Gateway North Elementary in St Johns is our Ag-STEM school (Agriculturally based in science, technology, engineering, and math.)  Kris and I are the fourth graders' farmers.  I've visited their class this year, and today it was their turn to visit us!

Jenn Parker and Natalie Berkhousen, fourth grade teachers (and my friends)!

They spent the morning learning at AgroLiquid, and then the 63 kids came to us for a tour.  (AgroLiquid also was kind enough to let us use their people movers.  It seemed much better than letting the kids walk, because ... well, it's a place where you might get shocked by a fence.)

The students loved the calves - including two that were born just this morning - and had lots of questions about them.

- Why don't you keep the boy calves and raise them to eat them?  (We don't have room or feed.)

- Why is the calf licking me?  (They're like babies with pacifiers, plus you taste salty.)

- Can we climb that hay? (No, it's straw, and we have to keep it nice to bed down the calves.)

On to the cow barn!  We all piled in the people movers and Mike, my dad Jack, and Kris drove.

Aren't they jolly?

We went in to see them, and the kids were delighted by cows' natural behaviors.  The cows were amazed at the sheer number of small people.  After we walked around and looked at them there, we reconvened for some more questions.

- Why does she have a ring in her nose?  (When she was young,  she tried to suckle other heifers' udders.  This ruins or infects the udders, and then they can't give milk.  If you put a light, hollow ring in her nose, it prods the heifers, and they won't let her do it.  It saves their udders and breaks her of the habit.)

- Do they go to the bathroom out of their udders? (No.  An udder is for milk, not for waste.)

- How many bulls per cow?  (25 cows to 1 bull - JUST like The Bachelor!  There must be something about that number.)

Then off to the milk parlor.  Since the cows were actually being milked, we took small groups and showed them the parlor.  I haven't done this with a large group before, but it went well because everyone got to see an actual milking in progress.

We headed back to the calf barn and the kids saw the calves one more time before getting a GoGurt from me and leaving on the bus.

I thanked each of the kids for coming, and they asked their last questions -

- Why on earth would you want a giant lagoon of manure? (When you store it you can apply the fertilizer at the exact right times of the year.)

- Are we going to go into that pasture with those cows? (No, but you can look at them from here and not get shocked by that fence.)

- What is your address?  Because I want to come here every day after school with my mom.  (Just tell her to go on this road and look for cattle.)

When I was in kindergarten my class took a field trip to my farm.  I remember how much I liked showing my farm to everyone ... that feeling hasn't faded at all.

Thanks to Gateway, Mrs. Parker, Mrs. Berkhousen, and the fourth grades!

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why I Farm - Natalina Sents goes on 50-state tour honoring farmers

Natalina Sents just graduated from Iowa State with a degree in Agricultural Business.  But instead of going right into a job, she's doing something different!

In her words ...

"I knew I didn't want this to be the end of my Why I Farm experience, but I had a burning desire to travel. Plus, I had so much to learn about American agriculture outside of corn, soybeans, cattle and pigs.

After months of daydreaming, planning, and praying, I came to Beck's with an idea. I wanted to use what they'd taught me to tell the stories of farmers from all 50 states. Most people probably would have thought my idea was crazy, but the Beck’s team loved it. My dream matched the Why I Farm Movement’s mission to honor American farmers. There are so many diverse ag stories to tell, and partnering with Beck’s will allow both of us to honor more farmers than we could on our own.

I’m excited to announce that after I graduate from Iowa State, on May 15th, I'll be heading out on the Why I Farm Roadtrip. For the next year, I'll be traveling the country working with Beck's and many others to honor farmers of all kinds. I will be sharing my interviews with farmers on the Why I Farm blog and Why I Farm social media pages."

You can follow Natalina's 50-state, year-long journey!

The Roots Journey  - Why I Farm   -  Instagram   -  Facebook  -  Twitter

Since she started in Michigan, today she came here!  Elaine Bristol from Michigan Ag Council and Natalie Horning from Michigan Farm Bureau came, too.

Of course, as you'd expect, she was lovely to talk to and interested in everything.  It was a joy to spend the morning with them.  Kris and I were happy to show her all around the farm and answer her questions.

I wanted her to be able to do something memorable - she's going to a lot of farms after all - so we had her pail train a calf.  They drink from a bottle usually easily, but you have to train them to drink by putting their heads down.  She did a great job and when hand washing wasn't immediately available, she wiped them on her jeans like everybody on a farm!

We discussed a lot, and of course her last question is 'Why do you farm?'  Kris' answer was so nice I couldn't even really add to it.  But I'll let Natalina address that in her own blog - after all, this is her show!

After the tour, we had ice cream sandwiches (naturally) and talked.  I'm really looking forward to following her journey  - she's going places like cranberry bogs where I've never been! - and I'm so glad she spent part of it here on our little dairy farm.  

She tweeted that she had dairy twice more today - ice cream and macaroni and cheese - and as a I read that I snapped a picture of my last bite of my dinner.  All the work that went into making this ice cream - fantastic.

Thank you, Natalina - have a great trip!  

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

First calf

Our first calf is born!  She's a nice, calm little heifer. The barn is quiet tonight, but it'll be full of newborn calves before long.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

From The Wall Street Journal to a farm

Chris Galen from National Milk Producers Federation gave my name to Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Wernau, because she was looking for a dairy farmer source for a story.

She was super friendly and fun to talk with, and we discussed how milk prices affect a dairy farm's business plans.

From that conversation, she quoted me in today's article you can read here:

A Cheese Glut is Overtaking America

Some notes about this:

I have read The Wall Street Journal and been a subscriber for my entire adult life.  It's totally old school, but I love going out to get the paper every morning and reading it with my breakfast.

Dairy farming is a small community, and whenever I read articles, I look to see if I know the farmer that is quoted.

So, being the source and having it in my newspaper?  It was a nice way to start the morning, despite the sad news of the article.  I am an optimist ... maybe next year's article will be headlined 'Cheese Demand is Overtaking America'!


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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Last hurrah

What a week!  Cattle out on pasture, working on fences, readying our equipment, not planting because it was too rainy ... and today it even snowed!

That's right, snow in May.

We have wonderful neighbors across the road and they are providing us with the prettiest view - a Belted Galloway and a beautiful flowering plum.  So, I don't only take pictures of my cattle all the time, but I also take pictures of other people's cattle!

 The calf barn is emptied of calves.  They're now all out on pasture.  Now we're cleaning, scrubbing, and sanitizing it before the new calves are born.

We had what Kris called his last hurrah until calving.  We spent the weekend with friends in Grand Rapids and I ran a 15.5 mile race with my friend Annie - also a dairy farmer.  We chugged some chocolate milk afterward, not only because we're dairy farmers or because it's a great recovery drink, but because it's DELICIOUS!

The mice have been busy too.  We checked out the chopper in storage and the mice had chewed through a whole bunch of - wait for it, I'm going to get technical - really important wiring.  What pests!  So we took it away to get fixed.

So, last hurrah over!  We're ready for spring.  Now if only it would quit snowing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Questions & answers

I got a couple questions on email this week -

First, from Wayne Wencl.  He farms in Blooming Prairie, MN in partnership with his dad and brother. They milk cows and ship to organic valley.  He said, "I'd find a blog post about bull safety interesting.  I always wonder how you keep employees safe from bulls as they bring up cows for milking."

Great question.

Since we do all our breeding by bulls, (which isn't as common as artificial insemination), bull safety comes up a lot.

First, we buy bulls that are about a year old.  The younger they are, we've found, the less aggressive they are.

Also, we keep them at maximum for a year.  Basically, we buy them from different farms at a year old, we raise them for a year, and then we sell them.

We've also found that if the bulls are kept busy by breeding cows, they are not interested in messing with people.

Last, if any bull is aggressive or threatening to anyone, we sell him right away.  We don't ever want to compromise anyone's safety.

I understand the threat of bulls - my grandpa was seriously hurt by a bull.  The bull came after him, knocked the pitchfork out of his hands, and knocked him down against the feeder.  He kept butting him up against it.  Finally he managed to crawl up into the feeder to get away from the bull.  He drove himself to the barn to find his sons and had to go to the hospital - four broken ribs.

So, there are lots of pros and cons to breeding with bulls.  By doing it this way, we personally haven't had problems so far.  We just try to keep them young ... and busy!


Next, I had a question from my longtime friend Suzie Fromson.  Her now-husband Jared worked on the farm here when he was a teenager.

Suzie wrote, "Your latest blog post made me wonder something...   you mentioned trying to get the timing just right for planting, fertilizing, etc.  In the farming community, do you feel competition between farmers?  Like, how often would it happen where you see a nearby farmer out plowing early and you're like 'Oh shoot!  Do they know something we don't know?' and then you hurry to catch up, or you go ask them about it?"

I really loved reading this question, because it gives me the chance to explain something non-farmers don't know.

Here it is: farmers are thinking about planting, field work, and harvesting every single second of every single day of the season.

First, we have to plant in a certain time frame, but it can't be too wet or too dry.  All of the work to get the field ready has to be done.  All of the equipment has to be ready.  If you're paying someone else to plant, you have to be on their schedule.

Then when it comes to harvesting, it's the same game with the weather again - everything has to be just right.

Why?  Because our planting and harvesting is so important - we have to feed our cattle and we want the absolute best quality and quantity, so they give the most and best milk.

Are farmers watching other farmers?  Are farmers talking to other farmers?  Yes!  They think of and talk about little else.  Farmers on Facebook post about it.  Friends talk about it.  Schedules are planned around it.  Some farms go out and feed everyone on a tractor meals so they never have to stop to eat once they start.  If the weather is right, people plant and harvest day and night to get it done.

Is it competitive?  I don't think we're competing with each other - I get more the feeling that we're all in this together.  We ALL want to be in the fields and we ALL want the weather to be perfect!  We're more competing against time.

That said, it rained today.  We won't be planting until next week at the earliest.  This now affects our October vacation plans because the corn harvest will be later than usual.  Yes, it's all tied in together!

Thank you for your questions!  Now I'll go back to my kids where my questions are always the same:  "What can I eat?"  "What are we having for dinner?"  and, "Can I have two desserts?"

Any questions?  Feel free to ask!  Email me at address above, or contact me on Facebook or Twitter @carlashelley 

Monday, May 9, 2016

First time

I got a call from Kris.

"We're putting the heifers out on pasture for the first time.  Could you stand in the back corner and try and keep them from running through the fence?"

Putting heifers out on pasture for the first time for the year is a little different than putting them out on pasture for the first time EVER.  First of all, they've never seen an electric fence.  Second, they've never had such a giant area in which to run.  Third, they run as fast as they can toward the fences.

Kris picked Max and me up.  In between calling me and getting me, Kris had discovered that a heifer had gotten excited and gotten out.  She wasn't one of the ones we were moving though - she was at the barn!  

Josh and Mike were taking heifers from the barn on trailers and letting them off into the field.  Kris opened a gate and I said I'd chase her into the pasture.  I started off running and Kris joked, "Put all that training to work!" 

I got behind her and she moved easily into the next pasture.

All I had to do was chase her straight up the fence into the next pasture.  Josh and Mike left, and Kris drove ahead to open the gate.  As soon as they left, she and I moved ahead and ... she got a running start and ran right through the fence again.

I moved her into the corner, hoping she wouldn't run into the road.  She didn't.  She turned around and stood and stared at me.  I stood and stared at her.  

We were at a standstill.  Alone, I couldn't open two gates next to the road to get her to where she was supposed to be.  I didn't want to chase her through a fence, since I didn't WANT her to run through fences.  

So we waited.  For ten minutes, she and I stared at each other.  I talked to her a little, telling her I was just trying to get her back with the herd.  I knew Kris or one of the guys would come back eventually.
They all came back at the same time and we moved her into the pasture again.  Then we repeated the freeing of the heifers, the nerve wracking feeling of watching them run toward the fence ... surrounded by open fields ... and hoping they stayed in.  The wayward heifer slowly blended in with the others.

I helped with a few loads until my boys were getting home from school.  We checked again right before dark ... they were all still there! 

I hope they're all still there in the morning ... or it'll be a different kind of training run.



Ryan Bright is a dairy farmer in Tennessee, where he milks about 90 cows.  They raise corn, hay, and wheat.  He is also an author!  He interviewed me about my books Every Other Twin Book is Wrong, Where the Filed Things Are, and Sawyer in the Woods on his blog, Farmer Bright.  

You can read it on his site here.


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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Talking and working

This week...

- I was invited to Eureka Elementary and gave the students a virtual tour of our dairy farm.  We also shook cream to turn it into butter, which the kids thought was like magic.  One class asked to sample it and took big scoops out with their fingers.  (School is fun!)  The rest of the classes ate the cheese or yogurt, which were less messy.

Many of the classes asked the same question - why do the cows wear ear tags?  I was explaining how we keep records on all of them, and we use the numbered tags to tell them apart, and Dylan - a little boy whose family farms - said, "We name them with numbers instead of letters."  (Well put, second grader!)


- I did a radio interview with the very nice Bill Baker about Mother's Day and the dairy business.  You can listen to the interview on DairyLine.

- I wrote an article for U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance celebrating moms, tradition, and food.  They wrote, "She reflects this Mother’s Day on the generations of mothers who have shaped their farm and their futures. To celebrate, she made tres leches (three milks) cake recipe with her three sons."  It is basically cake soaked in sugary milk - I love it.

You can read the article here:  Three milks, six generations, and three boys.


On the farm ...

- Kris has been hauling manure like a madman.  He did it all day yesterday - from dawn until dark, and stopped today only to spend a few hours with our families until he went back out to do it some more.

It's going to be time to plant corn this week and he REALLY wants to get the field fertilized as best he can before then.  Everything is so time-sensitive.  You have to plant when the soil isn't too wet, but before it rains and you can't do it ... all farmers around here are planning as best as they can to get it all right!


We checked more fences and put the cattle out on more and different pastures!  We brought back all of the heifers and have them outside.  There are so many out there - I love seeing them.

The ones across from our house are all pregnant with their first calves.  Happy Mother's Day to them, too!


I hope you all had a great weekend full of family, friends, and possibly - wet cake.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Spring into spring into spring

Everything is indeed ramping up for the spring!  Last night after Kris got home from a meeting at 10:00 p.m., he went down to the barn to take care of a cow.  He got home at midnight, then got up at 3:00 a.m. to help milk.  After that, he went to bring our heifers home - time for them to go out on our pasture!  I'm looking forward to seeing cattle on all sides of our house by the end of the day!  Kris will be looking forward to going to bed tonight.

My mom, pictured above, not only mows the barn lawns, plus our lawn, but she also plants a gorgeous flower bed.  So going into Mother's Day - happy Mother's Day to her!  It wouldn't be as much fun here without our families!  And ... there would be fewer people to help Captain America protect it all.

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